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Remembering John Le Carré, British Spy Turned Best-Selling Novelist


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

John le Carre, the author whose spy novels were praised for transcending genre fiction and simply being great literature, died Saturday of pneumonia. He was 89. Many of his books have been adapted into films or TV series, including "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "The Little Drummer Girl," "The Constant Gardener" and "The Night Manager."

In his New York Times obituary, Sarah Lyall wrote that le Carre, quote, "portrayed British intelligence operations as cesspools of ambiguity in which right and wrong are too close to call and in which it is rarely obvious whether the ends, even if the ends are clear, justify the means. Le Carre's spies are lonely, disillusioned men whose work is driven by budget troubles, bureaucratic power plays and the opaque machinations of politicians, men who are as likely to be betrayed by colleagues and lovers as by the enemy," unquote.

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 bestseller. One of the characters in that novel, George Smiley, became the main character in several of le Carre's later books.

We're going to listen back to two interviews I recorded with le Carre. The first one we'll hear was recorded in 1989 after the publication of his novel "The Russia House." It was written during the waning days of the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, two years after the novel's publication.


GROSS: It seems to me you've been one of the more liberal of the spy novelists and that you've always had a kind of more ambiguous stand in the Cold War than a lot of other people. I mean that you don't write in black and white. That things - there are a lot of gray areas and moral ambiguities in your writing.

JOHN LE CARRE: Yeah, I wrote about people who were groaning under the weight of the Cold War, who were being deprived of the spirit of optimism, who were working in the dark, really not believing they would ever see the light. I certainly was never a cold warrior in the literary sense - quite the reverse. I felt that people fought the wars they inherited, whether I was writing about the Middle East or about the Cold War. It seemed to me that sooner or later, somebody would cry halt, but it never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that that would be the Russians.

GROSS: You started writing books in - well, publishing - getting your books published in the early 1960s. And that coincided with the time of the popularity of Ian Fleming's "James Bond" books. And I was wondering if you'd read those books and if they helped you decide what you did or didn't want to do in your own fiction.

LE CARRE: Yes, yes. I owe a great deal to Fleming for one reason only, that Fleming produced - by writing that type of romanticized, heroic, amoral novel, he produced what you might call a counter-market, which I was able to satisfy. Literature had gone so far away from the perceived reality of the espionage business that people were crying out to have their perceptions of the reality reflected in a new kind of book. And I would not for a minute pretend that I saw that as an opportunity. Mercifully, I'm not so strategic or tactical as that. But I had the luck to pick up what you might call the slack that was left behind by Fleming.

GROSS: And you wanted to depict the spy more as a working man in a way.

LE CARRE: Yeah. I knew that world, and I knew the way it had worked. And I knew that what I had seen was ordinary - men and women locked in an impossible conflict. They were like flies in aspic.

GROSS: Oh, how were they like flies in aspic?

LE CARRE: Well, because we were given these postures - these ideological postures that were irreconcilable, and we worked within them and we had tried to tease the other side. I mean, in the high day of the Cold War, we were into things like trying to screw up youth conferences in Bucharest by putting itching powder on the lavatory seats and things of that sort. I mean, we forget what insanities were performed in the name of ideological purpose.

GROSS: Were you recruited to work as a spy?

LE CARRE: Well, yeah, you can't do it independently.

GROSS: Well, I never know whether you can kind of volunteer and then they check you out or whether they seek you out.

LE CARRE: Well, I think there are dozens of ways in which organizations do it. They have networks of talent spotters through the universities and the professional organizations. I think most recruiting organizations are very leery of people who come to them because they immediately suspect their motives. So they like to make their own selections in the first place.

GROSS: So you were sought out.

LE CARRE: That's not what I said. I...


LE CARRE: No, I don't want to answer that question.

GROSS: Did your feelings for the job change as the Cold War progressed?

LE CARRE: Yes, a kind of, as the French say, a cathar (ph) set in - a wariness of the spirit - which I tried to reflect in such characters as George Smiley. I also began to think it was damn silly that we were coming the victims of our own rhetoric and that a situation could occur where we could make genuine advances, and we would be so stuck in our own rhetoric that we would never be able to get out of it. I sometimes worry that that's happening now.

GROSS: Did you ever have an assignment that you didn't want to take on because you thought that - because you opposed its means?

LE CARRE: Well, if I did, I certainly didn't speak up. I mean, you either accept the package or you don't. You can't pick on this one and say, I won't do it.

GROSS: When you started writing fiction, whose clearance or permission did you have to get, especially since it was spy fiction?

LE CARRE: Well, if I had been even an orthodox foreign servant, I would have had to obtain clearance from my employing department, even if I had written a book on Lepidoptera. As it was, I submitted my novels, and they never met with any objection. And I think that professional spies - professional intelligence officers - reading that material would know, in fact, that these were abstractions from the reality, just as any novel is an abstraction from reality. And they were not disturbed that I had portrayed the authentic world. They became disturbed when they realized that what I had portrayed was much more than authentic. Namely, it was credible.

GROSS: Were they afraid that the kinds of ambiguities that you were raising would be dispiriting to your readers?

LE CARRE: Yes, I think so. I think that came back to me at least from one or two espiocrats in the...

GROSS: Oh, I like that word (laughter).

LE CARRE: I do, too. Thank you. It's entered my new book.

...In the American structure that I was undermining the very spirit which should fire young recruits to the agency or to the intelligence community. I was very entertained by that.

GROSS: Was it obligatory for you to get a pen name?

LE CARRE: Yes, it was. It was. They said, choose another name, and I went to Victor Gollancz, who was my publisher in London, and said, I've got to choose a pseudonym. And he said, well, my boy, I'll give you some good advice. Choose two Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, like Chuck Smith (ph). And I was sufficiently perverse to choose three names, all of them for confusion, two of them French. But now I have to admit I really don't know where the name came from.

GROSS: Can I suggest a reason, though? This probably isn't it at all.

LE CARRE: Please do.

GROSS: But if you were a Frenchman, then the English readers would say, well, this is an outsider anyways. How intimately could he really know our system? Maybe it's better and things are more black and white than he's making it seem (laughter).

LE CARRE: Oh, those wily French. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah.


LE CARRE: Well, it's quite - yes, it's a thought. It means a lot of things, I believe. It means square. (Speaking French) is a dance where people wear masks, I think, and change partners. And then in roulette, a number - if you make it carre, you've got a token on each corner of it. You've - so it has a lot of applications. But I really don't know which one I fell for, whether I fell for any of them.

GROSS: Mole is a word that you're credited with having brought into the English vocabulary. I think you borrowed it from the Soviets, really. What was the origin of that?

LE CARRE: Well, I thought I borrowed it from the Soviets. But the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary can't find any Soviet reference to mole.


LE CARRE: Well, the origin was in the notion of a mole is somebody who burrows deep into the fabric of our society, is a little observed, little noticed thing - creature, and then, from inside, causes its downfall. And it's certainly now become a notion. I think they used to be called sleepers in the CIA - agents you put in place. And you don't invite them to do anything risky, anything that could compromise them for years and years and years while they work their way into a position of power. And Philby was one such example, of course. But Philby, on the other hand, did have a reporting responsibility to his Soviet masters from very early on and fulfilled it from very early on and got away with it.

GROSS: Coming in from the cold is another expression that you coined.

LE CARRE: Well, yes, I suppose so - or, at least, I applied it to espionage, I suppose. I was the first person to do that.

GROSS: And what was behind that?

LE CARRE: Well, behind it was the character of Alec Leamas and the spy who came in from the cold, who was an old, professional agent, an ageing professional agent, who was suffering from what you might call a kind of spiritual mettle fatigue. And he was offered one last mission. And he was told that when he had completed it, he could come in from the cold.

GROSS: But, I mean, how did you come up with the expression?

LE CARRE: Well, it's a meteorological perception. It's cold out there, and it's warmer indoors. And the chill comes from a lack of human contact or a lack of of human affection, of having to keep what Graham Greene called the chip of ice in your heart all the time, which is also a writer's condition, to a point. I guess that even then I was aware of the - a comparability between the position of a writer and his environment and that of a spy, that both, in a sense, trade off the people around them. They note things. And they report them. Both are dependent upon the people they deceive. And both, in a sense, have to be entertainers to be accepted.

GROSS: Well, how does a writer have to deceive?

LE CARRE: Well, I think that that chip of ice to which Graham Greene refers is really some kind of recording instrument. L. P. Hartley said, don't leave me in your drawing room, I'm sure to read your letters. I don't read people's letters. But there is a part of me, as there is of most artists, that stands back from most experience. I never know whether that is what the French call a professional deformation, which comes from practicing the craft, or whether people of that disposition are drawn to the craft in the first place.

GROSS: And how does a spy have to be an entertainer?

LE CARRE: Most of them have to have entertainment value, particularly if they are going to recruit people. If I - alas, we've never met. But I'm sure you're beautiful and young and elegant. And if I were determined to obtain your services and turn you around and get you to report upon your organization, you'd be unlikely to come and have lunch with me if I wasn't a person of some charmed entertainment value.

GROSS: And knowing how to flatter people.

LE CARRE: And knowing how to flatter people, and more particularly, knowing how to make people dependent on you because once I had obtained you, you would then have to continue working for me. And you would have to have a reason. And if it wasn't love, it would have to be ideology. Or if it wasn't either of those things, it would have to be money.

GROSS: That was John le Carre in an interview we recorded in 1989. Le Carre died Saturday of pneumonia. He was 89. I interviewed le Carre again in 2017. We'll hear that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering novelist John le Carre, who died on Saturday. Before he wrote about spies, he worked as a spy for Britain's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. His most famous character, George Smiley, appeared in several of his novels. I interviewed le Carre for a second time in 2017 after the publication of his novel "A Legacy Of Spies." The main character, Peter Guillam, had been a protege of Smileys. In "A Legacy Of Spies," Guillam is retired but is forced to re-examine actions he took when he was a spy during the Cold War, actions that may have cost the lives of two people who were close to him.


GROSS: 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?

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 and 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 deaths 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 Guillam'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: 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 up 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...


GROSS: ...To be a good spy?

LE CARRE: Yep. 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 alongside the borderline of, how much of this stuff can we do and remain a society that is worth protecting?

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded with John le Carre in 2017. We'll hear more of the interview after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering John le Carre, the spy novelist and former British spy. He died Saturday. He was 89. Several of le Carre's books were adapted into movies and TV series, including "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "The Little Drummer Girl" and "A Constant Gardener (ph)." Before he became famous for his fiction, he worked as a spy for Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5, and its foreign intelligence service, MI6. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him in 2017 after the publication of his novel "A Legacy Of Spies." Earlier in our conversation, le Carre told me that when he worked for British intelligence, to be a good spy, he had to learn how to suppress his feelings and even his humanity.


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...

LE CARRE: Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: ...And pretending to have opinions and...


GROSS: ...Beliefs that you did not have in order to entrap people.

LE CARRE: Yeah. But, I mean, if you think of it - in the larger sense, if you drop a bomb, you kill people you don't know.

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

LE CARRE: 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're 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 - they are 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: 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 in my first spell in British security and 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 their employee and so on. These were not what we would call seriously hostile interviewers, 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, the circumstances were right. And - at least that was my own private conclusion.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with John le Carre in 2017. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded in 2017 with John le Carre. He died Saturday at the age of 89. His novels include "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." In his memoir, "The Pigeon Tunnel," he described his father as a pathological liar.


GROSS: 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, 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 problems it had (laughter), I was also very much concerned to survive.

It's about survival. You become watchful. You know, I'd spend a lot of time, if he 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 road 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, had 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.

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 altogether, which was what happened.

GROSS: Can you describe more 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, put out all the lights, why we're not answering the telephone. And the reason why was that he had fallen foul of what you would call the mob, the - his - 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, 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: And so we'd never had any money in the family. And I had been - until 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 bestseller, and he wanted to latch onto 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 assure me that wasn't necessary 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 bestsellers 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, by - when he died, he had a house in German 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 all (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 affluent, he'd put the whole card house together again. And in the moment of his death, it all fell apart. There was absolutely nothing anywhere. Cupboards were everywhere bare.

GROSS: Did you inherit his debts?

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

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with John le Carre in 2017. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded in 2017 with John le Carre. He died Saturday at the age of 89. His novels include "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." 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...

LE CARRE: That's right.

GROSS: ...What had he actually done?


GROSS: 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 hired 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 and 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 Bonn 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. (Laughter) And that was far more interesting.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LE CARRE: And (laughter) he had visited East Germany legally. They'd given him a pass. He talked to a lot of businesspeople 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, (laughter) what the intention was. But the file described my father as an enormously rich arms dealer with connections with British intelligence.

GROSS: Whoa.

LE CARRE: And...


LE CARRE: ...So...

GROSS: Do you think any of that is true?

LE CARRE: Enormously rich isn't.


LE CARRE: 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 to me from various sources. But the Stasi file absolutely knocked me out. 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 this is - I think it's slightly Trumpoid (ph) if I could use that false adjective.


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

GROSS: (Laughter) How were 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 mean, I don't want to blame everything on childhood. But the effect of instant success from this very - from my - after my own sudden burst of success with "Spy 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 all this stuff on it 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 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, I've had a very interesting life.


GROSS: 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 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 rooms in it, a lot of different people. And I know that at their training schools, they offered my books as essential reading.


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

GROSS: God. That was not your intention.


LE CARRE: 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 a sisterhood or what you will. Moment you get together with - moment I get together with some retired generals 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. But - and it can also be profoundly disconcerting. But - because they make assumptions about me particularly which are quite misplaced. And 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: John le Carre, David Cornwell (laughter) - it's really great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

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

GROSS: My interview with John le Carre was recorded in 2017. He died of pneumonia Saturday. He was 89.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll hear the interview I just recorded with actor Riz Ahmed, which we'd originally planned to broadcast today. He won an Emmy for his starring role in the HBO series "The Night Of" and was also in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," "Jason Bourne," "Nightcrawler," "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," "Four Lions" and "The Road To Guantanamo." He stars in the new movie "Sound Of Metal" as a punk-metal drummer who loses his hearing and has to rethink his life. Riz Ahmed is also a rapper. Some of his lyrics are about being the son of Pakistani immigrants in England and about being Muslim in the post-9/11 world. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.