The Stacks: How The Berlin Wall Inspired John le Carré’s First Masterpiece
Intelligence officer and budding novelist John le Carré was so devastated by the Berlin Wall that he wrote ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ in a white-hot six weeks.
In the early ’60s, John le Carré had published two novels under a pen name and was still working for the British intelligence services in Germany when the Berlin Wall went up. As he explains below, the event so galvanized him that it directly inspired the creation—in a mere six weeks—of his breakthrough 1963 novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which is being republished by Bloomsbury this month in an omnibus volume, The First Three Novels, which also includes A Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Wall’s fall, here’s a look back at the revulsion it caused when it first appeared, and how that revulsion inspired what Graham Greene called “the best spy story I have ever read.” The following is le Carré’s own introduction, written in 1989, to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, my third book, changed my life and put me on bare-knuckle terms with my abilities. Until its publication I had written literally in secret, from inside the walls of the secret world, under another name, and free of serious critical attention. Once this book hit the stands, my time of quiet and gradual development was over for good, however much I tried to re-create it by, for example, fleeing with my family to a remote Greek island. Therefore, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is the last book of my period of innocence, and after it, for better or worse, my experimentations would have to take place in public. For years to come there would be no such thing, for the publishing industry, as a “small” le Carré book— a distortion both longed for and abhorred by any artist worth his salt.
I wrote the book in a great rush over a period of about five weeks. I wrote it in the small hours of the morning, in my British Embassy hiring in Königswinter, in odd moments at my desk in the Embassy, and even at the wheel of my car as I crossed the Rhine back and forth by ferry, sometimes parked alongside Chancellor Adenauer’s huge armoured Mercedes (or was it a BMW?) as he made his own stately way to work. There was excitement in Chancery when I was able to report what newspaper he was reading, and the Embassy Press Section was always quick to deduce which leader-writers might have influenced the great man’s mind, but I suspect none did: he was long past being influenced. Sometimes I caught his eye, and occasionally it seemed to me he even smiled at me in my little Hillman Huskie with diplomatic plates. But he resembled by then an ancient Red Indian chief, and his expressions did not follow the patterns of other mortals.
It was the Berlin Wall that had got me going, of course: I had flown from Bonn to take a look at it as soon as it started going up. I went with a colleague from the Embassy and as we stared back at the weasel faces of the brainwashed little thugs who guarded the Kremlin’s latest battlement, he told me to wipe the grin off my face. I was not aware I had been grinning, so it must have been one of those soupy grins that comes over me at dreadfully serious moments. There was certainly nothing to grin at in what I saw, and inside myself I felt nothing but disgust and terror, which was exactly what I was supposed to feel: the Wall was perfect theater as well as a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad.
We forget the terror too easily. In my house at Königswinter, workmen had been painting the dining-room walls when the news of the first barricades came through. As good Germans they quietly washed their brushes and, as good family men, went home. In secret conclave, the Embassy discussed its evacuation plans. But where do you evacuate to, when the world is about to end? At Checkpoint Charlie, as the Friedrichstrasse crossing point quickly came to be known, American and Soviet Bloc tanks faced each other across a hundred-yard strip of road, their guns trained on one another’s turrets. Now and then they roared at each other with their engines, supposedly to keep them warm and ready to advance, but in reality they were psyching each other like boxers before the big fight. Somewhere beyond the Wall, networks of British and American and French and West German secret agents had been caught napping. None, to my knowledge, had forecast the event, and now they would have to live with their lack of success. Many of them probably had other allegiances anyway. Others would become what are called stay-behind agents, who would henceforth have to communicate by means of hidden radios and prearranged methods of secret writing, set up just for this eventuality. With the Wall, the espionage industry was going to become more clandestine, more perilous, more questionable, and certainly more overcrowded than ever before. What the Soviet agents thought—those who were now stuck in West Germany—I can only imagine. But of course they were not really stuck, merely condemned to greater inconve- niences in the administration of their secret lives.
And the Wall stayed up. It was strengthened and heightened. It was protected by mined strips and earth brushed so fine you could trace a rabbit’s paw across it. Occasionally someone climbed over it or crashed through it or dug under it, or made himself a glider and flew through it. There is a whole long history of tales of derring-do and all those men and women who succeeded in escaping were heroes, perhaps because they were so few, certainly because they were so brave. Reading today’s news from East Germany, those who remember the Wall can draw a direct line between the heroism of the few and the approaching liberation of the many. Our Western propaganda was in that sense entirely true: the East German régime was indeed hated by those it governed. The escapers were the vanguard of what is now a great popular army, and almost every accusation that was levelled against the corrupt barons of the East German leadership turns out to have been justified. Which perhaps makes my novel the more chilling.
What prompted me to write it? Where did the notion spring from? Oh, at this distance almost any answer is likely to be tendentious. I know that I was deeply unhappy in my professional life, and that I was enduring the extremes of loneliness and personal confusion. Perhaps some of that solitude and bitterness found its way into Alec Leamas. I know that I wanted to be in love, and that my own past, and my own inwardness, made this impossible. So perhaps the barbed wire and the machinations of the plot did duty for other obstacles that stood between myself and freedom. I had been poor too long, I was drinking a lot, I was beginning to doubt, in the deepest of ways, the wisdom of my choice of job. The familiar process of embracing an institution, then fighting my way clear of it, was taking over my relationship to my marriage and to my work. Staring at the Wall was like staring at frustration itself, and it touched an anger in me that found its way into the book. In interviews at the time, I am sure, I said none of this. Perhaps I was still too much of the spy, or perhaps I didn’t know myself well enough to understand that, by telling an ingenious tale, I was making some kind of bitter order out of my own chaos.
Certainly I never wrote this way again, and for a while the smart thing to say of me was that I was a one-book man, that The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was a grand fluke, and all the rest was aftercare. The book that followed it—The Looking Glass War—being much nearer to the reality and pain I had experienced, was dismissed by British critics as boring and unreal. And perhaps it was, for I don’t remember a single kindly British voice.
But the acclaim for The Spy had been so great that I was in for a hiding anyway, and knew it. My marriage broke up, I went through most of the withdrawal symptoms that fame instills in writers, even if they pretend it doesn’t. I found a new wise wife and put myself together. I had survived after all. I had no more excuses for not writing as well as I could, for not going each time to the edge of my talent, and seeing what was or wasn’t beyond.
But of course I will never forget the time when a disgusting gesture of history coincided with some desperate mechanism inside myself, and in six weeks gave me the book that altered my life.
JOHN LE CARRÉ, December 1989
Excerpted from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, copyright 1963 by le Carré Productions, copyright renewed 1991 by David Cornwell, appearing in John le Carré, The First Three Novels, published November 25 by Bloomsbury. Reprinted by permission of the author.