9 January 2024

Since Le Carré's death, a series of publications have appeared that reaffirm that as well as linguistic skills, the author and his fictional figures shared several other traits, among them a deep-seated inclination for concealment and deception combined with an urge to escape and cover one's tracks. Obviously, these are useful, even essential characteristics in the world of espionage but sometimes devastating in real world relationships, as experienced both by the author and the characters who people his novels. 2022 saw the first publication of a selection of the author's letters edited by his son Simon Cornwell, A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré 1945-2020. One of his friends and correspondents was the actor and writer Stephen Fry. Suffering a breakdown in 1995, Fry had abruptly abandoned a London theatre production after only three nights and fled to the continent. Writing to the actor in this context in May, Le Carré offered advice on what he called "the escaping business" and proposed that, using his own contacts there, Fry should fly to Florida, charter a yacht and cruise the Exuma islands in the Bahamas for a fortnight, "at unbelievable expense". A suggestion from Fry himself that Germany might provide a suitable bolt hole was met on Le Carré's part by fascination that "the German muse sang to you at that moment" but also with some scepticism:

The next thing about escape, speaking as sth [something] of an artist in this field, if a failed one, is that Germany isn't, in the long run, funny enough. There may be a few laughs in Osnabrück but I never heard them. Husum, also low on laughs; Oldenburg a frost. I do think you cd [could] make a life in Munich (though you'd be too visible) or you could do worse than Wolfenbüttel, where the Herzog Albrecht [sic] Bibliothek would surely give you a reader's ticket or whatever, & the library is the nearest thing to heaven you'll get. The people, however, I'm not sure. But they seemed to be nice and loony.

Entrance ticket for John le Carré´s reading at the HAB

The Wolfenbüttel library has a certain history as a place of retreat, one of its most famous readers being the libertine and librarian Giacomo Girolamo Casanova. In May of 1764, after being accused of trying to cash a letter of credit under a false name in Braunschweig, Casanova secretly decamped for nearby Wolfenbüttel. He took lodgings at the "Crown of Spain (Spanische Krone)" and spent a week incognito in the reading room of the Bibliotheca Rotunda studying manuscripts. The episode is related in his memoir, Histoire de ma Vie, and Casanova's description of his experience prefigures Le Carré's assessment of the library as the "nearest thing to heaven":

I spent eight days without ever leaving [the library] except to go back to my room, and never leaving my room except to return there. ... I lived in perfect peace without ever thinking of the past or the future, my work stopped me from knowing that anything but the present existed.

Unlike the Caribbean, Wolfenbüttel was not one of Le Carré's own bolt holes, but two years previously he had visited the Wolfenbüttel library with his youngest son. His novel The Night Manager had just appeared and he was on his way to Moscow to undertake research for his next project. On the evening of the 17th August 1993, Le Carré gave a reading from several of his novels to a packed audience in the hall of the Bibliotheca Augusta. In its letter of invitation, the library had stressed that it held the largest collection of first editions by two authors Le Carré had studied at Oxford, Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, famous for his picaresque novel Simplicissimus, and Adam Olearius, whose 1647 description of his journeys to Moscow and Persia became a European best seller in the seventeenth century.

Title engraving of Adam Olearius, Offt begehrte Beschreibung Der Newen Orientalischen Reise, Schleswig 1647.

As a young student of German in Oxford, like his hero George Smiley, David Cornwell had briefly considered starting a university career with a dissertation on German Baroque literature before being recruited by the "secret world" that formed the basis of his novels. In Le Carré's first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), George Smiley hands in his resignation and goes home to "spend the afternoon pursuing Olearius across the Russian continent." In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), Smiley plans to sell his copy of Simplicissimus to an antiquarian bookseller because his unfaithful wife has plundered his bank account, whereas the traitor Magnus Pym, tracked down by Smiley in A Perfect Spy (1986), uses his worn copy of the same work as a code book for communication with his East German handler.

During his visit to Wolfenbüttel, I gave Le Carré and his son Nick a tour of the library stacks where we looked at various editions of the works of Grimmelshausen and Olearius that played such an important part in his novels. As a student in England, I had also once considered writing a dissertation on Olearius and had bought a second-hand copy of an English translation of extracts from his travel book. Now employed at the best library for early modern German studies, I felt no need to keep it and brought it from home and gave it to Nick Cornwell to take on his trip with his father to Moscow.

John le Carre's Notebook for his reading on 17th August 1993

In return, John Le Carré spontaneously presented me with a ring binder notebook containing the texts and notes he had used in his reading the night before, which he inscribed "This is how an inadequate Olearius toured his own little world at Wolfenbüttel on 17th August 1993. David aka John le Carré." The notebook, in which the author had stapled pages cut out from various works and linked them with his manuscript notes as a playbook for the evening, was presented to the library in December 2023, thirty years later, and is now part of the Wolfenbüttel Special Collections.

Cover image: John le Carré in the Augusteerhalle of the Bibliotheca Augusta, 17th August 1993

The author

Dr Jill Bepler was director of the Department of Fellowship Programmes and Scientific Events at the Herzog August Bibliothek until 2018. She is a member of the board of the HAB’s friends’ association, Gesellschaft der Freunde.