... it’s glimpses of the master novelist most readers will be eager for, and they’ll find them in his letters to family and avid readers; in appreciative notes to Graham Greene and avuncular advice to younger writers like Ben Macintyre; in his thanks to those who helped him with his research, smoothing his path as he traveled in search of honorable schoolboys and little drummer girls; and, just occasionally, in the flashes of the difficult man he was reputed to be, though these — understandably enough, in a volume intended to burnish his legacy rather than expose any dark side — are thin on the ground ... nobody would expect the creator of George Smiley — the master spy in the body of a bank manager — to be straightforward. Indeed, those of us for whom his work has been a lifelong source of complicated pleasure wouldn’t have it any other way ... edited and with illuminating notes by le Carré’s son Tim Cornwell, who sadly died before its publication, addresses both intimate and public themes, and in its closing pages offers a hint of future treasures.
Le Carré corresponds with an eclectic array of recipients ... The correspondence that makes up A Private Spy is capacious in theme, but a steady through line is work. These are, for all intents and purposes, business letters. Even the personal ones are mostly to do with his career.
There are not that many factual revelations ... But one devours this book not for purposes of truffling out new information but to enjoy, as with so many chronological collections of letters, a pleasing sense of a life unfolding as it was lived with no knowledge of the future or the significance of events ... Le Carré’s letters are often very witty, especially when he’s making fun of his own buttoned-up-ness ... There are letters to accountants and the like included to show his prosaic side, but what is striking is how many of these ephemeral missives have been written with the whole heart, and are worth reading over and over again ... What emerges from the book, in other words, is a human being, liberally studded with warts and lousy with virtues – noble and petty, generous (with money as well as time and praise) and thoughtless, self-pitying and brave, absorbed in his private battles with his demons and preternaturally attuned to the way the world works ... A brilliant book, le Carré’s final masterpiece.