John Le Carré: The Biography
Bloomsbury Publishing, 672 pages
(Reviewed for the Business Standard, November 2015)
In the spring of 2011, Adam Sisman went through John Le Carré’s papers for the first time, examining the contents of boxes stacked in a converted garage near his home in Tregiffian, Cornwall. (Le Carré is addressed by his real name, David Cornwell, all through Sisman’s biography.)
“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.”’
John Le Carré: The Biography (Bloomsbury), all 652 pages of it, is as much an exercise in untangling truth from lies, shadow-selves and doppelgangers from the real Cornwell, as any of Le Carré’s towering Cold War classics. Sisman presides over Cornwell’s world like a biographer’s version of Smiley holding the Circus together.
And it is quite a Circus: in his telling, Le Carré’s life is shot through with loyalties and betrayals, the looming mirrored presences of Cornwell’s charismatic, devouring con-man father Ronnie and the spy Kim Philby in his life. There are the friendships and the affairs, the thousand demands, pitfalls and seductions of fame, all of it propelled by Cornwell’s lifelong fascination with what people, and governments, wished to keep concealed, his cold-eyed understanding of both the idealism and the immorality of espionage.
Sisman’s biography has one great failure: David Cornwell has consistently refused to discuss his own life in intelligence, minimising the years he spent in MI5 and MI6. And there is an unexpected success: this is a biography written for writers and readers interested in writing as much as it speaks to those Le Carré fans obsessed with Cold War and post-Cold War politics.
As a child, David and his brother Tony lived in a world of shadowy uncertainty: Ronnie Cornwell’s schemes sent them ricocheting from bankruptcy back into “marvellous” times, a life of “exhilarating insecurity”. Ronnie served time in prison; he threw splendid parties when he came out. He showered the boys with presents; he came back home drunk, roughly pawing them while they pretended to be asleep.
David was five when his mother left Ronnie and the boys. For a long while afterwards, he and Tony saved up their pocket money hoping to go and visit Olive. “We were frozen children, & will always remain so,” he wrote decades later. Sisman notes that this early abandonment recurs in his books, littered with motherless or deserted protagonists, and suggests it also made it hard for Cornwell to write about women. “Whenever I start to write a female character, Olive always seems to get in the way,” Cornwell admitted.
Cornwell ran agents at MI5, and supplemented his income by illustrating books. He sat in the pet department at Harrods to sketch parrots for two books on birds by Max Knight, who had a double life as a naturalist and as a spymaster, known to his colleagues as “Uncle Max”.
He doesn’t remember how he came up with Le Carré as a pseudonym, but explained that he thought breaking up a name in two parts and giving it a slightly foreign tinge would help set it in people’s minds. He must have imagined a double life for himself: the private universe of the career intelligence officer, while his pseudonymous self wrote books.
His first novels — Call For The Dead, A Murder of Quality – went out to critical acclaim, modest sales; his publisher, Victor Gollancz, increased his advance from £ 100 to £ 150. The publisher’s reader, Sheila Hodges, admired the wit and the urbanity, but wrote to Gollancz: “I only hope that he will return to espionage, which he handles so outstandingly well.” His next book was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: its squalid settings and moral ambiguity, Sisman suggests, marked it as special from the outset.
It was a success; it was a bestseller as well, but Sisman is wise to focus on the excitement The Spy Who Came In From The Cold created in that age, as Kim Philby was unmasked as a traitor, as Cornwell’s marriage went from bad to miserable. Graham Greene wrote to Gollancz: “I suppose it’s asking too much of you to tell me even in confidence what his real name is?” Cornwell was soon outed, and had to resign from Special Intelligence Services. It took him time to adjust to fame and wealth; it was, he told a friend, “like being in a car crash”.
His Cold War novels did far more to capture the zeitgeist of those times – the paranoia, the ever-present sense of threat, the ruthless defence of often elusive freedoms – than many hisories, and Sisman is wise to skirt the boring discussions over whether Le Carré was a “genre” writer or a literary writer, as if one precluded the other.
The decades brought their share of battles. He and Rushdie sparred for 15 bitter and petulant years, over Le Carré’s criticism of the Satanic Verses. Neither writer, both great in their own way, shows to advantage in their exchanges, and it was a relief when they set the feud to one side, making peace in 2012. Ronnie left a trail of bad debts and shattered acquaintances behind him; the two columns on Cornwell’s father in the Index include pithy entries such as “trial and imprisonment for fraud”, “bankruptcy”, “racehorse owning”, “second bankruptcy”, “arrests in Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong”, and finally, “estate and posthumous debts”.
In the post-Cold War years, Cornwell slipped with admirable dexterity into other explorations – he excavated the pharma industry, reinvented the espionage novel as a parable of human fallibility, and his travels gave him a fresh set of encounters. “Mr John, why have you come here?” Yasser Arafat asked him. “Mr Chairman, I’ve come to put my hand on the Palestinian heart,” he responded. He recorded, later, that the PLO chairman carried a silver-coloured pistol, and smelled of baby powder.
In his later years, Cornwell has ducked some honours, turning down a knighthood, asking for his name to be taken off the list of contenders for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, accepting other prizes, weaving a skilful path between the pleasures and the pitfalls of fame.
In his eighties, he remains a writer. He still maintains the discipline that took him through 23 novels and five decades as one of the world’s most influential authors. Writing to a friend at 84, he declined an invitation politely but firmly: “The writing days have become so precious, and necessarily so short, that I have to hoard every one of them.”