A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré

by John le Carré
Penguin Audio, December 2022, $

Among the 200 or so letters by the late author of such acclaimed novels as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, curated by his son (alas, now also late as of last May 30), there is a note discussing his fondness for F. Scott Fitzgerald. But, as John le Carré, using his real name David Cornwell, wrote, "Three-quarters of Fitzgerald's letters are self-conscious crap, injurious to him and his art alike. If anybody ever went raking in my desk for that stuff, I hope to God I've managed to burn it in time."

Judging by A Private Spy, he was a little shy in feeding the flame. As wonderful a novelist as he was, many of the letters seem purposely impersonal, while others, to writers or actors he admired like Philip Roth or Ralph Fiennes, are overly effusive. The tomes that show the literary quality that illuminated his best novels involve his con man father Ronnie, his second wife Jane, his MI5 mentor Vivian Green (the model for his famous spymaster George Smiley), and correspondence regarding his love-hate feelings toward Graham Greene whose affection for the traitorous ex-spy Kim Philby former British spy Cornwell could not tolerate.

Several of the tomes suggest cracks in the author's self-imposed wall of aloof privacy. He seems almost giddy writing about dinners with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as dining with Margaret Thatcher, whom he calls "admirable," though he clearly opposed her conservatism and later on refused her offered CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

Regardless of content, actors David Harewood (Homeland and the mini-series of le Carre's The Night Manager) and Florence Pugh (Don't Worry Darling and the TV version of le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl) deliver the material with a smooth, seemingly effortless dignity that the author would have appreciated. (Note: le Carre's drawings, caricatures, and doodles that illustrate the book are, of course, not included.)

Dick Lochte
Teri Duerr
le Carré
December 2022
Penguin Audio