JOHN LE CARRé THE BIOGRAPHY by Adam Sisman. Published by Bloomsbury, London, 2015.
While waiting for this book to arrive, I went online to see what British reviewers thought of it, and was relieved to find that most express admiration for Sisman’s absorbing study. I was looking forward to reading this definitive biography and hoping that my favourite spy writer hero was not going to be reduced to a mere mortal in a hatchet job.
Indeed, I was glued to most of the 650 pages as Adam Sisman chronicled the life of one of Britain’s finest living authors, someone who has proved that spy thrillers can be elevated to a finer literary genre than generally regarded.
It is more than half a century since The Spy who came in from the Cold was released, among the first of le Carré’s many titles to became a world best-seller . Using his real name, David Cornwell, we are introduced to a man who is as enigmatic as his characters that he is still creating at the ripe age of 84.
David was born to Ronnie and Olive Cornwell in Bournemouth a few years after his brother Tony. Ronnie was the original conman, unscrupulous, amoral, persuasive, exuding optimism as he relieved widows of their savings and wriggled out of debts incurred. Olive, who had had enough of insecurity and his philandering, eloped with a friend, abandoning her sons when David was five. This was the start of an unhappy childhood as he endured primary school years, retreating further into fantasy during high school. The two boys were rootless, spending school holidays with proxy mothers, or were dumped on their grandparents.
On the bright side David proved to be a skilful actor and mimic and talented cartoonist. He wrote poems that impressed his teachers and had a flair for languages. To escape constant embarrassment from his father’s crimes, David fled to Switzerland in 1948, enrolling at Bern’s university to study German literature and philosophy. While there he met two women from the British embassy who took him in for Christmas lunch and probed him on his beliefs. Keen to prove himself a patriot, unlike his father, he was happy to sign a legal document pledging him to secrecy – probably a version of the Offical Secrets Act. He was then asked to attend meetings of left-wing student groups in Switzerland and report names of those he saw there, which he did without murmur.
By the time he started as an undergraduate at Oxford David had acquired a steady girlfriend, Ann Sharp and was asked to infiltrate left-wing groups and identify Communists, as part of MI5’s response to the discovery that Burgess and Maclean had been spying for the Russians. Years later David was asked if his conscience troubled him while he was a ‘sneak’, someone who had chosen loyalty to his country over loyalty to his friends. This dilemma was a theme that would recur repeatedly in his novels.
After marrying Ann and graduating, David accepted a teaching post at Eton. In 1957 Ann gave birth to Simon, first of their three boys. David became depressed while teaching and returned to MI5. He was involved in vetting former communists who wanted to work for British firms that manufactured military equipment. He became an agent-runner or controller of agents and became friends with a senior colleague described as “short, tubby bespectacled man… fiercely patriotic, whose right wing opinions were tempered by his humanity, sweetness of character and sense of humour.”
It was somewhat startling to discover that this colleague, John Bingham, was that cousin that the rest of my British family seldom mentioned, and about whom were vague when I inquired. I knew he wrote thrillers, that I found rather plodding, but never got to meet him. Perhaps spying was regarded as a subject not to be discussed, but Cornwell borrowed some of John’s traits for his most important character George Smiley – his unassuming, inconspicuous qualities and ability to “lose himself in a crowd.”
Soon after their second son Stephen was born David moved from MI5 to MI6. Gollancz wanted to publish his spy novel , as David studied tradecraft as part of his training. He was posted to Bonn early in the 1960s “a nest of spies” in the Cold War era, Ann joined him with their two boys and Call for the Dead was published in the UK to good reviews
A Murder of Quality followed , with similar favourable reaction, starring George Smiley and then came The Spy who Came in from the Cold with its seedy settings and ambiguous characters , contrasting well with the clear-cut ones of the James Bond books . American publishers bought rights, Paramount Pictures secured film rights, and the public loved the novel, even as real life was proving dramatic with spies like Philby surfacing in Moscow.
David was able to resign from the foreign service to write fulltime. He was a prolific author although less successful husband. His second wife Jane, to whom he is still married, proved to be an ideal companion for the long months when they are hermits while a new book is on the go. “I’m a liar,” Cornwell has written. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist.”
More than 50 pages of footnotes, bibliography and index reflects the extent to which Sisman has delved to present a complete and honest portrait. If memory, fact and fiction have become hopelessly entwined in the mind of Cornwell, Sisman has done a superb job in separating the strands.