Not many biographies begin in detail at a subject’s earliest years and grab the reader’s interest from the very first pages. The life of John le Carré – aka David Cornwell – is exceptional though. With a mother who abandoned him when he was a small child; a lying, flamboyant conman for a father; an early career as a spy; followed by life as one of the world’s most successful – and intriguing – writers, le Carré’s story is gold for any biographer.
That biographer is Adam Sisman and while this is an ‘authorised’ biography, there’s nothing fawning about it. It’s a meticulous and even-handed attempt to reveal the man who writer Ian McEwan describes as “the most significant novelist of the second half of the 20th century”. Le Carré, now 84, had previously refused to cooperate with any would-be biographers and his own attempts at memoir have come to nothing. Until now, no writer has enjoyed the access that Adam Sisman did while writing this superb biography of John le Carré.
Le Carré gave Sisman access to his own archives, supplied introductions to friends and acquaintances and granted him lengthy interviews at home (“amounting to perhaps fifty hours in total” says Sisman). Le Carré’s only stipulation was that Sisman show “due respect to the sensitivities of living third parties”. The result is a thoroughly researched story that appears to tell it like it was. As le Carré complains to Sisman during one interview, “I know it’s supposed to be warts and all, but so far as I can gather it’s going to be all warts and no all.” What Sisman does do is give due appreciation of the man’s work and credits him with his rightful place – as one of the great writers of the past 60 years.
Sisman details the writer’s earliest days, including the “hugless” year, as le Carré himself describes them, after his mother abandons the family when le Carré is just five-years-old, leaving him and brother Tony with their philandering father and a series of girlfriends, then beleaguered stepmother. What follows are harsh years in the British private school system, detested by le Carré, and a series of moves around the country to evade his father’s debts and deceptions (for which his father even receives a prison term at one point).
Le Carré opens up to Sisman about these formative years and even reveals some details of his first few years of employment, previously kept secret, for the British secret services – MI5 and MI6 – and his own spying; years that gave him such fertile content for so many of his novels. Le Carré’s early spy books draw directly on his experiences in post war Germany and his time in the service and paint a bleak, realistic world, as opposed to say the glamorised versions of spying from follow spy writer, Ian Fleming.
Sisman goes into detail on le Carré’s works and influences, his early years of marriage, marriage breakdown, and his serial womanising for which le Carré often detests himself. He depicts his profound friendship with other authors – such as James Kennaway, whose wife he had an affair with, and that formed the basis of le Carré’s non-spy novel The Naive and Sentimental Lover. We hear about his phenomenal early success – his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, going to the top of the New York Times bestseller list as le Carré breaks into the US market.
The fact that so many le Carré novels have been made into highly successful movies and television series means there are plenty more fascinating celebrity stories running through Sisman’s commentary including parts played by such luminaries as Richard Burton, Liz Taylor and Alec Guinness. There are many anecdotes about his friendships with fellow legendary writers too, such as Graham Greene. And there are his infamous, very public spats with the likes of Salman Rushdie.
Despite the success and the fame and money that accompanied it, Sisman describes how le Carré has remained sensitive to criticism all his life – hearing only the bad, not the good, never feeling he is accepted into the British literati of his day and never quite acclaimed as a ‘literary’ writer. His phenomenal popularity with the masses has sometimes drawn scorn from quarters of the British literary establishment. When the Berlin War came down and the Cold War ended, many critics wondered what John le Carré could possibly write about next.
The New York Times summed it up nicely in this review of the Sisman book: “The debate, often fuelled
by commercial envy and mandarin snobbery, about whether he is a genre writer who ‘transcends’ the genre or a serious writer of distinction is by now so tired as to be pointless. He is by any standard one of the important literary figures of the postwar period.”
Le Carré’s often obvious anti-Americanism, the mystery around his own spy background, and his sometimes questionable relationship with the truth, continually saw him draw flak from some quarters of the British press. This, and his unhappy childhood, are the more poignant elements, detailed by Sisman, of a life that by any measure could be described as highly successful. We also hear a great deal about le Carré’s business affairs – his record advances, making and breaking deals with publishers, moving between literary agents, as his fame and fortune rises around the world, as well as interesting details about his writing habits as he retreats further from London into his Cornish retreat.
Sisman takes us right up to the present day, painting a picture of a man driven by a burning need for success and showing no signs of slowing down, even in his 80s. But le Carré is still confounding his critics, producing many more outstanding works this century, including The Constant Gardener and Our Kind of Traitor. So why would he?
© Images from John le Carré: The Biography, reproduced courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing