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Thursday, March 25, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scoundrels & Sons -- Author John Le Carre Digs Deep In His Own Past For The Themes Of His Work

Seattle Times Book Editor

There were some formidable ghosts in the sanctuary of Seattle's First United Methodist Church on Tuesday night, keeping watch as author John le Carre took 640 rapt listeners on a walk through his books and his past.

There was Ronnie Cornwell, le Carre's dead father, a confidence man who has been the basis for pivotal characters in le Carre's new book, "Single & Single," and his classic "A Perfect Spy."

There was George Smiley, the British spy of impregnable integrity and unrelieved gloom, a beloved le Carre character who almost everybody - except le Carre - would like to see resurrected.

There was even a living witness to le Carre's account of his father. The author's older brother, Anthony Cornwell, now lives in Lynnwood, and was there, providing his seat mates with an informed commentary on his brother's work.

Rick Pym, the character in "A Perfect Spy" who was modeled on le Carre's father, "was pretty true to Daddy," said Cornwell.

It was a satisfying evening, even (it's hoped) for the ghosts. Le Carre (real name, David Cornwell) held the audience in the palm of his hand as he read passages from his books and connected them to his own life - though he cautioned that "there is no such thing as a fictional character literally drawn from life - you can draw an inflection or a mannerism (from an actual person), but finally you have to fill that person with the possibility of your own character."

Le Carre is a gifted actor and mimic, and at times his voice seemed to transmogrify into the velvet-over-steel inflections of Alec Guinness, the actor who played Smiley for the BBC.

"I had my character stolen by Alec Guinness," le Carre told the Seattle Arts & Lectures crowd. "His voice and mannerisms entered my soul - to the extent that I didn't know if I could finish the trilogy, " the three books in which Smiley wrestles down his archenemy, the Communist spy Karla.

In an interview yesterday, le Carre elaborated on the themes that inform his life and work. Though an expert raconteur, le Carre on occasion appeared quite moved by the moral conflict his work explores.

He judges his own generation harshly: "Our generation really screwed it up for our children - this introduction to unbridled capitalism as an alternative to communism," he said, staring out at the empty seats in the hotel bar. "I've reached the point where I'm educated by my children."

But first, a little history:

David Cornwell was born in 1931. He had a tough childhood. His father, Ronnie, was a confidence man who conned on a grand scale, acquiring and losing tons of money, property, servants and racehorses with neck-snapping speed. His mother left home by the time he turned 5 - Cornwell essentially grew up without one.

Ronnie's world was inhabited by a cast of underworld characters that le Carre (he took the pen name while he was still in the British secret service) has drawn on to great effect in his novels. Many were Eastern European, and many of Smiley's "joes" (agents) and shadowy cohorts "are based on a lot of people who flitted in and out of his court, middle Europeans with thick accents," le Carre said.

Jailed three times, Ronnie was still the only parent le Carre had. He still has a serious grip on the author and his characters. In "Single & Single," the son, Oliver Single, hides out from his corrupt father, Tiger Single, for a time, making a living as a magician. "Oliver as the performer is very important to me," le Carre said. "My role in the household was that of entertainer - to my brother, to my father, to his women."

The premise of "Single & Single," that Oliver goes to work for his father's merchant banking firm and discovers corruption on a grand scale, is "what would have happened if my father had been more successful, more restrained, and what if we had been put into the family firm. I imagined myself going into that firm, and getting on to what my father was doing."

In 1948 Cornwell left England for Switzerland, enrolled at Bern University and began doing the odd job for British intelligence. From then on, until the early 1960s when he quit to write full time, le Carre worked as a spy for Britain's intelligence services.

In Austria he interrogated refugees for their potential as spies and agents, getting his "first real look at the scale of human suffering." The very young man played them for their potential, le Carre told the Seattle Arts & Lectures audience: "Are they real? Are they plants? What do they see? What do they know? Are you the kind of person who might be able to go back?"

He was in Bonn with a diplomatic cover when the Communists sealed up East Germany, and witnessed the panic: West German firemen using ladders to help those in the East at their last chance of escape across the Berlin Wall. "I didn't sleep for two or three nights," he recalled. "I found myself writing in anger and moral and political despair." His revulsion for the intelligence practices on both sides became "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," a tragedy about a British spy who loses his life and the only person he cares about as he tries to get over the Wall.

Le Carre introduced Smiley with his first book, "Call for the Dead," and by his third book he had quit government service to write full time. He eventually completed the "Quest for Karla" trilogy, about Smiley's attempts to ferret out a "mole," a traitor in the secret service.

The trilogy was modeled around the case of Kim Philby, the British traitor. Le Carre told the audience that "it wasn't considered politic in those days to even discuss the condition of the double agent. Stories about Philby were suppressed. I wanted to explain how a double agent could turn an intelligence service inside out," he said.

Post-Smiley, le Carre moved into the post-Cold War landscape, still peeling off the crust of society to find the worms turning underneath - international arms dealers, drug runners, corrupt merchant bankers.

In yesterday's interview, le Carre offered some telling glimpses into what fuels his work.

On research:

Le Carre is an assiduous hanger-outer. To develop Oliver Single's career as a magician, he found one in the telephone book and called him up. "He'd never heard of me, which is fine - I said I'd like to follow him around and pay him for his trouble. I'd be his uncle. I did what the little boy (in "Single & Single") did - I carried his bag and blew up the balloons."

Le Carre said he made the officials at some of the Salvation Army posts they worked quite nervous about his potential as a child molester. Who is "this genial old man with the eyebrows?. . . . they quizzed me quite closely about who I was."

On how he walks his characters through their stories:

"I can't make a book until I get the main character into my head. He comes with me to Panama. I write: `Pendel (Harry Pendel, the tailor in "The Tailor of Panama") looked to the left and saw the church.' . . . We go to wholesale dealers in textile. It's as close to his reality as we can get.

"That's the discipline of the research. I go with Oliver to some foul, drafty boarding house - then I know what I'm doing."

On children as a motif:

"As always with my stuff, a child is at the center of it. I've never really made a close examination of my work until I prepared for this reading . . . I found these children popping up all over the place. They are the universal witnesses to our folly and mortality."

On the culture of the rich:

Tiger Single, the corrupt merchant banker who is Oliver's father, "is based not on any one person. I talked to a number of those city merchant venturists . . . they live for nothing but the big buck.

"Now that I've made money, I've mixed with people who have real money - people who have 50 million and are jealous of those with 500 million." Le Carrre smiled ruefully and quoted Groucho Marx: " `Now I can afford to have a typewriter for each finger.' "

Critics range all over the map when it comes to le Carre. Michiko Kakutani, the influential New York Times critic, excoriated him for "Single & Single's" ending, which she compared to a Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Meanwhile, in a lengthy piece in the March 19 New Yorker, British writer (and Oxford fellow) Timothy Garton Ash put le Carre in the company of the great German writer Thomas Mann (which surely must have pleased le Carre, a lifelong student and lover of German culture). "His finest novels are more compelling, moving, amusing and profound than most of what passes for serious literature," Ash said.

For his part, le Carre says he'll keep writing - that it's more fun now than when he started. "I think I peaked with `A Perfect Spy,' " he said. "I would like to recover that peak."

Fathers and sons, and loyalty and betrayal, are likely to keep popping up in his books, along with those children who serve as witnesses to our adult folly. "Every novelist probably wrestles with one great mystery," he told his audience, "and his secret prayer is that he never solves it."

A reading list: John le Carre has been writing for more than three decades. It's hard to single out his best books, but here's a short reading list - Mary Ann Gwinn

-- The George Smiley trilogy. Le Carre introduced Smiley, a dumpy British spy with a horrible home life and a tenacious mind and will, in "Call for the Dead, " his first book (1961). "Call for the Dead" was a well-done whodunit, but his three books that chronicle Smiley's ferocious battle to ferret out a mole and traitor in the British Secret Service and then to capture the traitor's Soviet handler make for the drama of high tragedy: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (1974), "The Honourable Schoolboy" (1977), and "Smiley's People" (1980).

-- "A Perfect Spy" (1986). This is the most autobiographical of le Carres books, which focuses on a British spy and his relationship with his scoundrel of a father. Philip Roth called "The Perfect Spy" "the best English novel since the war."

-- "The Night Manager" (1993). Le Carre decisively moved beyond the Cold War in this book, a breathtaking tour de force about an international arms dealer and the obscure night manager of a Swiss hotel (with a checkered past) who attempts to undo him.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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