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Arts & CultureBooksThe Biography: John Le Carré by Adam Sisman - review

The Biography: John Le Carré by Adam Sisman – review

by Edith Cody-Rice

John Le Carre biography 001Adam Sisman was chosen by David Cornwell, who writes as John Le Carré, to write his biography, the only one in existence. Cornwell had earlier chased away would-be biographers, but accepted Sisman on the strength of Sisman’s excellent biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford. But he didn’t make it easy for his biographer.

Sisman makes a minute and linear examination of the life of the writer who would become John Le  Carré. As we see throughout the book, once he started writing, Cornwell mined his own life, surroundings and colleagues for the plot and characters of his books. He did not, however, start out to be a writer. A lonely child, he and his elder brother Tony were abandoned by their mother when David was 5, left in the care of their charming con man father. Both boys were highly intelligent and David, in particular, attracted the attention of school masters for his intelligence and artistry. He became an illustrator, attended Oxford, then became a  school master himself at Eton, then a spy agent in the British MI5, roughly equivalent to the American CIA and MI6, the equivalent of the FBI. It was while he was employed by the British government in MI6 that he wrote his break out first novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. With the pseudonym John Le  Carré, he covered his tracks, pretending that his alter ego was just another civilian servant with no intimate knowledge of espionage.

Cornwell was at the intelligence services at both a disappointing and interesting time. It was the 50’s, the war was over and the intelligence services were littered with veterans, living on their wartime exploits. Of MI5,  Cornwell writes

MI5 was not a very impressive organisation. ‘For a while you wondered whether the fools were really pretending to be fools, as some kind of deception’…’but alas, the reality was the mediocrity. Ex-colonial policemen mingling with failed academics, failed lawyers, failed missionaries and failed debutantes gave our canteen the amorphous quality of an Old School outing on the Orient Express. Everyone seemed to smell of failure.”

MI6 wasn’t much better, considering itself the senior service, made up of socially superior men, looking down upon the MI5ers, but still devoted to the idea of the amateur agent. It was still reeling from the defections in 1951 of Maclean and Burgess to the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, he was in the service at the time when Kim Philby, who had his protectors, was suspected of being a Soviet spy, which he turned out to be. While Cornwell was serving with MI6 in Bonn, Philby, who had left the service and become a Beirut based journalist, defected to the USSR.

I had read that Cornwell’s father was a con artist, who, in later life passed himself off as his famous son, but I had imagined him to be rather a seedy low life. Not at all. Ronnie Cornwell was a small town personality whose affability and smooth manner as well as his acumen allowed him to become a very high flying and at times, very wealthy bon vivant. He swindled millions through companies that he devised and although he spent time in prison, he was far too successful in his early years to allow a prison sentence to thwart him. It is astonishing the degree to which he haunted Cornwell’s life, both physically and psychologically. He sent his sons to smart schools but failed to pay the tuition. He was an embarrassment to his sons who dissembled when asked about their father. David lived in fear of the real character of his father being discovered by classmates. Yet he and Tony were co opted by their father into minor roles in various schemes until, as adults, they effectively freed themselves, becoming independent but psychologically damaged. Ronnie continued to exploit his position as John le Carré’s father and to dun his son for money, even trying to blackmail him by threatening to expose one of David’s indiscretions. David was not really free of his father until Ronnie  died in 1975 and even then, he dreaded the question “Aren’t you Ronnie Cornwell’s son?” In fact, the dissembling that David did informed his literary characters.  Sisman states that David possessed at least some of the characteristics that a KGB recruiter had identified in Philby, Maclean and others and had listed as attributes of a successful spy – an inherent class resentfulness, a predilection for secretiveness and a yearning to belong. In later life, when asked to write an article about Philby for the Sunday Times, he wrote it as an attack on the complacency and stupidity of the Establishment, but it was also autobiographical. He envisaged Philby as his ‘secret sharer’, as the person he might easily have become himself.

Sisman relies on extensive interviews, documents and letters and to some degree, on Cornwell himself, but he often notes that Cornwell’s explanations do not tally with other accounts of the same events, sometimes by Cornwell himself, or with documentary evidence. Inventing stories about his life became a habit for Cornwell. As he says at the beginning of this biography  “People who have had very unhappy childhoods are pretty good at inventing themselves.”

John Le Carré has been characterized variously as ‘ just a thriller writer’ and as the ‘greatest living English novelist’. This is a fascinating look into the life of a complex, disturbing and, one suspects, quietly unhappy man. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, had a greater ring of truth when it was published than the James Bond type fantasies which had previously dominated the genre. When published in 1963, it launched Cornwell from obscurity to literary sensation and his life changed forever. Now he wants to protect his very considerable legacy. Sisman’s biography helps to do that but it also exposes perhaps more of the man than he would wish.

The Biography John Le Carre is published by Albert A. Knopf Canada 

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