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Made in Germany

An extract from John le Carré’s keynote address to the Think German conference, June 2010 in London.

Perhaps my usefulness this morning is that I am what in German is called freistehend, meaning I represent no institution or country, and can therefore make a fool of myself alone.
And that’s a privilege that I owe quite largely to the fact that, at the age of sixteen, I decided that eleven years’ hard labour in the English boarding-school gulag was enough for anyone, and in 1949 – only four years then after the war’s end – I bolted to Bern in Switzerland, determined to embrace the German soul.
Why German? Because for most of my conscious childhood Germany had been the rogue elephant in the drawing room. Germans were murderous fellows. They had bombed one of my schools (which I did not entirely take amiss); they had bombed my grandparents’ tennis court, which was very serious, and I was terrified of them.
But in my rebellious adolescent state, a country that had been so thoroughly bad was also by definition worth examining.
Also, one of the few things I had enjoyed about my schooling had been the German language, with which my tongue had formed a natural, friendly relationship.
Best of all I had a teacher who not only loved the language but was always at pains to remind his pupils that there was another Germany, a decent one, far removed from the one we thought we knew about, and that was the Germany we would be able to explore once we understood its language.
He said something else, and he must have said it often, because it rings in my ear to this day. He said that the love we have for other languages intensifies and explains the love we have for our own.
He might even have said, with Charlemagne, that to possess another language is to possess another soul.
Whatever he said, it was enough to send me off to Bern determined to immerse myself in German language and letters, quite ignorant of the fact that, for a student who is fighting his way to the celestial heights of High German, going to Bern was a bit like going to New Orleans to learn classical French.
With Bern as my springboard, and a German student as my guide and travelling companion, I visited the shattered Ruhr district, and shattered Berlin, and walked the empty alleys of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Nothing I have ever written in my life has been free of the German influences of my youth. In my most formative years I had, as a result of a blind act of adolescent anger, forfeited my British sixth form education. Suddenly, instead of Keats I had Hölderlin, instead of Byron, Heine, and for my narcissistic hours of self-adoration and impossible loves, The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Dramatically lost and alone in the cobbled winter streets of Bern, I recited Hermann Hesse’s Blutenzweig to myself: Seltsam im Nebel zu wandern, jeder ist allein, kein Baum kennt den anderen, jeder ist allein.
And because poetry didn’t buy the bread, I took part-time employment at the Zirkus Knie, washing elephants.
After Bern, I served for two years in the British Army of Occupation in Austria, as an Intelligence Officer. Military Intelligence, a wit once said, has as much to do with intelligence as military music has to do with music, but I did my best.
In the refugee camps where we trawled for information, the wretched inmates barely knew any more whether they were running away from the Germans or the Russians. But German was the only lingua franca.
At Oxford, I continued my study of German literature – if by German literature we mean the Bishop Ulfila’s translation of the Bible into Gothic, the Hildesbrandslied and the mysteries of Ablaut.
And from Oxford I went to Eton for two years, this time to teach German. In return, I received valuable instruction in the discreet criminality of the British upper classes.
And from Eton, by stages I gravitated to the British Foreign Service where, from inside its walls, I wrote my first novel – about Germany, of course, and the unreconciled heritage of its recent past.
And if, like all first novels, it was by turn mawkish, and selfconscious, and unsure of itself – apart from being a great work of genius, of course – it nonetheless foreshadowed many, if not all, of the novels I have written since.
Its protagonist, George Smiley, was unsurprisingly a Germanist. His chosen city, unsurprisingly, was Bern. His chosen period of German literature was its most terrible – until Hitler came along: the seventeenth century of Hans Grimmelshausen, and the Thirty Years War. His chosen protagonist was a German who had spied for him against Hitler – and was now spying for Communist East Germany.
But there was something else that was very German about that first novel – as there has been about many of my novels since – and something altogether less tangible.
I was young when I started writing about George Smiley – twentyeight – and Smiley was already old, a proxy father. But Smiley’s journey through the novel, despite his age, is the journey of a young man’s self-discovery. Underneath his inconspicuous exterior, he is a sensitive man still growing up, still looking for answers, and for the experience that delivers them.
In short: he is secretly young.
And Smiley’s private journey – from this first novel, right through to his last – for me at least, with the advantage of hindsight and no longer the responsibility of writing about him – is a single Bildungsroman that leads him through disappointments, mistaken loves, failures and occasional successes, to some kind of ultimate maturity: that is to say, to the point when he discovers that the object of his life’s search is neither the absolute enemy of his imagination, nor the absolute answer to his quest.
And in describing this journey I seem, perhaps unconsciously, to have drawn on Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, or Hesse’s Demian, or on Mann’s Magic Mountain.
God knows, I am not equating myself with these great men: any more than I am equating myself with the anonymous writer of the Nibelungenlied, or Wolfram von Eschenbach and his Parzival, although each of these mediaeval masterpieces is a Bildungsroman in the purest meaning of the term.
And this habit of narrative, that began with George Smiley, did not end on the day I decided that he must hang up his cloak for good: or not for me it didn’t. It persisted shamelessly through all the novels that followed it: take a life, subject it to a mishmash of experiences, good and bad, and see what comes out the other end. A Bildungsroman then, by any other name, and with a large ‘Made in Germany’ label attached to it.
All copyright with John le Carré.
The whole speech in English is available on the