John le Carre by Adam Sisman


Literary biography can be a tricky thing.  An academic writing about another academic, author or poet, can usually result in a book that is worthy and as dry as the sahara.  For some, these are wonderful books, for me, I’d rather eat one than wade through it.  But, when a biography of one of your favourite authors is released, you have to take the plunge and hope for the best.  Hopefully the subject of the biography has lead an interesting life, which is not always the case with authors.  For the most part, what authors create is far more interesting than the lives they lead.  In a few cases, the author’s life is more interesting than their creations.  But, very rarely, do they mesh as well as David Cornwell’s.

Adam Sisman’s biography of the man behind John le Carre is one that has been mooted for years.  In fact, I was at an event at the LSE a couple weeks back and was fortunate  enough to meet and have a chat with Robert Harris.  When I mentioned I was reading Sisman’s book he joked that he was still sure he had a contract to write it.  Cornwell’s life has been as much of a mystery as any of the thrillers he has created.  He has woven his past into innumerable novels and characters and has told tales of his past many times, each time differently.  Sisman was granted unlimited access to Cornwell’s archive in Cornwall and many hours with the man himself.  The result is explained by Sisman in the introduction: 

Such discrepancies, if they are discrepancies, are not, in my opinion, examples of bad faith, but merely evidence that David, like all of us, edits his past as he revisits it, which he does more than most people…  In my narrative I have occasionally drawn attention to what seem to me examples of false memory on David’s part, and I hope that readers will find these interesting rather than a distraction.

Cornwell is quoted as saying that the book, rather than being warts and all, will be “warts and no all!”  Needless to say the triumphs, tragedies and darkness of Cornwell are all on display.  Sisman clearly is as much a fan of Cornwell as we are and at times he will give Cornwell a bit of leeway when he is being “difficult”.  But, given his upbringing, its a wonder he made it out alive at all.

Throughout the tale of Cornwell’s life, possibly greater than anything else in it, is the spectre of his father, Ronnie.  Ronnie Cornwell was the classic English chancer.  Constantly robbing Peter to rip off Paul, David Cornwell’s life is littered with the destruction that his father caused.  The opening chapter of the book is aptly called “Millionaire Paupers”.  Living a life of luxury while increasingly aware of the misery his father was creating, the seminal moment in his young life was when his mother, having had enough of the emotional and physical abuse, packed a bag and left without a glance back at the two sons she was leaving behind.  This betrayal would haunt Cornwell as much as the spectre of his father.  Through school, private of course, fending of his masters questions of his fathers race horses while they waited for him to pay his son’s school fees, the Cornwell boys were dragged into a life dictated by the whims and machinations of their father.  This had the effect of Cornwell building defences around him that he even found himself dwarfed by, coupled with the need to do some good, any good, even if, after being approached by MI:5, that meant spying on his friends.  The years of Cornwell’s life between university and the success that flooded him with the publication of his third book, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, are fascinating.  Cornwell escapes to Switzerland and Austria, before falling in love with German.  Taking teaching jobs to pay the bills with his young family and still being roped into things by his father.  His time in both the MI’s is rather patchy as Cornwell still refuses to open up about this, so Sisman’s detective work comes into play and while the years in the spooks employ is patchy, the tales and friendship that evolve more than make up for it.  Men like Vivian Green and John Bingham who would form the basis for George Smiley had an indelible affect on him.  Some of the other titbits that Cornwell filled away would be moulded, polished and refined into the wonderful tales he would later write.  When Sisman’s tale reaches the books, he gathers both the time and the place where Cornwell was, describes the circumstances that moulded the book and works with Cornwell as he refines and edits his way to the novels that made his alter-ego a worldwide success.  It is interesting tracing the rise of the success with the strains it placed on his marriage and friendships, how the books, much like his Graham Greene, took so many aspects of his current life and developed into the people he populated his pages with.

David Cornwell on his beloved Cornish coast.

David Cornwell on his beloved Cornish coast.

As euphoric as the successes are, the books that didn’t works are equally examined.  The relationship with James and Susan Kennaway that morphed into The Naive and Sentimental Lover was too autobiographical for his thriller readership, despite its 1960’s release.  But it did lead into the return of Smiley and Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy and an unprecedented run of success.  It is in the midst of the most famous novels that Sisman takes the time to examine both the man and the work, pealing back the various versions of the life Cornwell lived and crafts a compelling narrative.  Even in the parts of the tale you don’t find too interesting, the author’s wallowing in the lack of critical respect (despite some very funny negative reviews), the spectre of the great novels to follow loom and Sisman’s light touch guides you onward.  But, throughout, is the shadow of Ronnie.  There are points, such as after the success of Spy Ronnie’s adventures are far more interesting than the son’s, but Sisman balances the villain out well, never spending too much on Ronnie and always counter pointing his actions with the results dished out upon the sons and half brothers.  In 1979, for example, Cornwell considered hiring a researcher to track his fathers trail down, but soon realised his father’s life was as much a fiction as anything he’d created.  His notes on this period become the bones of A Perfect Spy, as close to an autobiography as Cornwell has, as yet, come to writing.

The task that Sisman has undertaken here is giant and yet he carries it off with a deft hand and lightness of touch.  Even in the dark moments, Sisman’s own judgement of his subject is tempered enough to allow the reader to choose which side of the fence to come down on.  The prose is engaging and fluid, which is essential for a book of this length.  The only real criticism I would have is that not as much time is spent on the recent, more angry, le Carre tales as he does on the classics.  With such timely novels as A Most Wanted Man and Our Kind Of Traitor, Sisman has mostly shot his bolt by this point and they are referenced in the same style but not the same depth.  

John le Carre the book is a fascinating look at a fascinating man.  While the subject is still writing and creating his own tale, it is wonderful to get a glimpse behind the curtain of a man who by his own admission, made up most of the spying stuff, only to see the lexicon he created be co opted by the very spies he left behind.  With rumours of Cornwell working on his own autobiography to tell his own tale, Adam Sisman has crafted a wonder record of an extraordinary life that will be a wonderful tool to check against if Cornwell actually pens his own tale, or that of le Carre.

John le Carre by Adam Sisman is out now and published by Bloomsbury.

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