John le Carre: 'My frustration with Britain'

John le Carre

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Fifty years after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold made John le Carre an international bestselling author, the acclaimed writer spoke to the BBC about what inspires his thrillers, and why there is still more to come.

The spy novelist says his latest book was shaped in part by "anger, frustration and impatience" at modern Britain.

In a rare interview, le Carre criticised a "credibility gap" between statements made by those in authority and what ordinary people believe.

The 81-year-old author, whose books include The Constant Gardener and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, also described how widespread "demonisation of Islam" has replaced the Cold War anxieties that shaped his earlier work.

Le Carre's 23rd novel, A Delicate Truth, features a counter-terror operation to capture and abduct a jihadist arms buyer in Gibraltar.

Listen to the novel

Damian Lewis in a radio studio

Homeland actor Damian Lewis has recorded a radio adaptation of John le Carre's latest novel, A Delicate Truth, for BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. It airs at 22:45 BST from Monday 13 May to Friday 17 May

"There is anger [in the book], there is frustration, and there is impatience, particularly with the Brits," he said.

"It's really very comic to read the occasional accusation that has appeared in the United States now that I have an anti-American posture.

"I am anti-nothing. I am just trying to be analytical about our collective psychology at the moment, which is very confused.

"And the beating of the Thatcherite drum - this posture of Britain still as some kind of great player in the political scene and the world's game - these things do frustrate me and annoy me."

A former Foreign Office official and sometime spy, le Carre shot to international prominence with his 1963 Cold War story The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

He went on to write a series of bestsellers that helped define the spy thriller genre.

Some critics have described the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of Soviet communism as his "nemesis", removing the context in which his anti-heroes excited readers.

Start Quote

There are some books I've written that I barely remember now”

End Quote John le Carre

But le Carre said history has been his "saviour" as a writer, with political machinations surrounding the "war on terror" providing a new backdrop for his thrillers.

"I was tired of writing about the Cold War. I thought the Cold War was long over by the time [the Berlin Wall] came down and these were surviving attitudes after the reality had disappeared," he said.

"What we have watched in the meantime is something I'm now writing about because it has kicked into gear.

"That is the demonisation of Islam and the attempt by fundamentalists on both sides - if you will - to turn Islam into an enemy as monstrous and assailable and dangerous to us as Soviet communism was."

Le Carre refuses to allow his books to be entered for literary prizes and asked to be withdrawn from the Man Booker International Prize shortlist in 2011.

But he is internationally renowned, with bestsellers translated into dozens of languages and 12 of them adapted for TV, film or radio.

From book to the big screen

Actor Gary Oldman
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, featuring Richard Burton, was released in 1965 - two years after the book became an international bestseller - and won four Baftas
  • Sir Sean Connery starred in The Russia House in 1990
  • Pierce Brosnan briefly swapped the plaudits for playing James Bond to be a disgraced spy in The Tailor of Panama in 2001
  • The Constant Gardener, featuring Ralph Fiennes and Bill Nighy, was released in 2005. Some of the film was shot on location in Kenya
  • Gary Oldman (above) starred in 2011 as le Carre's most famous character, George Smiley, in Tinker Tailor SoldierSpy

He credited public scepticism about authority and old-fashioned storytelling for his continued success.

"I think increasingly, despite what we are being told is an ever more open world of communication, there is a terrible alienation in the ordinary man between what he is being told and what he secretly believes," he said.

"Beyond that, I think that it's to do with the relationship with the reader.

"I want to be like Ford Madox Ford. I want to be talking to somebody across a fire and I want him to join me and listen to me, and if he is fidgeting in his chair I know I am not doing my job. I am a storyteller and I know most people like a story."

Le Carre said his family is under orders to tell him frankly if his writing loses its edge, but he has no plans to stop writing.

Despite critical acclaim, he said his latest work is a stepping stone to a planned 24th novel.

"To get to the next book I had to write this one. It's done. Now I can move on, now I can do something better.

"For me, it wasn't a 'return to form'. It is a feeling that I did a good job with that material and I really fell in love with the characters. That's usually the test, in retrospect.

"There are some books I've written that I barely remember now. That's natural enough at my great age. But this one I know I will remember."

Listen to Book at Bedtime: A Delicate Truth on BBC Radio 4 at 22:45 BST, from Monday 13 May to Friday 17 May, and afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.

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