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John le Carre

The sixties saw the emergence of a very different sort of novel about spies from those written by Ian Fleming. The writer was David Cornwell, who used the pseudonym John le Carre, since he was working at the time for MI6, the foreign branch of British Intelligence. He had previously been in MI5, which was for counter-intelligence, and for which James Bond supposedly worked. Before that he had taught briefly at Eton, though he had not been a schoolboy there, unlike Fleming, whose credentials as a member of the British establishment were much stronger.

Le Carre’s principal hero was George Smiley, the very antithesis of James Bond. He was totally without glamour, and based in part on V H H Green, the rector of Lincoln College in Oxford where le Carre had studied. Wrapped up in Smiley’s successes in counter-intelligence are his personal failures, notably a disastrous marriage, with his wife being seduced by a colleague who turns out to be a Russian agent.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

January 2011
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