John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman

Review published on May 20, 2017.

Adam Sisman’s biography of David Cornwell (a.k.a. John le Carré) is a weighty tome; 652 pages, four years work and a great deal of research. There is much to admire; a strong prose style, an ear for the anecdote and a critical eye. The author makes good use of all that work with the minor caveat that the book is a little over-long in places.

This is more the biography of the writer rather than the man’s life story. Sisman has chosen to draw on the parallels in Cornwell’s life with the stories in the le Carré novels. This compare and contrast of real life with fiction is very successful. For all the novels, barring Mission Song, Sisman manages to demonstrate the link between people and events and the fictional characters and plot lines they spawn. A reader wanting to understand where Le Carré drew his inspiration from will gain a considerable insight here. Sisman explores the literature, questioning whether or not le Carré can be considered a great writer because his work is mostly spy fiction/genre based. There is, of course, no definitive answer. Anthony Burgess reviewing A Perfect Spy in 1986 wrote: “Mr. le Carré’s talents cry out to be employed in the creation of a real novel”, whereas Ian McEwan said of le Carré in 2013; “… He’s first rank”.

What comes through is that anyone wanting to understand the latter half of the twentieth century will find the novels educational, informative and valid as a means of getting to the heart of the establishment. Also, snobbery has held back a better opinion of his work for too long (perhaps he should have won the Booker before now). And le Carré’s characters are just as rounded and as real as most in literary fiction. Sisman offers insight into the films and TV adaptations and how they came to be made, as well as an understanding of the contemporaneous impact of the novels, but is not as strong on the retrospective acclaim and importance of the work. Terms such as ‘mole’ ‘Russia Station’ ‘circus’ and ‘Honey-trap’ may not have been invented by le Carré, but the specific usage and acceptance into the English language is down to him.

This biography reveals the depth of research Cornwell did to give his stories authenticity. Cornwell co-operated to a degree with Sisman (extensive interviews). However, there was a tension between the two at times and a frostiness is apparent in the book at certain points. Less than a year after publication le Carré brought out The Pigeon Tunnel (described as stories from a life, an autobiography effectively). In an article in the Guardian (September, 2016), Sisman highlights his frustration at this decision. Maybe le Carré was looking to set the record straight or maybe the biography just gave him the impetus for own version. Sisman’s work is grounded, verifiable and earnest, but le Carré relates stories as a raconteur, memoirs are often more fun. Cornwell tells the story of being sent to Paris by Ronnie to collect money from the Panamanian ambassador. The youth narrowly escaping seduction by the diplomat’s wife. A charming tale of innocence and naughtiness, Sisman notes, but the story was nowhere near as nuanced and entertaining when told to him.

This is the biggest issue with the biography. I suspect Cornwell would not wholly open up for the book and would prefer that a vague air of mystery remain about his life. So despite a lot of detail and insight from Sisman, Cornwell remains an enigma. Of course, it would be very difficult to speculate or further pin down a living subject. But it leaves a feeling of not quite having got to the heart of the man. Although Sisman does capture the sometimes contrary character of Cornwell, a man very sensitive to criticism (see the long-running spat with Salman Rushdie).

Cornwell has a genuinely fascinating life story. His mother left him at an early age, his father was a swindler, who made vast sums and frittered them away too. David was a spy in Bonn/Berlin at the height of the Cold War and arguably became one of the most influential novelists of the twentieth century, who knows, maybe the twenty-first too. A problem Sisman did encounter was that Cornwell was not willing to talk about being a spy (he takes the Official Secrets Act to heart and thinks some things need to remain in the past).

Sisman is very good at exposing the complex relationship David Cornwell had with his father, Ronnie. A conman, who failed at times to provide school and college fees, sought false alibis, demanded dodgy errands, made David a director of dubious companies and amassed substantial debts. Ronnie died in 1974, leaving David free to finally write about him. David first worked for British Intelligence in 1948 in Berne, he acquired fluent German, and graduated from Oxford with a first in 1955. Initially working at Eton, he then joined MI5 in 1958 and moved to MI6 in 1960. He was posted to Bonn, but was always a bit of an outsider. His first novel, A Murder of Quality, was published at this time – not a great crime novel but a fascinating social critique (murder in a public school setting). Well received, it introducing George Smiley. While in Germany, Philby and other scandals broke. David was unhappy and lonely, perhaps motivation for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which was published in 1963 to general acclaim: “The best spy story I ever read” Graham Greene; “The Spy story to end all spy stories” Yorkshire Evening Post.

In America it came out at the time of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Fleming. Sisman notes how the direct comparison showed Fleming to be ‘old fashioned, obsolete’. David was able to quit and write full time, winning the CWA gold dagger and the W. Somerset Maugham prize. Twenty more novels followed, (including The Looking Glass War, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, A Perfect Spy, The Russia House, The Night Manager, A Most Wanted Man and A Delicate Truth). Now a new book involving Smiley, Peter Guillam and ‘The Circus’ will be published in September.

This is a solid biography and a fine companion piece to the autobiography and the novels, but rather frustratingly for the author and the reader, this book finds it hard to get behind the enigma, David Cornwell, a man somewhat reticent to allow the author to get close to understanding what it is that makes him tick. After all, Cornwell was a spy in a former life.

Paul Burke 3/4

John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman
Bloomsbury Paperbacks 9781408849460 pbk May 2016

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