He was, as Margaret Atwood said, “a towering writer;” historian Simon Sebag Montefiore called him “the titan of English literature.”
“As a writer he transcended mere genre,” John Banville told The Guardian, “showing that works of art could be made out of the tired trappings of the espionage novel — The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of the finest works of fiction of the 20th century. As a deviser of plots and a teller of stories, he was at the same level of greatness as Robert Louis Stevenson. His books will live as long as people continue to read.”
John le Carré died of pneumonia on December 12 in his native England at the age of 89. If you’ve been a reader of his, your sorrow at the news may have, like mine, been mixed with the awe at his legacy as a storyteller, and with the anticipation of getting back to his books to revisit it.
“Writers and spies [share] the same ‘corrosive eye,’ as Graham Greene put it: that wish to penetrate the surface to the centre and truth of things.” That’s from an Economist eulogy earlier this week for the man who was born David Cornwell. It was under that name, of course, that he had a career as an intelligence officer for Britain’s MI6 before he started publishing stories of spies in 1961 as le Carré.
And the hockey connection? With thanks to Denis Gibbons, the distinguished hockey journalist, author, and fellow member of the Society of International Hockey Research who alerted me to the photo here, I’ve got one of those to shop.
Cornwell’s career in intelligence came to an end in 1964. Working out of the British Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, he was one of the agents whose cover was betrayed to the KGB by the infamous British double agent Kim Philby, a member of the Cambridge Five.
Philby was the inspiration for le Carré’s most famous novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), the first work in his Karla trilogy.
As for the man himself, Philby defected to Moscow in 1963. As Ben Macintyre details in his 2014 book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, he spent his initial years more or less under house arrest, writing his memoirs. Eventually, in the early 1970s, the KGB put him to work, mostly in the service of their disinformation departments, making stuff up to confound Western spy agencies.
Philby also, it seems, had a gig as a sports psychologist. As Macintyre writes:
He did odd jobs for the Soviet state, including training KGB recruits and helping to motivate the Soviet hockey team — even though, as [his former friend, the MI6 intelligence officer Nicholas] Elliott once noted, he was addicted to cricket and “showed no interest whatsoever in any other sort of sport.”
I’d love to know more about the hockey motivation, of course. Macintyre’s phrasing, so far as it goes, seems to suggest he worked with the Soviet national team, which would make sense. Did he also consult for CSKA Moscow, the so-called Red Army team, or others? The team he’s shown with here, Dynamo Moscow, was in Soviet days associated with the Ministry of Interior and the KGB, so maybe did they alone command Philby’s counsel?
For the record, the year this photograph was taken, 1977-78, Dynamo finished second that year in the Soviet championship, 13 points behind CSKA. North American browsers of the Dynamo line-up will recognize the names Valeri Vasiliev, Alexander Maltsev, maybe a few others. CSKA’s manpower included Vladislav Tretiak, Valeri Kharlamov, Vladimir Petrov, Helmut Balderis, Viacheslav Fetisov, Boris Mikhailov, and Vladimir Lutchenko.
On a visit he made to Moscow in 1987, le Carré had a chance to meet Philby. “It was tough to resist,” the writer told George Plimpton in a 1997 Paris Review interview, “but I did. The invitation was renewed and I still wouldn’t go. Then a British journalist, Phil Knightly, went and saw Philby right at the end of his life. Philby knew he was dying. Knightly said, What do you think of le Carré? Philby replied, I don’t know. I quite like the books, but the fellow doesn’t care for me. He must know something about me.”
Like Mikhailov and Tretiak, Kim Philby was a recipient of the Order of Lenin, the Soviet Union’s highest reward for meritorious service. When Philby died in 1988, a postage stamp was issued to commemorate his life. He was accorded a grand funeral with a KGB honour guard.
Kim Philby’s grave is in Kuntsevo Cemetery, outside Moscow. As it so happens, Valeri Kharlamov and Vsevolod Bobrov are buried there, too.