John le Carré: The Biography
By Adam Sisman | Bloomsbury | $29.99
Adam Sisman and David Cornwell have contrived to give us an engrossing biography of Cornwell’s literary persona, John le Carré. Sisman, already an accomplished biographer, was referred by an earlier would-be biographer of Cornwell, whose initial scepticism was allayed by reading Sisman’s An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper. They met and agreed on terms. Sisman would be given regular interviews, introductions to significant contacts, unrestricted access to the author’s voluminous archive, and comments on drafts, and Cornwell would not exercise a power of veto. This relationship between consenting wordsmiths, estimated to last four years, began well.
It was not long, however, before deception, a recurring theme in Cornwell’s life and le Carré’s novels, arose. While he was prepared to discuss his early work for MI5 at Oxford – he posed as a left-wing student and reported on his comrades – Cornwell wouldn’t talk about his time with MI6 in Europe in anything but the most general terms. When his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became a bestseller in 1963, the gritty verisimilitude of the story inspired direct questions, which he answered at the time with either lies or obfuscation. There, he quite plausibly took cover as a signatory to the Official Secrets Act. On other matters, large and small, Sisman often challenged Cornwell in interviews by insisting that the contemporary written record contradicted his present testimony. Here, the deception became much more interesting, both in how Sisman and Cornwell created their iteration of le Carré, and for biography more generally.
The discrepancies were not so much lies as stories – “legends,” in the language of “tradecraft” – that had been part of how Cornwell had rounded off the rough edges of experience and the imperfections of memory to fit narratives of his public and private lives. The interplay between biographer and subject in this case presents a fascinating study of the role of narrative in creating personal identity and the epistemological limits of biography.
If David Cornwell were to make his living, both as spy and novelist, by lying, he had an exemplar of the dark art of duplicity in his father, Ronnie Cornwell. Charming conman, Lothario, fraudster; he often involved his sons directly in his chicanery and embarrassed them with his repeated failure to pay school fees and the very public humiliation of his bankruptcy and imprisonment. David’s mother had left the family when he was five, consigning him and his brother to the erratic care of this ebulliently amoral parent, and in David’s case to “sixteen hugless years.” Although le Carré’s A Perfect Spy explored the later stages of this relationship in fictional form, Sisman has given us a chillingly detailed account of how all this compromised Cornwell’s capacity to find and express love well into his adult years. Right up until his death, Ronnie continued to impose on David, mostly at inopportune times.
Despite the deceit in Cornwell’s family and professional life, Sisman tells us very little about his actual work as a spy. Of course, there’s an abundance of detail about spying and associated tradecraft in le Carré’s novels, but Cornwell and some of his old colleagues say that it is fictionalised. We have to look elsewhere if we want to learn exactly how spying is done. What this biography offers is an engrossing account of how Cornwell’s experience, suitably filleted, and his rich imagination have been wrought into le Carré novels.
Sisman’s narrative of the interplay between private life, public persona and published work is made all the more engaging by the abundant detail he can give from the letters and other sources Cornwell made available. His exemplary skills take us into the intimate daily life of Cornwell and his family, friends and associates; there are many occasions where we feel that we are there as unseen observers. In some passages, indeed, it is possible to sense the emotional tension of the moment. All the light and shade, colour and movement that he gives to the narrative carry us along very willingly.
Sisman’s style is not unlike le Carré’s: clear and succinct but highly evocative in tone and rhythm, with a poetic sense of the work simple, well-chosen words can do. Qualities such as these are evident in his previous work, but his capacity for critical empathy, which he brings to this biography in such abundance, enlarges our sense of Cornwell, even though some corners of his world remain in the dark. The work achieves a delicate balance between deep engagement and critical detachment, a quality shared with other fine biographies.
A recurring theme is the process of making the novels – the distillation of ideas, the extensive on-site research, then a fiercely focused writing period. When Cornwell has a draft, he takes editorial advice from publishers and others, while constantly negotiating strategies to market and manage responses to the novel. Sisman tells us a good deal about Cornwell’s relations with his publishers, the book market and the film adaptation of the novels.
Sisman’s examination of the relationship between Cornwell and le Carré’s novels is adept. Seeing the Berlin Wall built fed directly into The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. His intimate relationship with Susan and James Kennaway informed The Naive and Sentimental Lover. His belief that Israel had squandered Jews’ moral capital in its treatment of the Palestinians was part of the inspiration for The Little Drummer Girl, just as his disgust at the behaviour of pharmaceutical companies drove him to write The Constant Gardener. More recently, anger at the cosy relationship between international financial institutions, criminal networks and compliant governments suffused the plot of Our Kind of Traitor. To some extent, all of the books are personal, and in that sense are part of the biography.
This is such a fine piece of work that it is difficult to imagine the need for another. Indeed, there’s a certain hubristic hint in the use of the definite article – the biography – in the title. But it never does to presume. Sisman recently told a BBC interviewer that Cornwell is working on his memoirs. It’s not clear whether as a right of reply or a companion volume. •