Having turned 84 last month, John le Carré, aka David (John Moore) Cornwell, knows that he isn’t around for too long. His decision, four years ago, to finally yield to a biography — one which would actually get published — will be rationalised as reconciliation with the inevitable. Writing the biography of a living person, let alone a writer, is a thankless task. The biographer ends up losing the confidence of her subject — and gets pilloried if the end-product smacks in the least bit of hagiography. When that subject is John le Carré, spy-turned-bestselling-author for five-plus decades, who’s suspected to have fictionalised his life into art and turned his real life into a shadowy labyrinth, we must acknowledge the challenge Adam Sisman accepted in attempting to extract Cornwell from le Carré — and then ambitiously subtitling his book “The Biography”.
Others had tried before Sisman came along, most memorably the writer Robert Harris, who got Cornwell’s approval two decades ago, only to be shown the door by le Carré who wasn’t ready to open it yet. In response to Sisman’s proposal, Cornwell had replied, “There are huge hindrances… my own messy private life, the demise of so many people I worked with or otherwise knew, and my habitual reluctance to discuss my very limited and unspectacular career in intelligence.” But it was Sisman’s biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper (he’s also written biographies of AJP Taylor and James Boswell) that won him access to Cornwell’s private archives, in a converted garage, and 50 hours of interview with the world’s greatest spy novelist whose best work of fiction is his own life — and who had unequivocally declared: “I’m a liar… Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist.”
Sisman, 61, has been a le Carré fan since his teens but Cornwell and he are strangers till the end, not quite friends. On his first day among Cornwell’s private papers in the garage, Sisman had kept the door open and at “one point a shadow over my shoulder caused me to look up, and there was David in the doorway. ‘It’s very strange to have you here, poking about in my mind,’ he said with a grin.” Their relationship warms over the four years of Sisman’s research, but the tension is detectable and acknowledged. Because readers of “a biography of a living person are bound to be curious about the conditions under which it was written”, Sisman says he has “endeavoured to preserve the splinter of ice in my heart that every writer needs, according to Graham Greene.” But did Cornwell get in the biographer’s way? Undoubtedly. Why else would Sisman claim, “I hope to publish a revised and updated version of this biography in the fullness of time…”.
“Though famous, le Carré remains unknown. He has perfected the art of hiding in full view — or, as Americans say, in plain sight.” After The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) made him famous, le Carré spent the next decades constructing his own myth. Such a character would abhor a biography and he tells Sisman, “I know it’s supposed to be warts and all… but so far I can gather it’s going to be all warts and no all.” Despite the clear red lines, Cornwell can’t be too pleased with Sisman. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have immediately sold his “memoir”, called The Pigeon Tunnel, for publication next year.
Where Sisman shines is with Cornwell’s childhood. Cornwell’s mother abandoned him and his older brother Tony when David was only five. The boys came to be raised by their father Ronnie, a Bentley-owning conman and psycho-sexual tyrant who floated between bankruptcy and affluence, having been twice imprisoned. Ronnie would later make a living by blackmailing David and once even impersonated his famous son to sleep with a woman. Magnus Pym’s father, in A Perfect Spy (1986), is Ronnie himself. Perhaps, at the core of le Carré’s self-definition as a liar and his lifelong discomfort with the opposite sex — his first wife Ann had told him his women characters just aren’t real — lies this childhood abandonment by his mother and the lifelong treachery of his father? Le Carré has famously observed earlier, “People who have had very unhappy childhoods… are pretty good at inventing themselves.” Yet, at every step, from spying on his left wing friends in Oxford for MI5 to his Bonn assignment by MI6, how could Cornwell not have grown into lying for a living? Sisman nails the fundamental truth of the le Carré-Cornwell dichotomy: “In the narrative of his life, fact and fiction have become intertwined. One suspects that le Carré enjoys teasing his readers, like a fan dancer, offering tantalising glimpses but never a clear view of the figure beneath.”
For le Carré, the prospect of biography ultimately entails a battle between vanity and mortality. Sisman makes le Carré’s long engagement with the problem clear: “It was obvious to me from the outset that David had thought deeply about biography. One of my difficulties has been to keep up with him; all too often he has anticipated my question and formulated his reply before it has even occurred to me.” And Sisman’s final judgment? “I have sometimes felt like a whaler in my skiff, being towed by a leviathan.” Thus, Sisman takes the decision, very early on, to not rely on Cornwell’s own testimony too much. It’s not just the latter’s penchant for “fictional recreation”. Time, too, makes Cornwell’s recollection of cause and effect unreliable. Sisman, working on the principle that “all memory is fallible”, often corrects Cornwell via others’ testimonies.
But as far as Cornwell’s career in intelligence is concerned, the obstacle is not merely false memory. He wrote to Sisman flatly, “I am bound, legally and morally, not to reveal the nature of my work in SIS.” Cornwell’s loyalty to old German contacts and the Official Secrets Act means Sisman has to reconstruct this phase from third-party sources and it is a very good effort. The exploration of Cornwell’s psychological ambivalence and conflicting public and private statements on wishing to meet Kim Philby — incidentally, the man who blew le Carré’s cover — on a visit to Moscow in 1987, for instance, also helps explain the complexities of a life in espionage, in which spies quite often come to identify with the enemy.
Sisman breaks through the le Carré magic and myth. But not quite. This is where his very readable biography fails, at least for now. We don’t really see Cornwell, certainly not well enough. Le Carré’s politics stopped being sensible when it crossed the line between anti-establishmentarianism and fiery red. Between anti-war protests against the Iraq invasion and virulent anti-Americanism, alas, falls the shadow. A Delicate Truth (2013) revealed how moral ambiguity and psychological complexity can harden into an unrelenting worldview in an old writer. Yet, Sisman decries the Anthony Burgess-Clive James line of condescension towards le Carré’s literary merit and upholds the Philip Roth-Ian McEwan tradition of hailing him as a giant of the letters. Roth famously called A Perfect Spy the “best English novel since the war”. The best genre novelists break the rules and transcend the genre. In the end, there are, indeed, only good novelists and bad novelists. There’s no debate on which sort le Carré is.
John le Carré: The Biography
Author: Adam Sisman