Book review: in search of the real John le Carré in his wilderness of mirrors

The cold war thriller writer divides critical opinion but Adam Sisman’s new biography reveals that le Carré’s greatest creation was perhaps himself

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 3:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 October, 2015, 11:30am

John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman (Bloomsbury Publishing) 

In literature, posterity is the name of the game. Espionage novelist John le Carré (aka David Cornwell), who knows this only too well, has been flirting with the idea of his biography since 1989, with many second and third thoughts. Quite a few le Carré watchers believed that his complicated alter ego would never surrender to the biographer’s torments. In the end, the writer’s approaching rendezvous with oblivion tipped the balance, and he struck a deal with Adam Sisman.

The upshot is a fascinating truce between candour and guile. Sisman must have known what he was risking, but possibly underestimated the fathomless complexity of his subject. Besides, who could capture le Carré, a romantic “lost boy” whose appetite for telling his own story can only be satisfied by enthralling reinvention?

From the outset, Sisman has had to negotiate with a subject whose first instinct is to seduce those who come close to him within a wilderness of mirrors, in which vanity reflects insecurity reflects pride.

Cornwell obviously retains a deep ambivalence towards this version of himself; and Sisman has also acquired some reservations about Cornwell, whom he awkwardly identifies as “David”. In a rather queasy introduction, he makes it clear that he’s had a testing time, and more or less concedes that he has occasionally been leaned on by his subject.

Still, this book fulfils almost every expectation. Sisman has immersed himself in an extraordinary life story and reported it with exemplary dedication.

“David”, I suspect, will not relish what Sisman has done to “le Carré”, which is to strip away a lot of the magic. At the same time, the biographer’s truths, painstakingly quarried from an airy mountain of fabrication, have their own engrossing authenticity. Beyond the sensational headlines of newspaper serialisation – notably a ’60s menage a trois with the novelist James Kennaway and his wife Susan – Sisman has also re-examined crucial aspects of Cornwell’s life with cold precision.

Le Carré has already fictionalised his father Ronnie in A Perfect Spy, but the MI5 man who asked “Forgiven your father yet?” was on the money. Not until Ronnie’s death is the son released from his old man’s intolerable interventions. Cornwell senior made and lost several fortunes and was twice imprisoned for fraud.

To this faded family portrait, Sisman adds some splashes of colour, but also darkens it. Ronnie emerges as more sinister: a wife beater, a sexual tyrant and, according to one crooked associate, “very, very bent”. About Cornwell’s mother, Olive, who fled the family home when her son was five years old, leaving a lifelong antagonism towards the opposite sex, Sisman has less to say, which is disappointing.

Sisman gives chapter and verse for a diminished portrait of le Carré, the cold war spook, but Cornwell was always more interested in his predicament as an Englishman in the aftermath of empire. This was the subject of the great sequence of fiction by which he will be judged in the long term: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People and A Perfect Spy, which was described by Philip Roth as “the best English novel since the war”.

Here, the old argument about le Carré’s achievement breaks out afresh. To Roth, Ian McEwan and many others, he is one of the greats. To Anthony Burgess and Clive James, among the naysayers, he is a self-inflated thriller writer. Tactful but not ecstatic, Sisman seems to side with le Carre’s distinguished fans, but his biography reports one inescapable verdict: that le Carré has spent his career mythologising himself and his work. Rarely has there been a more passionate marriage between life and art.

The Guardian