The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Study Guide

John le Carré

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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | 10 Things You Didn't Know


John Le Carré's 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold presents a British secret service officer much different from the suave, sophisticated James Bond. Le Carré describes the gritty, hard-drinking, unintellectual Alec Leamas's mission to discredit a Soviet intelligence officer in East Germany. Written at the height of the Cold War, when tensions between the Soviet Union and the West were high, the novel takes a risk in suggesting that Western espionage tactics—from surveillance of citizens to torture and killing—are unethical and incompatible with Western values. As one character states outright in the novel, "our methods—ours and those of the opposition—have become much the same."

The book was an immediate best seller and was made into films for television and the big screen. Its popularity hasn't waned over time, with more than 40 million copies in print in more than 20 languages.

1. Le Carré used a pseudonym because he worked for the Secret Intelligence Service.

John Le Carré's real name is David Cornwell. When he began writing novels, he was working for the British Secret Intelligence Service, and his employers told him he would have to use a pen name. He invented a story to explain the origin of the pen name:

I saw myself riding over Battersea Bridge, on top of a bus, looking down at a tailor's shop ... And it was called something of this sort—le Carré. That satisfied everybody for years.

2. The British spy organization MI6 vetted the novel before it was published.

Le Carré was working for the British Secret Intelligence Service organization MI6 when he wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He had to get permission from the organization to have his novel published, and according to him, they "concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security." The rest of the world, however, assumed that the book told the truth. As a result, it "climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing."

3. Le Carré wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold on the way to and from work and during his lunch hour.

Le Carré lived far from London, where he worked, so he would write while he took the train to and from work every day:

In those days it was an hour and a half each way ... So if I could write for an hour and a half on the train, I was already completely jaded by the time I got to the office to start work. And then there was a resurgence of talent during the lunch hour. In the evening something again came back to me. I was always very careful to give my country second-best.

4. Le Carré modeled the character of Alec Leamas on a man he saw at a London bar.

Le Carré explained in an interview that he noticed the man who inspired Alec Leamas—Le Carré's bitter and laconic protagonist—in a London airport bar. The man ordered a Scotch and paid with money in several different currencies. He had:

a deadness in the face, and he looked, as we would have said in the spy world in those days, as if he'd had the hell posted out of him. It was the embodiment, suddenly, of somebody that I'd been looking for. It was he, and I never spoke to him, but he was my guy, Alec Leamas.

5. Le Carré said he wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold out of "political disgust."

Le Carré had worked in the British Secret Intelligence Service for a decade when he wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He didn't really believe in the job he was doing and felt the organization was "in a state of corporate rot that would take another generation to heal." He claimed the novel was "the work of a wayward imagination brought to the end of its tether by political disgust and personal confusion."

6. A screenwriter of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold taught at a spy school.

Paul Dehn, a screenwriter on the film adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was a major in the British army who was sent to Camp-X in Ontario, Canada, from 1942–44. His job was "Political Warfare Instructor." He trained spies and wrote a training manual in which he instructed students:

Searching a prisoner if you are armed, kill him first. If that is inconvenient ... knock him out ... then search him. Attack your opponent's weakest points. He will attack yours if he gets the chance.

7. Le Carré based some of his criminal characters on students he taught.

From 1956 to 1958, Le Carré taught at Eton, one of the most renowned upper-class boys' boarding schools in England. His subjects were German language and literature. He described his time there, saying:

The English upper classes can be seen at their best and worst. The good pupils are often brilliant, and they keep you on your toes and take you to the limits of your knowledge. The worst pupils provide a unique insight into the criminal mind. On all these counts my time at Eton provided me with riches.

8. Le Carré grew up in a household without books.

Le Carré said in an interview that he grew up in "a completely bookless household." His father, in fact, used to boast that he had never read a whole book. He recalled a stepmother once reading him the children's book The Wind in the Willows, but other than that he depended on teachers to recommend and supply him with reading materials. Perhaps as a reaction to his father's statement, he read widely and developed a great love of literature, especially German literature.

9. Le Carré and novelist Salman Rushdie had an infamous feud.

British writer Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988—for which he was accused of blasphemy by many Muslims, who objected to his depiction of the prophet Muhammed. The ayatollah of Iran proclaimed a fatwah, or judgment, against him, ordering Rushdie's execution. While Le Carré said he deplored the backlash against Rushdie, he added "there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity." In response, Rushdie called him "a pompous ass."

10. Le Carré's mother deserted him, and his father was a con man.

Le Carré's father, Ronnie Cornwell, beat his wife and forced her to leave her two children when Le Carré was five. After her departure, the biggest influence in Le Carré's life was Cornwell, whom he described as "seriously bent." Cornwell was involved in shady activities; he went to prison several times, groped his children, and cheated strangers, friends, and relatives. It's possible that British Secret Service found this "semi-criminal background" attractive when they recruited Le Carré.

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