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book review

“Death – looming or simply out there – is a very private matter,” writes John le Carré, just weeks before the end of his own life, in a 2020 letter to a friend. “Each of us does it in their own way.”

The work of literature is inseparable from self-autopsy. No one writes a story without wrestling with the viscera of insecurity, irrationality and myriad brokenness that, if a writer is very lucky, resolve into something blood-filled on the page. For a writer of le Carré's calibre and status – not only the finest spy novelist of his or perhaps any generation, but a writer whose inventions have been a fixture in all manner of popular media for more than half a century – the pile of phantom bodies opened up this way takes on grotesque proportions. It is almost impossible to read the exploits of characters such as George Smiley, bitter and bitten by the flagrant hypocrisies of Cold War spycraft, and not wonder how much of this comes directly from le Carré's own early years in British intelligence during an era of high-profile, embarrassing defections. We want for a tether between the fictional and the historical record; there’s something almost salacious about it.

A Private Spy, the massive, sometimes-frustrating and, by its end, deeply affecting collection of le Carré's letters, won’t provide that tether to most diehard fans’ satisfaction. It can’t: The author was for much of his life careful about the details of his most shadowy years, with or without the encouragement of the Official Secrets Act. Instead, this at once thorough and maddeningly incomplete archive of letters, e-mails, missives and drawings is something much more human: a portrait in slivers of a messy, flawed man who, depending on your view of these kinds of posthumous collections, has either been afforded or subjected to a public examination of and in his own words.

A Private Spy is a massive, sometimes-frustrating and, by its end, deeply affecting collection of le Carré's letters.Handout

It’s difficult to review 750 pages of personal letters in any context, let alone when they belong to a man about whom so much has already been written, alleged or guessed. The letters span the bulk of le Carré's life, from boarding school to deathbed, from his years as David Cornwell to his new author’s identity. Purely as grist for literary scholars, it will be invaluable.

To be clear: Some of the stuff in this collection is eyes-glaze-over boring. An entire section detailing le Carré‘s thoughts on the joys of skiing could have probably been trimmed without offending all but the most inflexible completist (though, to be fair, the accompanying illustrations, drawn by the author himself, are pretty entertaining). There also seems to be a delicate attempt to both confront and sidestep le Carré's many affairs, with various letters introduced by the editor in ways that say without saying what the relationship likely was between writer and recipient. (The letters themselves are almost always tinged with saccharine or self-flagellation, as le Carré professes his love or his cowardice in terms so melodramatic they become, after a while, oddly endearing.) None of this can really be helped; that the editors managed to get as much clarity and insight as they did out of what must have been an absolute rat king of tangled archives and recipients is itself miraculous.

There’s no mixed bag in the world of literature quite as mixed as work published after an author’s death. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and A Death in the Family by James Agee, two of the best American novels of the last hundred years, were both published posthumously. (In Agee’s case, debate still rages about how much the novel in its published form resembles the author’s original intentions.) More often, authors tend to do their worst work after they’re dead – Kurt Vonnegut’s previously unpublished short stories being a particularly flagrant example from recent years. Sometimes the wishes of the author collide with the will of the living in ways that seem almost cartoonish, as is the case of Franz Kafka’s unpublished papers, which ended up before the Israeli Supreme Court. And then there are books such as The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Denis Johnson’s short-story collection released after his death: not his best work, but still outstanding.

Le Carré's letters don’t really fit alongside any of these examples. Certainly they serve an important literary purpose, and many of them are entertaining in and of themselves, such as the note le Carré sends his accountant explaining that his undocumented expenses during a research trip to southeast Asia were payments to mercenaries for safe passage, or a letter to a 10-year-old fan who asked how to be a spy (“You have to decide how much you are prepared to do by dishonest means”).

But there’s also something else here, something much more intimate, that holds the collection together and lends it a deeply literary quality all its own.

John le Carré.Nadav Kander/Handout

A Private Spy was edited by Tim Cornwell, le Carré's son. On almost every page, there’s a kind of familial devotion evident in the painstaking research and curation Cornwell must have done: pages and pages of footnotes, timelines, indices – an entire almost novelistic framework into which the letters are slotted and which is sometimes more interesting than the letters themselves. It’s difficult to imagine an undertaking like this not rooted in love, made all the more stark given that so many of le Carré's letters detail his deep anger at his own father, Ronnie Cornwell, who by all accounts was an abusive husband and a con man (“his very existence is a complete mockery of any moral consideration”).

In the summer of 2022, a month after he wrote the introduction for A Private Spy, Tim Cornwell died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. The book that began as a tribute to his father became, in turn, a tribute from his surviving siblings to him.

More than the little details of spy work or correspondence with famous friends or even le Carré's utter disdain for Trumpism and Brexit, it is the small mechanics of family that make up the most emotionally resonant parts of this collection – letters to spouses and siblings and sons. Perhaps the rawest and most unguarded piece of writing is a 2007 letter le Carré writes to his brother Tony, spilling out his thoughts on the ways in which their parents failed them: “The only poetry we remember is the stuff we learned as kids, & it’s not much different with love.”

By the end, A Private Spy begins to exude the quality of the finest literature: that sense of having momentarily lived another life. The last section, which includes notes sent by le Carré right up to his final hospitalization, sees the author seeking closure, grappling with the looming death of loved ones and thanking some of the people closest to him. The massive shadow of le Carré the literary titan drops away, and we are left with David Cornwell, in pieces, yet whole.