When John le Carré was running agents for the British secret intelligence service MI6 in the early 1960s, there were certain qualities he looked for in a candidate. Gregariousness, cocktail party charm, the ability to hold one’s drink — all of that mattered, of course. But above all, what le Carré wanted was “a sense of larceny,” as he explains during an interview at his north London home. “Somebody who enjoys the adventure and is not scrupulous about small stuff.”
In his new novel, “Agent Running In the Field” — set in modern-day Britain — the main character, Nat, is called out by his daughter about his lack of ethics. “For the sake of a country that you have serious reservations about, even very serious, you persuade other nationals to betray their own countries,” she tells him. Nat counters with an argument which le Carré admits is similar to his own: “I don’t think I persuaded anybody to do anything they didn’t want to do,” le Carré says. “I think I enabled them to do it and provided the protection.”
This morally murky world of spying is where le Carré continues to make his literary mark. “Agent Running in the Field,” which Viking will publish on Oct. 22, is his 25th novel. It comes only two years after his last, “A Legacy of Spies,” and shows that, approaching his 88th birthday, the author isn’t exactly slowing down.
“I have no real leisure activity,” le Carré says. “I am dismayed when I’m not writing, completely content when I am. I also find, thus far, that I’m unaware of any relaxation of my talent. I also am stimulated and appalled by the path my country has taken.”
“Agent” takes aim at Brexit and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose previous stint as foreign secretary is witheringly invoked. In the late 1950s le Carré taught foreign languages at Eton, Britain’s most elite all-boys’ boarding school. It gave him insight into a culture that has provided Britain with a production line of Old Etonian politicians, including Johnson.
“I’ve taught a dozen Johnsons,” le Carré says. “Eton does something extraordinary. It doesn’t teach you to govern. It teaches you to win. That’s what it’s about.”
Like “Legacy” before it, “Agent” taps into the disillusionment of aging spies who turn their backs on the British establishment after years of loyal service because the cause they once espoused has gone.
“There are a whole lot of things about the secret world that are shocking and unpleasant, but in the years when I worked for it there was at least a motive,” le Carré says. This motive, of course, was to win the Cold War, which at its most basic level was a war governed by opposing ideologies.
Le Carré got his first taste of “the secret world” in 1949 at 17 after running away from his English boarding school, which he detested. He ended up in Bern, Switzerland, where he came to the attention of a Swiss MI6 station while he was studying foreign languages at a local university. They soon tapped him for trivial jobs. “I didn’t quite know who I was working for then, but I was filled with a Boy Scout feeling of loyalty at that age because my wartime experience had produced only heroes — male heroes, school masters who came back in uniform,” he says.
The contrast with le Carré’s con man father, Ronnie, whose wayward life inspired his mesmerizing novel “A Perfect Spy” (1986), could not have been more pronounced. “I didn’t have any kind of orthodox upbringing,” says le Carré, who chose a French-sounding pen name to complement his birth name, David Cornwell. “I had to write my own ethics and morality, if you like.”
After college, le Carré completed two years of compulsory military service, which included running British agents into Soviet-occupied Austria. Then he returned to England and began working for MI5, the domestic branch of the British Security Service. After studying at Oxford and teaching at Eton he was recruited by MI6, the service’s foreign branch, in 1960. He left MI6 in 1964 to focus full-time on writing when his career exploded with the publication of his third novel, “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.”
That novel was inspired by the time le Carré spent running agents between West and East Germany, which left him with a deep love of German culture and language. Today he finds he can only sit down to a book for a couple of hours straight if it’s in German. “I assume I’m dyslexic because I’m a terribly slow reader and with time I get slower and slower,” he says. “But I find German probably just starts the old clock going of my student years. So I can sit down and really settle to a Thomas Mann short story.”
Le Carré, who accepted Germany’s Goethe Medal for his life’s work in 2011, believes an opportunity was missed when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. “There was no great leader who came forward and said ‘Listen, this is the moment to redesign the world,’” he says. “We had a great bit of after-lunch sleep and after that, what was there left to work with?”
Le Carré is furious that a similar “sleepwalk” of even more damaging proportions is being perpetrated with Brexit. “It began in the big landed houses of England,” he says. “That’s where the Brexit fantasy, the nostalgia for the suspicion of your German and your Frenchman and those chaps who weren’t much use in the war, that’s where that was born.”
In “Agent Running in the Field,” the fallout from Brexit ends up enabling “a covert Anglo-American alliance with the dual aim of undermining the Social Democratic institutions of the European Union and dismantling our international trading tariffs.”
Sound far-fetched? The British journalist and “McMafia” author Misha Glenny, who lent his expertise to details of Czech and Russian geopolitics in “Agent,” has been impressed by how ahead of the curve le Carré often is. “In the late 1990s he wrote ‘Single & Single,’ which was … incredibly perspicacious about what the economic impact of the collapse of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would be,” Glenny says.
According to the French-British lawyer Philippe Sands, le Carré bounces many of his ideas off his second wife, Jane Cornwell. “I think Jane plays a very important role intellectually,” says Sands, who bonded with le Carré over their opposition to the 2003 Iraq War and checks his manuscripts on points of law. “She is utterly on top of every detail in his books.”
Cornwell, a former book editor at Hodder & Stoughton, also types, which le Carré doesn’t. “I write in longhand,” he says. “I like to see it come back beautifully arranged in type and then hack it up and begin again. So Jane and I have worked on that process for the last 55 years or so.”
Family also plays a big part in adaptations of le Carré’s novels for the screen. Two sons from his first marriage, Simon and Stephen, founded the production company The Ink Factory in 2010, which has produced films like “A Most Wanted Man” and television mini-series like “The Night Manager” and “The Little Drummer Girl.”
“One of the biggest joys of my life, the greatest fun, the biggest romps, was doing ‘The Night Manager’ with the boys,” le Carré says. “It’s an amazing father-son relationship completely reversed: They’re now the bosses and they consult me, pick me up and put me down as they wish.”
According to le Carré, The Ink Factory now plans to do new television adaptations of all the novels featuring Cold War spy George Smiley — this time in chronological order. “That means that if you actually go back to the first big conspiracies in ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’ you’ve got to consider how Smiley ages and how young he was at that time,” le Carré says. That would mean finding an actor who can play younger than the Smiley incarnated by Gary Oldman in the film version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Le Carré says that his sons are interested in casting the British actor Jared Harris, whose performance they all admired in the recent TV mini-series “Chernobyl.”
For now, though, le Carré has other things on his mind. He and Jane are planning to take part in the People’s Vote march against Brexit in London on Oct. 19. “We worked with Europe for 47 years, and are espoused for better or worse to those 27 countries,” le Carré says. “Now the government is trying to sell us the idea that we’ve got enemies. Excuse me, but this is not patriotism. This is nationalism.”