Things are going so well for John le Carre.
His 14th novel, "The Night Manager," has just been released to generally extraordinary reviews and, given his track record, should be on the best-seller list for months to come. He's made a ton of money, and if the critics loved him any more they'd have to propose marriage. But here was Mr. le Carre, looking elegant and accomplished over lunch last week at a plush Washington hotel, talking about what it would be like when his writing goes downhill.
"I'm going to be 62 in October," says Mr. le Carre, who is actually David Cornwell but adopted his famous nom de plume about 30 years ago. "I'm not very good at math, but I can add, and . . . I'd like to do a couple more novels and maybe, maybe an autobiography. But I would also wish, even if I lived to a great age, that my friends would be loyal enough to tell me to stop."
Here he takes a sip of white wine and studies the menu. Tall, with blond hair turning to white, he's a study in easy-going graciousness, perfectly at home among the tie-and-jacket lunch crowd here.
Conversing, Mr. le Carre can be both introspective and amusing in the same sentence, with the effortlessness that well-educated middle-class Brits (he went to Oxford and taught at Eton) carry off so well. One notices the conversational nuances: He can convey five or six different meanings -- simply by changing the emphasis in the way he says "Yes."
"I do think that Graham Greene, who was cursed or blessed with longevity -- and whom I greatly admired for his early stuff -- I think that he spoiled his reputation and tested the loyalty of his readership by those last books," Mr. le Carre says of the late English writer, who, among his considerable accomplishments, was one of the great spy novelists of his time.
"It's very interesting. The BBC did a three-hour retrospective on Graham after he died [in April 1991 at the age of 86], and they sort of pitched me against Anthony Burgess -- he was speaking against Greene and I was speaking for him. So I reread the stuff before the program, and I had difficulty with some of it. It was like that awful situation when you've been in love with a woman, and then you see her years later and wonder how you could have ever been that enamored."
The words come out slowly, almost painfully, and one senses Mr. le Carre wishes he hadn't had to say those words. For it was Graham Greene, of course, who gave Mr. le Carre one of the
most famous book blurbs of all time. When "The Spy Who Came In from the Cold," Mr. le Carre's enormously popular and influential spy novel, was published in 1963, it carried this endorsement from Mr. Greene: "The best spy story I ever read."
This assessment by one was shared by more than a few readers over the years; the book made Mr. le Carre a fortune and enabled him to leave his job with the Foreign Service to write novels. Now he's generally considered the pre-eminent spy novelist of his time, as well as one of the best contemporary British authors.
Planning a way out
Yet he is still questioning, still searching. As he has for so much of his life, Mr. le Carre can't accept the commonly acceptable. When others are piling onto the train, he's considering an exit through the rear.
That's why no writer of spy novels was more glad than Mr. le Carre to see the Cold War wind down in the late 1980s. Through "The Spy Who Came In from the Cold," and through his exquisite novels starring George Smiley, an enigmatic and unlikely British spy, Mr. le Carre made his readers aware of the enormous moral and psychological devastation felt by all sides in the Cold War. Friendship, loyalty, patriotism -- all the good human emotions -- were meaningless when when you were fighting a monolithic, faceless enemy such as the Soviet Union. In Mr. le Carre's world, betrayal was as likely to come from a friend as from an opponent -- more likely, sometimes.
But he also wondered: After nearly three decades of writing about the Cold War, what more could he say?
"Writing 'The Night Manager' was both a joy and a relief," Mr. le Carre says in his resonant baritone. "There's really much more to "TC write about. It takes a little more brain work and a little more originality, but actually it restores the spy story to where it came from. It's absolutely great. And the fun is much greater: 'Shall I go and do Angola? And I'd love to do Cuba now.' You can go anywhere now."
In "The Night Manager," Mr. le Carre does go almost anywhere, from Switzerland to northern Quebec to Miami to the Caribbean to Cornwall (where, for many years, he has lived in a house near a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean).
The enemy this time is not a Communist spy such as the East German super-agent Karla, who dueled Smiley in several memorable books, but Richard Onslow, a fabulously wealthy and utterly unscrupulous British arms dealer. His chief adversary is Jonathan Pine, the night manager of a deluxe Zurich hotel who is working with British intelligence. The intricate plot centers on drug smuggling and arms running, with the clear implication that there are few innocents -- individuals or countries -- involved.
The dangers of arms trade
"I hate the arms trade, and it really is time that we recognize that if you arm a country to a certain point, if you supply the means, they'll supply the reason and find the enemy," Mr. le Carre says evenly. "Without a doubt, the more fun they have playing soldiers, the more they'll cast about for something to unite the nation against."
"The Night Manager" also deals with the question of money, and how it corrupts. Mr. le Carre acknowledges his own life provided much of the inspiration for the book's extensive meditations on greed.
"Of course, my ever-present papa (he pronounces it 'pa-pah') spent his life pursuing great wealth," he says. "Also, curiously enough, he was extremely generous, meaning that if he ever had money, he gave it away. I think that if any writer makes a lot of money, and if he is serious about his work, he is bothered by it. And I think he sees money as what separates him from his own innocence, creatively.
"At least when I started writing, sure I wanted the pocket money that writing would bring, but I never thought that it would be poured into my lap. And during the uncertain periods which for most writers follow success -- when you go a little mad but may not show it -- you may be sufficiently controlled and not show it, but your work shows it. Certainly money and recognition together make a very heady but unsettling combination.
Disdains gross materialism
"So I guess I'm inclined -- through my father, through my own latent Puritanism -- to look with disfavor upon gross materialism. I found a lot of this inside myself, for I do feel that if you've got a lot of money, you can very quickly detach yourself from life and, therefore, from any sense of human responsibility.
Thus, veteran readers of le Carre novels will note in "The Night Manager" that, given the demise of the Cold War, his characters don't betray others or their own country for ideological reasons. They do it for one reason: the money.
"It seems to me that in the aftermath of Thatcher's England, when everybody is supposed to maximize their worth -- make more money and think in totally materialistic terms -- that it's quite reasonable for a loyal civil servant to consider the papers that he has in front of him and wonder what they're worth on the open market," Mr. le Carre says. "It's extraordinary -- that kind of treason and betrayal became a symbol of our times. We had several cases like that in our country, as well as yours. The mercenary advantage was all that mattered, and there was no longer any ideological theory behind it. They just did it."