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Novelist John Le Carré Reflects On His Own 'Legacy' Of Spying

Sep 5, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 3:15 pm

If John le Carré's espionage novels seem particularly authentic, it may be because the author has first-hand experience. Le Carré worked as a spy for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6 early in his writing career, and only left the field after his third book, 1963's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, became an international best-seller.

Le Carré's latest book, A Legacy of Spies, revisits some of the characters from his earlier novels, including his most famous protagonist, George Smiley. It follows a protégé of Smiley's, Peter Guillam, as he re-examines some of his actions from when he was a Cold War spy, including his role in the deaths of another agent and a recruit.

The novel mines the moral tension inherent in espionage — a tension le Carré himself remembers. "I felt I had to suppress my humanity," he says of his time as a spy. "The lies straight into the face, the befriending, the false befriending. ... I suppose I've been a lot of people in my 85 years, not all of them very nice people."

He describes his path from spy to novelist as a "zig-zag journey," but notes that, ultimately, fiction writing has helped him understand himself better.

"When you really have to put a character together piece-by-piece, what makes it work is a piece of yourself," he says. "And until that happens, the character doesn't really have a being at all. So the real joining in fiction writing is that sense of finding all the possibilities of your own character and awarding them in an organized way to the different characters of your creation."


Interview Highlights

On how his characters are less ideologically driven than they used to be, and how that's a reflection of the times

Back then, we had a clear philosophy which we thought we were protecting, and it was a notion of the West — it was a notion of individual freedom, of inclusiveness, of tolerance. All of that we called anti-communism. That was really a broad brush, because there were many decent people who lived in communist territories who weren't as bad as one might suppose.

Now, today, this present time in which these matters are being reconsidered in my novel — we seem to have no direction. We seem to be joined by nothing very much except fear and bewilderment about what the future holds. We have no coherent ideology in the West. And we used to believe in the great American example; I think that's recently been profoundly undermined for us. We are alone.

On his feeling that Brexit is a mistake

I feel most strongly about the timing of Brexit, which is appalling. At the very moment when Europe needs to be a coherent single block able to protect itself morally, politically and, if necessary, militarily, we've left it and we're stuck in the Atlantic and — as George Smiley remarks himself — [we're] citizens of nowhere at the moment.

On whether he looks back on his intelligence career with regret

Yes, I do. I regret in my student days posing as a crypto-communist and trying to attract Soviet recruiters in those days. I was sort of half successful — I got picked up and flirted with by a Russian recruiter in the Soviet embassy in London, and it all came to nothing. Perhaps I wasn't clever enough or perhaps I was compromised by somebody else. But in the course of posing as that person, I had to sign up as some kind of secret communist, and that meant deceiving my colleagues and my fellow students, and looking back on that I feel very queasy about it.

On the compromises he made as a spy

Where I was asking people to do things, I tried to persuade them that they were doing it for the greater good and I was doing it for the greater good. Where I had to deceive people, I felt I was doing that for the greater good, too. But then you get alongside the borderline of how much of this stuff can we do and remain a society that is worth protecting. ... I did what I think was probably, in the end, the right thing. We expect intelligence services to deliver, but then when we're asked to get our own hands dirty, we get squeamish about it.

On growing up with a con man dad, and how his childhood prepared him to be a spy

My father was a compulsive liar and in and out of jail, and the people around him were tremendously colorful, amusing people. ... I think my own alienation from my environment left me solitary and more reflective; more watchful of other people around me. I think survival, early survival, requires that you have a quick read of people — you can understand them quickly, relate to them quickly, you can scent them in an almost animal way, perhaps sooner, more quickly, than people who had a more settled childhood. So you understand people's defenses better. ...

At the age of 5, my mother disappeared. And after that, it was living in the wake of this maverick fellow, who often was enchanting, for a long time. That was my world. ... I spent a lot of time, if he left the house, going through his pockets and things, trying to figure out what was going on. We were displaced repeatedly by angry debtors. For quite long periods he was on the run. He was on the run in the United States even, wanted by the forces of the law.

He filled my head with a great lot of truthless material, which I found it necessary to check out as a child, with time. Yes, in that sense, these were the early makings of a spy. ... His great passion, which he achieved, was to turn me into a seeming gentleman.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, John le Carre, is famous for his spy novels. But his writing has been praised for transcending genre fiction and simply being great literature. Many of his books were adapted into films or TV series, including "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "The Night Manager." Before writing espionage novels, le Carre was a spy. He worked for Britain's domestic intelligence service MI5 and its foreign intelligence service MI6.

He was still working for MI6 when his third book, the Cold War novel "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," became an international best-seller. One of the characters in that novel, George Smiley, became the main character in several of le Carre's later books. In his recent memoir, "The Pigeon Tunnel" le Carre wrote about creating the character of Smiley. Smiley is back in le Carre's new novel "A Legacy Of Spies."

The main character, Peter Guillam, had been a protege of Smiley's. In the new novel, Guillam is retired, but he's forced to re-examine the actions he took when he was a spy during the Cold War that may have cost the lives of two people who are close to him. John le Carre, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's begin with a reading from your new novel, "A Legacy Of Spies." Would you read the first page for us?

JOHN LE CARRE: Sure. (Reading) What follows is a truthful account, as best I'm able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation, code named Windfall, that was mounted against the East German intelligence service, Stasi, in the late 1950s and early '60s had resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with and of the innocent woman for whom he gave his life. A professional intelligence officer is no more immune to human feelings than the rest of mankind. What matters to him is the extent to which he is able to suppress them, whether in real time or, in my case, 50 years on.

Until a couple of months ago, lying in bed at night in the remote farmstead in Brittany that is my home, listening to the honk of cattle and the bickering of hens, I resolutely fought off the accusing voices that from time to time attempted to disrupt my sleep. I was too young, I protested. I was too innocent, too naive, too junior. If you're looking for scalps, I told them, go to those grand masters of deception George Smiley and his master control. It was their refined cunning, I insisted, their devious scholarly intellects not mine that delivered the triumph and the anguish that was Windfall.

It is only now, having been held to account by the service to which I devoted the best years of my life, that I am driven in age and bewilderment to set down at whatever cost the light and dark sides of my involvement in the affair.

GROSS: John le Carre, why did you write about a spy forced to face his responsibility for two death decades ago?

LE CARRE: I think because, back then, we had a clear philosophy which we thought we were protecting. And it was a notion of the West. It was a notion of individual freedom, of inclusiveness, of tolerance - all of that we called anti-communism. That was really a broad brush because there were many decent people who lived in communist territories who weren't as bad as one might suppose. But now, today, this present time in which these matters are being reconsidered in my novel, we seem to have no direction.

We seem to be joined by nothing very much except fear and bewilderment about what the future holds. We have no coherent ideology in the West, and we used to believe in the great American example. I think that's recently been profoundly undermined for us. We're alone. Two of my most important characters in the story, Peter Guillam, the narrator, and George Smiley, who is William's master, if you like, both of them turn out to be semi-Europeans. I think my concern as I started writing the book in this extraordinary atmosphere in which we presently live was somehow implicitly to make a case for Europe, which has now become an endangered species.

GROSS: It sounds like you feel strongly about it Brexit and that you think that was a mistake.

LE CARRE: I think I feel most strongly about the timing of Brexit, which is appalling. At the very moment when Europe needs to be a coherent single bloc able to protect itself morally, politically, and if necessary, militarily, we've left it. And we're stuck in the Atlantic and, as George Smiley remarks, himself, citizens of nowhere at the moment.

GROSS: You know, in the reading that you did, your character refers to, you know, being expected or having to suppress human feelings to be a spy. And he later, you know, thinks that George Smiley - your most famous character who recruited your narrator - suppressed the humanity in him. Do you feel like when you were working for British intelligence that you had to suppress human feelings or suppress your humanity?

LE CARRE: Well, of course, in any corporate or institutional situation, people who are employed by those corporations have to repress their feelings in one way or another. We, during the Cold War, were aware of suppressing our human instincts in some directions but for a cause - a great cause, as we thought. And it seemed expedient that a few should suffer for the benefit of the many.

At the moment, as the present is described in the novel, we are mysteriously unfocused, still looking for some kind of identity, really, ever since the end of the Cold War. There was no Marshall Plan. There was no great visionary or leader who told us how the world should be reshaped. There was drift. And a lot of carpetbaggers went and picked at the Soviet carcass. And, really, it was like a long after lunch sleep of capitalism. And that's really what we've drifted into without a design of the new world.

GROSS: But getting back to what I asked, did you feel like you had to suppress your humanity (laughter) to be a good spy.

LE CARRE: Yes, I did. In the greater cause, I felt I had to suppress my humanity. I - Where I was, asking people to do things, I tried to persuade them that they were doing it for the greater good. And I was doing it for the greater good where I had to deceive people. I felt I was doing that for the greater good, too. But then you get you've got alongside the borderline of how much of this stuff can we do and remain a society that is worth protecting.

GROSS: Do you look back on your career in intelligence and regret anything that you did?

LE CARRE: Yes, I do. I regret, in my student days, posing as a crypto-communist and trying to attract Soviet recruiters in those days. I was sort of half successful. I got picked up and flirted with by a Russian recruiter in the Soviet Embassy in London, and it all came to nothing. Perhaps, I wasn't clever enough or, perhaps, I was compromised by somebody else. But in the course of posing as that person, I had to sign up as some kind of secret communist and that meant deceiving my colleagues and my fellow students. And looking back on that, I feel very queasy about it. And then I ask myself how much worse it must be now for people attacking the Islamist target and how grim by comparison and how severe the possible outcomes would be.

GROSS: So what made you feel queasy was deceiving people who you know and pretending to have opinions and beliefs that you did not have in order to entrap people?

LE CARRE: Yeah. But, I mean, if you think of it in the largest sense, if you drop a bomb, you kill people you don't know. If you kill them with a knife, you kill them - you kill somebody you do know. It is the human encounter that makes the act unbearable or makes - places a great strain on one's conscience or one's sense of decency. If you are sufficiently detached from it, it becomes a statistic. It becomes a military act. But face-to-face - the lies straight into the face, the befriending, the false befriending and those things are - they're demeaning in a sense. They diminish one's sense of self. And actually, in some rather sad way, I did what I think was probably in the end the right thing. We expect intelligence services to deliver. But then when we're asked to get our own hands dirty, we get squeamish about it.

GROSS: Well, we have to take a short break here. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is John le Carre. And he has a new spy novel called "A Legacy Of Spies." He also has a really interesting memoir that was published - what? - about a year ago. And that's called "The Pigeon Tunnel." We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is David Cornwell aka John le Carre whose most famous novels include "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." He has a new novel called "A Legacy Of Spies." And he has a memoir that was published last year called "The Pigeon Tunnel." There's another paragraph I'd like you to read from your new novel. It's on page 19, and it's about interrogation.

LE CARRE: (Reading) In any interrogation, denial is the tipping point. Never mind the courtesies that went before. From the moment of denial, things are never going to be the same. At the secret policeman level, denial is likely to provoke instant reprisal, not least because the average secret policeman is more stupid than his subject. The sophisticated interrogator, on the other hand, finding the door slammed in his face, does not immediately try to kick it in. He prefers to regroup and advance on his target from a different angle.

GROSS: Did you have to do interrogations when you were in intelligence?

LE CARRE: Yes. I did a lot of interrogations - my first spell in British security and in MI5.

GROSS: And...

LE CARRE: They were benign interrogations, as it were, often of civil servants whose departments and whose head of personnel were aware of the interrogation, the interview, and were able to supply protection to that employee and so on. These were not, what we would call, seriously hostile interviews, except in a few rare cases. But everything I learned about interrogation then tells me that all the rough stuff that we've heard about, the really awful stuff - the waterboarding, the torture and the stuff that Trump is now encouraging again - is quite useless.

In my experience, people under great threat will make up a great deal of information that is then false. They will brand their mother under torture if they have to. I've found that trying to understand people, trying to befriend them, trying to indicate that you're their one hope and those things - patience and actually indicating that you're a human being is quite helpful and that most people who've got something on their conscience, one way or another, would quite like to confess it if the weather was in the right direction and the circumstances were right and - at least, that was my own private conclusion.

GROSS: I want to get back to that in a couple of minutes. But first I want to ask you, because you've written so many novels set during the Cold War - you met two heads of the KGB. You were in Russia twice - once during the Soviet era, Communist era and then once in 1993 when the oligarchs and the criminals had kind of taken over. And you wrote about the Cold War, nothing, absolutely nothing is what it seems. Everyone has a second motive, if not a third.

I'm wondering how that applies to trying to figure out what's happening now in terms of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and Russia's interference in the U.S. election and in other elections, as well. You know, the whole idea is like, nothing is what it seems. Do you think that's still the case? And if so, like, what do you - how are you trying to understand what Russia has been up to?

LE CARRE: A whole bunch of questions in one.

GROSS: I know. That's really terrible (laughter). I think I committed an interviewer sin just now.

LE CARRE: Let's look, first of all, at the operation influence, if you like, and how that's exerted, what we suspect the Russians are doing, not only in the United States, but they did in Britain for the referendum, maybe, in Britain for the election. They certainly interfered in Macron's election in France. So who are these forces? And what is really spooky, I think, and profoundly disturbing is they come from the West as well as the East - that there are oligarchs in the West who are so far to the right that they make a kind of natural cause with those on the other side of the world. Both of them have in common a great contempt for the ordinary conduct of democracy.

They want to diminish it. They see it as their enemy. They see - they've made a dirty word of liberalism - one of the most inviting words in politics. They've - and so they're closing in on the same target from different points of view. That's the first thing. So whether they're called Cambridge Analytica, whether they've got some spooky name and they're hidden away in the Ukraine, they're actually doing much the same job. They're undermining the decent processes of democracy, and that's having its effect. It's had its effect in Europe, in Hungary, in Poland. And I think it's had a quite disturbing effect in my own country. We'll come to that later.

Now, as to what is happening in the other areas of Russian behavior and Mr. Trump's association - there, I think we follow the money trail. I think it's perfectly possible that Trump was taken into what I call a honey trap - that he had ladies found for him, and he misbehaved in Russia. I don't think - if that film was shown tomorrow worldwide, Trump would get away with it. People would say, well, boys will be boys. Or they would say the different parts of the body in the video don't add up; this is all fake stuff. And 35 experts would testify to that - so wouldn't get any distance on that.

But on the money, that's a deep and persistent theme in Trump's business affairs. It's gone on for a long, long time. It relates, also, to a great extent to property held in the United States, which brings the thing closer to home. And it relates, also, to Mr. Trump's family.

GROSS: Do you think following the money is an especially good course because of the power of oligarchs and...

LE CARRE: So - yes...

GROSS: ...In Russia.

LE CARRE: The power of oligarchs in Russia, what the oligarchs have lent Trump directly or indirectly for his enterprises, the protection they've given him in far places - but none of that will play so well for the downfall of Trump as the domestic stuff, as the properties that he owns around America - how they've been bought, who they've been bought by, in what sums, whether the sums were actually consonant, whether they were gross, whether they look like some kind of backhander or bribe, and the extraordinary number of Russians with criminal records or Eastern Europeans with criminal records who frequent Trump's company.

In the end, it seems to me, some of this has got to come home to roost. And I think there might be a point - I hope there will be a point when somebody goes to Trump and says, your family is so deeply involved in this that you have a choice - you either fade away or we disrupt the house of Trump in ways that would be very painful to you.

GROSS: There's also the Russian dossier which says that the Russians have kompromat - compromising material - on Donald Trump. In this case, part of the kompromat is a video in which - that's alleged to reveal that President Trump watched certain sexual acts. So what's your knowledge of kompromat? Did you have, like, any direct encounters with that?

LE CARRE: Well, first of all, let's remember that Putin, when he was running the KGB from Dresden in East Germany, was a master of kompromat. So when he wanted to obtain a Western diplomat, a Western official, a target of some kind, he would surround them. He would tempt them. He would set stuff up. He would fake a background. They couldn't deny whatever it was.

That's an old skill. It goes back hundreds of years, not just in Russia. But the Russians specialized in it, even in czarist times. And they - the gray czars of today are experts at it. They love it. They love the complexity of it. They love the chess game of it. But I don't think it would work.

So I think the kompromat, if it's taken place, has taken place very largely through Trump's own endeavors to raise money in all sorts of dark places. And together, all those efforts amount to a self-compromising activity, which the Russians have embraced. I think they have him by the short hairs.

GROSS: My guest is John le Carre. His new novel is called "A Legacy Of Spies." After we take a short break, we'll talk about how being the son of a pathological liar helped prepare le Carre for his first career working as a British spy. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERTO IGLESIAS' "CONTROL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John le Carre, whose spy novels are considered to transcend the genre. Several of his novels have been adapted into movies or TV series, including "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "The Night Manager." Last year, his memoir "Pigeon Tunnel" was published. Now he has a new novel called "A Legacy Of Spies." Before becoming a novelist, le Carre worked as a spy for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6. He's described his father as a pathological liar.

So you suggest that in terms of your earlier career as a spy in England, that since your father was a liar, that you knew how to lie and invent personalities, that that came naturally to you. You say your father was a con man, an occasional fantasist, an occasional jailbird, a crisis addict, a performance addict, a delusional enchanter who wrecked a lot of people's lives. And you say he had absolutely no relationship to the truth. So do you feel like you picked up certain skills, so to speak (laughter), from being his son?

LE CARRE: Look. It begins - first of all, every child believes that the parents he's given are the world. I was left with one parent at the age of 5. My mother disappeared. And after that, it was living in the wake of this maverick fellow who often was enchanting. For a long time, that was my world.

Then as I began to realize the (laughter) problems it had, I was also very much concerned to survive. It's about survival. You become watchful. You know, I spent a lot of time, if he'd left the house, going through his pockets and things, trying to find out what was going on. We were displaced repeatedly by angry debtors. For quite long periods, he was on the run. He was on the run in the United States even, wanted by the forces of the law. And he filled my head with a great lot of truthless material, which I found it necessary to check out as a child with time.

So yes, I mean in that sense, these were the early makings of a spy. But that was about how children survive. And then his great passion, which he achieved, was to turn me into a seeming gentleman. We were all - we were working class. All my family spoke with decent regional accents, went to church very regularly and were simple people living on the south coast of England. And he broke away from that completely.

And so from the age of 5 to the age of 16, I was in private schools, in boarding schools and in holiday times, mainly at other holiday homes and things like that. And out of that, I - that period, I suppose I learned the language. I learned the gestures. I learned the mindset of the upper-middle classes. And somehow, more or less, my father paid for that so-called education.

But that really is how backgrounds are made. You know, we grow up as we are born. We fight the wars we inherit. And then at a certain time in our lives, we begin to question things we were, who we were and the things we did. That seems a natural process. Mine - it was acute because I got - I gave myself, my services to my country from quite early and then thought about it afterwards.

GROSS: Are you saying that when you were young and growing up as, you know, a person of more means than your family actually had, that you felt fraudulent?

LE CARRE: I'm quite certain we - I felt that I belonged to a fraudulent outfit because often my job was to humor creditors, tell them the money was in the post, as it were, whether they were tradesmen or whether they were neighbors or whether they were close friends suddenly worried my father had fleeced them.

GROSS: Your father made you do that.

LE CARRE: Yes, I suppose you could say he made me do it. I obliged him, you know? You only have one person to love if you have one parent.

GROSS: So he kind of made you his partner in crime.

LE CARRE: When I was adolescent, yes, he did, yes. And then I revolted against that. And I guess that's how the schism between us began, and it continued thereafter. I think from my age - sort of 18, 19 - by then, I was on the run from him and trying to - really trying to weaken the ties and finally to cut them all together, which was what happened.

GROSS: Can you describe more of what that revolt against your father was like, what shape it took?

LE CARRE: It was asking him for certain truths, why things had happened in our lives. Why do we have to move houses suddenly? Why have we sold the house? Why have the bailiffs removed my possessions? And then why are we frightened? Why have we hidden the car at the back of the house and put out all the lights? Why are we not answering the telephone? And the reason why was that he had fallen foul of what you would call the mob, the criminal syndicates that he was occasionally involved with. And they were cross with him. He was much more frightened of them than he was of the police.

So I - at some point, I - well, I don't - I think there were several points. I faced him and shouted at him and demanded to know what the truth was about his life. And he became very angry. And they were all arguments without - with - arguments with no outcome. They were just little battles, but the war just ran on. And then it became impossible when - after "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" and I made money, he wanted it - the money.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

LE CARRE: (Laughter) So we'd never had any money in the family. And I had been - until that - all that happened, I'd been, first of all, a quite impoverished, married schoolmaster and then, finally in government service, slightly better off. But still, every gas bill, every electricity bill counted. And then this flood of money from a best-seller - and he wanted to latch on to it. And he didn't say, give it to me. What he had was all these wonderful schemes, and I was an absolute fool on two counts - firstly to pay tax because he could have showed me that wasn't necessary (laughter) - and secondly, not to invest in his enterprises, which were all pretty crazy. And in the end, they all came to nothing.

GROSS: So you protected yourself against him when you started to have best-sellers, and he wanted your money? You succeeded in protecting yourself?

LE CARRE: I - yes, I didn't give him the money. I made him various offers at one time or another to set him up, put him in a house and, as it were, pay his grocery bills. But he was an extremely proud man and had his own ways of surviving anyway. And - but when he died, he had a house in Jermyn Street, a house in Tite Street, Chelsea, a house in the countryside, a third wife. And we couldn't find anywhere a penny piece to keep any of it going. It was (laughter) one of the great mysteries of life. And he'd been, for many of his years, undischarged bankrupt. But just in this last surge of seeming affluence, he'd put the whole card house together again. And in the moment of his death, it all fell apart with absolutely nothing anywhere. Cupboards were everywhere bare.

GROSS: Did you inherit his debts?

LE CARRE: Not in law, no. (Laughter) I didn't. I inherited them morally, I suppose.

GROSS: My guest is John le Carre. His new novel is called a legacy of spies. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "RAYS AND SHADOWS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with John le Carre, author of "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and the new novel "A Legacy Of Spies." When we left off, we were talking about how his father was a swindler. And after he died, le Carre discovered his father owned houses all over England even though he was bankrupt. I know at some point in your life - and I don't know if this was before or after your father died - you hired detectives to try to find out who was your father, really, what had he actually done. So how old - was your father still alive when you did that?

LE CARRE: No, no, no. That was before I wrote a novel about him called "A Perfect Spy." And I had these two detectives because I didn't trust my own memory and, least of all, did I trust the people around him to tell me anything. And so these were ex-policeman - one very fat, one very thin. And they went off. And they kept making calls saying they'd come on wonderful stuff. I gave them a great chunk of money. They came back with nothing worth having. However, since then, a very strange thing happened.

For reasons which are not central to our discussion, I applied to the Stasi, East German intelligence, for my own file because they must have kept one because I was posted to Germany and served for four years in Bahrain and then in Hamburg. And they turned up my file, which was completely anodyne. Whatever should have been in it, wasn't there. And it was full of press cuttings, nothing else. But they also came upon my father's file. And that was far more interesting.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LE CARRE: He had visited East Germany legally. They'd given him a pass. He talked to a lot of business people inside East Germany - traders of some sort - and gone back to London having convinced them that he was frightfully rich. Second chapter in the file reports that a Stasi agent, or at least a collaborator, made the journey from Vienna to visit my father at Jermyn Street - this is quite near the end of his life - and in the course of visiting him, took a minute account of how the building was laid out, made a drawing of his office and gave a description of the safe that was in my father's office. And my father died soon after that visit. And I have no idea and I shall never know what the intention was. But the file described my father as an enormously rich arms dealer with connections with British intelligence.

GROSS: Whoa.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do you think any of that is true?

LE CARRE: Enormously rich isn't. Arms dealer, yes. We knew - I knew - I found out only recently that he had traded in illegal arms in Indonesia and, indeed, in the Indian subcontinent - again, without much success. But he'd been in the illegal arms industry. I got him out of jail in Jakarta on the understanding that he'd been imprisoned for pushing currency around for currency dealings - illegal currency dealings. But it now seems that he was imprisoned because he was getting into illegal arms dealings. These bits (laughter) of intelligence come from various sources. But the Stasi file absolutely knocked me out.

GROSS: Do you think it's possible that he was cooperating with East Germany during the Cold War?

LE CARRE: I think if he saw some kind of advantage - financial advantage, commercial advantage - he would make as if he was offering his services. Whether he would ever have done so, whether he had anything to offer, I have no idea. But certainly, what is true is that they were interested in him - sufficiently interested in him to send an agent to suss him out in Jermyn Street and make drawings of his office. And it's just completely mystifying.

GROSS: That's so crazy that you worked for British intelligence, and yet, your father in the meantime is this kind of criminal - an arms trader, maybe, small-time arms trader, but nevertheless, and that he's maybe cooperating with East Germany. You'd been stationed in Germany after the war. I mean, it's almost as if he's consciously trying to undermine everything you had tried to do (laughter).

LE CARRE: Well, I don't think that's impossible either. We - I think it became - our relationship became, by the end of his life, a very hostile one. He'd tried to bring a lawsuit against me for failing to mention him in a BBC documentary (laughter) - failing to give him credit for putting me through these excruciatingly painful private schools that I hated.

GROSS: Why is that grounds for a lawsuit - failing to mention him?

LE CARRE: By implication, he's suggesting - I am suggesting that he's not the most important person in my life. That's - this is - I think it's slightly Trumpoid (ph), if I could use that forced adjective.

(LAUGHTER)

LE CARRE: You don't need any excuse. I offended his narcissism.

GROSS: (Laughter) How are you able to develop a moral compass with a father who had none?

LE CARRE: Well, it's kind of you to suggest that I developed one.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LE CARRE: It's taken a long time. And I suppose I've been a lot of people in my 85 years, not all of them very nice people. But I think I got better actually. And that's about all there is to it. I mean, you zigzag all over the place, not just to - I don't want to blame everything on childhood. But the effect of instant success from this very - from my - after my own - this sudden burst of success with "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" - everything happening at once, my departure then - my necessary departure from the secret world, my sudden rush of money, the strain this put on a marriage that was probably doomed anyway but was definitely - its end was accelerated by the effect of us - all this stuff on us - and took a while to get steady again.

GROSS: Do you look back on your life and think I've had an extraordinarily interesting life?

LE CARRE: I do sometimes. I'm scared of being a bore about it. But it does seem to be a wonderful life in retrospect or an extraordinarily varied one. And that's prompted me now to, particularly with this novel, to talk about it more. It has been a zigzag journey. And some of it wasn't all that pleasant.

GROSS: I like the way you say, in retrospect (laughter) I've had a very interesting life. (Laughter) And maybe at the time, as you were living through various things, they seemed not interesting, per se?

LE CARRE: No. I mean, I've had, really, a very interesting life. And I mean, really, the strangest thing is, in some ways, has been the cross-border relationship I've had with the former Soviet Union. The most unforgettable event was Yevgeny Primakov, former head of the KGB, former prime minister of the new Russia, now recently dead, who insisted on seeing me when he came over to England to see our foreign minister and then kind of spent the evening telling me about my books. And when somebody asked him, who he identified with - somebody independently asked him who he identified with, he replied George Smiley.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's crazy. So what did it say to you that the former head of the KGB identified with your character George Smiley?

LE CARRE: Well, it's very hard to say this. But there were elements of the KGB - and there still are, I suppose, at the FSB but less so - certainly, in communist times, there were bits of the KGB that were very, very decent, very humanitarian. They took in persecuted people and protected them. They were a cult for themselves. They prided themselves on cultivating intellectuals. That was the rare decent part of the KGB. But it was such a big and powerful institution that it was a - there were a lot of lot of rooms in it, lot of different people. And I know that at their training schools, they offered my books as essential reading.

GROSS: (Unintelligible) the KGB?

LE CARRE: It's - the KGB, yes.

GROSS: God, that was not your intention (laughter).

LE CARRE: (Laughter) It was not my intention at all. But they saw some kind of equivalence. You know, in the end - and it applies to doctors, scientists, and it applies to spies - people who are using the same techniques, developing the same techniques, who have the same attitude towards human beings, who put expediency and outcome over method, they are a brotherhood or sisterhood or what you will. The moment you get together with - the moment I get together with some retired general from the Mossad, I find we understand each other very quickly.

It's a shared attitude that creates this masonry. And it's very spooky. And it can also be profoundly disconcerting but - because they make assumptions about me, particularly, which are quite misplaced. They have, I think, a much more brutal attitude to human beings than I ever had. But nevertheless, we are in some spooky way colleagues.

GROSS: My guest is John le Carre. His new novel is called "A Legacy Of Spies." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS' "UNTIL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with John le Carre, who started his career as a British spy working for MI5 and MI6. He went on to become one of the world's most famous spy novelists. His new novel is called "A Legacy Of Spies." His father was a criminal and pathological liar, but he sent le Carre to boarding schools, where many of the students were upper-class.

It sounds like when you were a child you had to basically develop a persona. As a spy, you have to develop a persona. Was it ever hard for you to figure out who your authentic self was?

LE CARRE: Writing did that for me. The moment I realized that I could write, that my imagination could be harnessed and disciplined and applied to the business of writing, I knew I had a life in front of me, and a truthful life, and one that I could really carry with me till the end of my life. Before I'd turned my hand to writing, I'd been a second-rate illustrator of children's books. I'd written bad poetry. I'd been fumbling around in creative things. I'd directed plays at schools and things. And then suddenly, I think the - the incentive to write and the environment of the secret world, this - this theatre of human behavior that had been - been offered to me, it was really like a sort of coming home. Not coming home into the secret world, but coming home recognizing the chance that had been given to me. And I felt that I could make out of this extraordinary little - this microcosm of human behavior something that applied to all of us because we, all of us, deceive ourselves and other people in our daily lives in small, harmless ways, sometimes harmful ways. We deceive our bosses in small, harmful ways or harmless ways. Everybody lives in some kind of condition of secrecy, out of politeness to a great extent. If you're living with somebody, you swallow your emotions and you control yourself and you watch yourself in order to make the relationship work. And the other person is doing the same stuff. And I think, therefore, that there was for me always a universality in the secret world that I could - I could exploit and write about and apply to the general human condition in which we live.

GROSS: And it sounds like it's also true that you found your authentic self. You found some larger truth that you could hang onto through writing fiction.

LE CARRE: Yeah. I really do think that's the case. And fiction enables you to write coded versions of yourself that you know are true because you can decode them. Other people just think that's characterization. That's fine. You can - you can observe until the cows come home. But when you really have put a character together piece by piece, what makes it work is a piece of yourself. And until that happens, the character doesn't have - doesn't really have a being at all. So the real joining in fiction-writing is that sense of - of finding all the possibilities of your own character and awarding them in an organized way to the different characters of your creation.

GROSS: John le Carre, David Cornwell, (laughter), it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

LE CARRE: Thank you very much, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: John le Carre's new novel is called "A Legacy Of Spies." His memoir, "The Pigeon Tunnel," was published last year. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright. He's written a lot of songs about his life and his family. Now he's written a memoir called "Liner Notes: On Parents and Children, Exes And Excess, Death And Decay, And A Few Of My Other Favorite Things." He'll bring his guitar and sing some of the songs he writes about in the book. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOUBLE LIFETIME")

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: (Singing) I want a double lifetime. I want to start over. One lifetime's not enough. I need another 70 years on a practice run. Practice makes perfect. I'm about half done. I want a double lifetime. Want a double lifetime. I don't want to snuff it. Three score and 10 just ain't enough. It feels like I finally got it all figured out. I'm almost free from the shame and the doubt. I want a double lifetime. A lot more time, that's what I need. I can make my move. I can do the deed. I know I'm greedy. What do I care for the afterlife? I don't want to go there. I want a double lifetime, man. I deserve it. I want it so bad I even got the nerve it's going to take to get down on my bended knees and beg and pray and say pretty please, give me a double lifetime, all right? I want a double lifetime. I wasted my first one. First time around, that's always the worst one. You don't know what you're doing and you just can't wait so you go ahead and do it and then it's too late. You need a double lifetime... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.