In “John le Carré: The Biography” Adam Sisman chronicles the mysterious life of the British writer considered by many to be the greatest espionage novelist of all time.
“John le Carré: The Biography”
by Adam Sisman
Harper, 672 pp., $28.99
For decades, John le Carré’s books have been the gold standard against which all literary espionage fiction is measured. A le Carré book combines a powerful grasp of the spy world’s slippery morality with a gift for intricate plots and subtly drawn characters.
In the eyes of many (we know who we are), no one else comes close.
It takes a distinguished biographer to tackle a distinguished subject, and Adam Sisman is a good choice. He has previously tackled such iconic literary figures as James Boswell, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He draws on many sources for this new book, including extensive interviews with his subject. (The writer has vigorously discouraged previous attempts at biography.)
Le Carré found fame early. Born David Cornwell in 1931 in Poole, England, he skyrocketed to fame in 1963 with his third novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” Many more books followed, including “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and two sequels chronicling the brilliant, mild-mannered spy George Smiley’s hunt for a mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service, a story that tragically mirrored the real-life story of double agent Kim Philby, a high official in the British intelligence service.
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Until the collapse of the Iron Curtain, most of le Carré’s books were set in the Cold War. Since then, he has focused on topics of global concern and intrigue, such as the international arms trade. Many have been made into movies (“The Constant Gardener,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”).
Cornwell/le Carré had a strange, unhappy childhood, dominated by his father Ronnie. Cornwell senior was a charming ne’er-do-well, a con man who left a trail of unpaid bills while promoting phony schemes and dodging the law. (The writer’s mother abandoned them when Cornwell was a boy.)
Not surprisingly, le Carré had a complex relationship with his father, one that was recast in several le Carré books, most notably in his novel “A Perfect Spy.” When Ronnie died, his son paid for the funeral but did not come.
After graduating from Oxford University, Cornwell taught school while considering careers in commercial art or acting. His theatrical talent for assuming new identities served him well in his eventual professions: spy and novelist.
While still young, Cornwell was recruited into the Foreign Office and then MI5 and MI6, England’s rough equivalents to the FBI and CIA. As a young man he infiltrated Communist-leaning student groups, then transferred to Germany. Fluent in German, he became an interrogator/interviewer of informants to assess usefulness and collect intelligence.
During this period, while stationed in Bonn as an intelligence officer, Cornwell began writing under a pseudonym. (The origin of this name — “the Square” in French — remains appropriately murky.) After “Spy’s” success, le Carré resigned to write full time.
In Sisman’s telling, his subject is fascinating and enigmatic: a charismatic, dynamic charmer who is also a recluse, a sometime (but reformed) adulterer, and a crank who does not suffer fools gladly.
Sisman’s portrait is cogent, tirelessly researched, and always absorbing. It’s also massive, and sometimes overly detailed: Do we really need to know about the guests who appeared alongside le Carré on the 1960s game show “To Tell the Truth”?
On the other hand, some of the details are terrific. Who knew that the actor Stephen Fry sent the writer a shameless, gushing fanboy letter that resulted in warm correspondence?
Near the end of his book, Sisman quotes le Carré, now in his 80s, on aging. Growing old was always in the contract, the writer comments — he just didn’t think it would be delivered so soon. Considering that le Carré’s still writing, let’s hope that the final delivery date is a long way off.