John le Carré, Dead at 89, Defined the Modern Spy Novel

Ted Scheinman in Smithsonian:

In 1947, a 16-year-old David Cornwell left the British boarding school system where he’d spent many unhappy years and ended up in Switzerland, where he studied German at the University of Bern—and caught the attention of British intelligence. As the restless child of an estranged mother and a con-man father, and a precocious student of modern languages to boot, the young wayfarer was a natural recruitment target for the security services, which scooped him up in the late 1940s to be “a teenaged errand boy of British Intelligence,” as he put it in his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. Over the next 15 years, those little errands would continue and grow, furnishing Cornwell with the material that would fill the whopping 25 spy novels he wrote under the pen name John le Carré. It would be true to say that he was the finest spy novelist of all time, but in fact he was one of the greatest novelists of the last century. In a blow to his millions of readers, le Carré died of pneumonia on Sunday, at the age of 89.

“I spend a lot of odd moments these days wondering what my life would have looked like if I hadn’t bolted from my public school, or if I had bolted in a different direction,” le Carré wrote in his memoir. “It strikes me now that everything that happened later in life was the consequence of that one impulsive adolescent decision to get out of England by the fastest available route and embrace the German muse as a substitute mother.”

During his parentless, wandering days in Switzerland and Germany, and indeed throughout his life, German was more than a mere second language to le Carré. He was fond of quoting the axiom, often attributed to Charlemagne, that “To possess another language is to possess another soul.”

More here.