John le Carré (David Cornwell): 1931-2020 R.I.P.

Novelist John le CarrĂ© died last week at the age of 89. Best known for his novels about spies, espionage and governmental bureaucratic intrigue, le Carre’s work would seem to have little in common with that of Evelyn Waugh. Spies do appear from time to time in Waugh’s novels–one thinks of Scoop and Sword of Honour–but they are never the main event.  Waugh’s career overlapped with the early years of le Carre’s work (including publication in 1963 of one of his best novels, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and in 1965, A Looking Glass War) but there are no reviews of le Carre’s books by Waugh mentioned in Waugh’s bibliography.

Two of the notices published on the occasion of le Carre’s death do, however, mention Waugh. In the Daily Telegraph, the obituary by Jake Kerridge opens with this: “An absent mother and an abusive father in the pocket of the Krays: le Carre’s early years unfolded like chapters of an Evelyn Waugh novel.”   Unfortunately, Kerridge doesn’t tell us which Waugh novel has sprung to mind. The point is elaborated somewhat after le Carre’s parents are described. His father Ronnie Cornwell was basically a confidence man, living from scam to scam. In one such scheme he tricked Olive Glassey (“several rungs higher on the social scale”) into marrying him in 1928. They had two sons, but in addition to being a conman, Ronnie was abusive and eventually Olive bolted, effectively deleting herself from le Carre’s life. The obituarist then returns to his Waugh theme:

When I read Adam Sisman’s mighty biography of le Carre, I had the sensation, whenever Ronnie popped up, that I was reading a novel by Evelyn Waugh. Like one of Waugh’s subsidiary characters, Ronnie would keep disappearing and then reappearing unexpectedly in hugely varied situations and circumstances, but always recognisably himself.

Ronnie was a small time crook, an intimate of the Krays and an aspiring politician. […] He knew and charmed everybody and held huge parties at his home in Buckinghamshire where senior judges, police officers and civil servants would rub shoulders with such celebrities as Don Bradman and the Crazy Gang. Then he was arrested and imprisoned for various frauds and swindles: the memorable headline in the Daily Express read, “Uncrowned king of Chalfont St Peter owes a million and a quarter.”

Ronnie insisted on sending his sons to public schools, and when the demands for unpaid fees became urgent, he offered such unobtainable blackmarket delicacies as bananas and gin in lieu. It was at Sherborne that David really learnt the art of constant dissembling, trying to fit in with the other boys and pretend that his background was no different from theirs.

In the Guardian, critic Mark Lawson mentions another connection:

In polls of the greatest British TV drama series, the BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ranks highly, alongside ITV’s version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Curiously, though, the first of these landmarks in upmarket screen drama owed its existence to the second.

In the 1970s, the BBC, during one of its periodic crises over justifying the licence fee to politicians and the media, craved a starry, classy, filmed book, and had been negotiating the rights to Waugh’s story of a Catholic aristocratic family. When, unexpectedly, the estate sold the book to Granada Television, Jonathan Powell, running BBC Drama, was asked to quickly find a replacement brainy treat. He settled on the 1974 first volume of Le Carré’s trilogy (later umbrella-titled The Quest for Karla) about the search by George Smiley, a Sherlock Holmes of the spook world, for Russian double-agents in the British secret service.

Healing some BBC wounds by reaching TV in September 1979, two years before ITV’s Brideshead, BBC Two’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, had Alec Guinness’s Smiley taking reaction shots to new levels of attentive reflection in episodes of such deliberative pace that, at this early stage in the era of home video recorders, viewers sometimes wondered if they had accidentally engaged the freeze-frame function.

Lawson goes on to explain how the BBC’s Tinker, Tailor series at first confused many viewers. Even Clive James thought it a dud. But over time, the slow development of a complicated plot over several episodes sank in, helped along no doubt by the relative success of Brideshead two years later. The TV genre that began with Tinker, Tailor and Brideshead has become a mainstay of the adaptation business in the new age of streaming. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the theatrical film versions of both novels that were made in the 2000s failed to resonate with many viewers largely because they had to simplify the plots.

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