“You look haunted,” John le Carré says as he welcomes me in the front hall of his stately 19th-century home in north London. He doesn’t wait for a reply. “I’m haunted. Who wouldn’t be? I can’t believe what’s going on.”
I feel like a character in one of the great spy-novelist’s books as I follow him inside, marvelling at how easily the lanky 87 year old moves, while puzzling over his greeting. Le Carré leads me into a sitting room warmed by Central Asian rugs, and gestures toward a narrow, high-backed, yet surprisingly soft chair.
Finally, he launches into what haunts him: Brexit, and specifically the “children” – as he repeatedly calls British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet – who are carrying it out.
“He is totally without principle,” le Carré says of Johnson, before widening his range of targets to include Donald Trump and his personality-centred rule in the United States. “We are really being so lied to by our own, and we are inflicting so much damage on ourselves, in the name of something that no one can quite put their finger on.”
It quickly becomes plain that le Carré, chronicler of the Cold War, is obsessed with current events. The headlines on the morning we meet are about Johnson having been forced by the country’s Supreme Court to reopen Parliament, and to allow it to continue debating Brexit. On the other side of the Atlantic, U.S. Congress has announced it will hold impeachment hearings into Mr. Trump’s behaviour during a phone call with the President of Ukraine.
It’s a bad day for the populists, but le Carré believes their side – he calls them “the ultras” – is winning nonetheless. “I don’t know whether [Johnson] will endure, but even if he doesn’t endure, the movement, the ultra movement will still have won the day. They will have poisoned public opinion. They will have lied their teeth out in the interests of a nostalgic Britain.”
He carries on, like one of his protagonists unspooling a monologue that reveals their motivations for doing what they’ve done or are about to do. He’s furious with Trump and with Russian President Vladimir Putin, too, for enabling the authoritarianism he sees on the rise around the world. “The trouble is the good guys don’t have a voice. You can’t do mob oratory with the voice of reason, because the devil always has the best lines.”
It’s only after 15 minutes of politics that le Carré returns to what his anger has produced – and why I’m in his sitting room clutching a notebook and pen. “Ah yes, I wrote a book!” he says with a laugh. “I remember now.”
There’s no need to alter the course of our conversation. Agent Running in the Field, le Carré’s 25th novel, is about the here and now. It’s about Brexit, Trump and the charged geopolitical moment that we’re in. It’s set so much in the present that it risks feeling old the day after – if? – Brexit happens. (The book is due to be published on Oct. 22, nine days before Britain is currently due to leave the European Union.)
The book is also le Carré’s rebuttal to the devil’s best lines. The author’s fury surges through its characters. Agent Running in the Field is narrated by Nat, a middle-aged spy who has recently been brought home to London after a series of postings in Russia and Eastern Europe. During one revelatory exchange, Nat rages to his daughter about having to work for a “a pig-ignorant foreign secretary” (Johnson held the post at the time le Carré was typing that phrase) as well as the “sheer lunacy of Brexit.”
Nat’s weekly badminton partner, Ed – who emerges as the key figure in the tale – is a civil servant who wrestles with how to best serve a public he sees as being deceived by its own government. In one scene torn directly from the headlines, Nat and Ed interrupt their postbadminton drink to stare in shock at the television as Trump and Putin gave a real-life joint news conference after their summit meeting last year in Helsinki.
Nat, the veteran agent, sees treachery and perhaps a compromised asset, as Trump repeats Russian talking points, while Putin stands beside him smiling a “proud jailer’s smile.” Ed, the questioning civil servant, sees something even worse: “It’s 1939 all over again, Molotov and Ribbentrop carving up the world,” he says after the U.S. and Russian presidents finish talking.
It’s a comparison Nat rejects as exaggerated. There are too many “good Americans,” he argues, for the United States to go down the path of Hitler’s Germany. Ed, however, is unconvinced, and the chapter ends with him wondering whether “good Germans” shouldn’t have done more to stop Hitler. Gradually, that question is revealed as the central question of the book.
“I set out to write a serio-comedy about the situation,” le Carré explains. “For me, at least, it’s difficult to write any novel without speaking through the heart or having my characters speak through the heart. Number one, I want to write a story and my own polemic simply gets in the way of it. If I can invest the same polemic in characters, and make that plausible, make it fun, make it work, then I’ve done my job.”
He pauses to top up our coffee cups and to offer me a biscuit. Then he returns to the theme of Brexit.
“We were and are living in a morally unguided country, where actual conviction – real conviction, from the heart – is very rare. Contrived conviction, you can buy it anywhere in the street.”
Ed, he says, is an exception to that. “Here is one guy who really knew what he wanted to do.”
Le Carré’s rage is rooted in his own back story. He was famously a member of Britain’s secret services before he left to concentrate full-time on writing novels.
Le Carré joined MI5, Britain’s internal intelligence service, in 1958 and transferred to the foreign branch, MI6, two years later. He was stationed, under diplomatic cover, in West Germany during the height of the Cold War – giving his novels a realism that made him the undisputed master of his genre – until his cover was blown in 1964 by the infamous British-Russian double agent Kim Philby.
By then, le Carré’s career as a novelist was already well on his way. He wrote his first three novels while he was working at MI6, necessitating the invention of the pen name “John le Carré.”
His real name is David Cornwell, and he introduces himself as David. And David Cornwell is hardly slowing down. Even before Agent Running in the Field hits bookshelves, he’s already turned his attention to writing a new screenplay version of his 1963 classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
But it’s what le Carré did before he became a spy that informs much of his current rage. From 1956 to 1958, he taught French and German at Britain’s prestigious Eton College, the same private boys’ school that has produced 20 of the country’s prime ministers, including Johnson and David Cameron, the leader who set the country down its current path by calling an in-or-out 2016 referendum on the question of Britain’s membership in the EU.
“This situation has a very long history,” says le Carré, frowning, and rubbing the part of his forehead between his two prominent white eyebrows as he speaks. “I have a personal anger against the type of Etonian from which Johnson himself springs. They’re frozen children. Nanny educated. Boarding school after boarding school. They never grow up. They don’t want to govern, they want to win. That was the Eton ethic. Now he’s won. He’d choose any path to get to power.”
Le Carré reveals that Johnson years ago visited this same multimillion-dollar home to interview le Carré about a previous book. The teacher-turned-spy-turned-novelist says he was underwhelmed by the journalist who would become Britain’s prime minister. “There’s nothing good you can say about him, except that he has charm. … There was just nothing there. It was a puff of smoke going through the house.” Johnson aside, le Carré professes an admiration for journalists, particularly those who take risks to report what’s going on. His late half-brother Rupert Cornwell was a foreign correspondent for Britain’s The Independent.
Le Carré himself certainly has enough tales to fill an entire section of a newspaper.
He catches a glimpse of the audio files on my phone, and notices the previous interview I recorded was with the dissident Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. That launches le Carré into a story about the time Khodorkovsky, then sitting in a Siberian prison and allowed one social visit a year, requested that he be that one visitor.
Le Carré says he declined, fearing that his visit would make matters worse for one of Putin’s most prominent critics. The two men have yet to meet. “I thought I could by mistake deliver the Russian authorities with material to put [Khodorkovsky] back in jail, to extend his prison sentence. ‘Look at this man, he has one social visit and he wants a British spy.’ ” He chuckles as a grandfather clock chimes somewhere behind me.
The conversation about Khodorkovsky blends into a yarn about how the West’s greatest chronicler of espionage became friends with the late Yevgeny Primakov, a long-time head of Russia’s intelligence services (and briefly the country’s prime minister) who turned out to be another fan of his Cold War novels. “You really have to imagine a lot of vodka across the table, and a sort of love affair with the eyes, because he had been talking about my books,” le Carré says. He affectionately drops his voice to impersonate Primakov’s thickly accented English. “We were terribly fond of each other.”
Encounters such as the one with Primakov remind le Carré that not all of his readers share his politics. As someone who has written a long string of bestsellers – and who has reached millions more people through the film versions of those stories – le Carré knows that he has fans who voted for Brexit, and others who support Trump.
He shakes his head when I ask him whether his work of fiction can change anyone’s mind about Brexit or Trump. “I think everything shows, as it does with the Trump base, that the more the principles that they subscribe to are undermined, the more loyal they become, the more defensive, the more angry.”
Agent Running in the Field, then, is intended as a statement about the untethered times we’re in. The protagonists just happen to share le Carré’s take on it all. “This book, funnily enough, will amuse people on both sides of the divide, because it does correctly suggest a government in chaos, where we are individually thrown back upon our own opinions,” he says.
And the book is still very much of his oeuvre, with familiar scenes and themes that could have been set in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or any of the George Smiley series. When not playing badminton, Nat and his colleagues are running Russian double-agents who have been living long-term in England. They wonder whether their assets might be triple agents that the Russians are using against them. The answers are discovered by trips to see old sources in Eastern European capitals.
But while le Carré’s works became famous during the Cold War for painting everyone – the Soviets, the Americans, the British – in shades of grey, there’s little of that ambiguity to Agent Running in the Field.
There are characters who see it as their job to follow the orders of the leaders of the day. There are others, such as Nat’s wife, Prue, a human-rights lawyer, who are in open rebellion against what’s happening. But there are none who give a memorable defense of Brexit or the Trump administration. Agent Running in the Field is a political manifesto, a call to everyone to do what they can to resist nationalism and populism, dressed up as a le Carré spy thriller. It also happens to be a great read.
This book, more than any of his most famous works, is about David Cornwell, and what he thinks about the direction the planet is heading in. The former spy is still using his nom de plume, but it’s clearer than ever what the author himself believes in, and what he thinks the West – to the extent it still exists – should fight for in 2019.
David Cornwell-alias-John le Carré is proud of the sleight-of-hand he’s accomplished, producing a spy novel – one very likely to become another bestseller – that doubles as a covert call to arms. “I don’t always like my books,” he tells me as we walk back toward the front door. He refuses to say which those are, but Agent Running in the Field isn’t one of them. “I love this one.”