Book review: John le Carré The Biography

41nopbf0hjl__ac_ul320_sr210320_John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman

My rating: ★★★★★

This book is a unlikely triumph. It sees the life of one of the most famously secretive authors of the last fifty years, John le Carré, documented in extensive detail by the unrelenting biographer Adam Sisman.

It is a warts and all look at David Cornwell’s (his real name) life, which naturally looks at each of his volume of books but also delves into highly personal areas such as his troubled and lonely childhood, extra marital affairs and financial arrangements to avoid large tax payments.

The main figure who dominates Cornwell’s early life is his father, Ronnie, who was a charming, but manipulative, conman regularly in severe financial trouble often fleeing from one part of the country to another to avoid the authorities.

The most insightful element of this biography comes from the tension Cornwell experienced in his public school days between his elite (and in his opinion, abusive) education, which was aimed at upholding the social and moral values of a British upper class still then ruling an Empire, and the underhand and morally dubious lifestyle he’d experienced growing up under his father’s tutelage. For an individual capable of putting on the cloaks of different characters to emerge from this is hardly surprising and these behaviours are presented as the reasoning behind his entry into the world of intelligence and spying.

It is at times easy to forget this is actually about the real life of the author, and not one of his many wonderful, self deceiving plots which his life has so clearly influenced. Sisman drawing of parallels between these Cornwell’s life and art is very insightful for any fan of le Carré’s. His drive to write began when he was working at MI5 where he quickly realised that the world of intelligence was not all it cracked up to be. In his own words:

“I began writing because I was going mad with boredom … not the apathetic, listless kind of boredom that doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, but the screaming, frenetic sort that races round in circles looking for real work and finding none.”

After his early books, written whilst still working at MI5 with their permission to publish, Sisman looks at the worldwide success of le Carré’s most famous novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and how it utterly changed his life beyond recognition. Fame, wealth and the freedom from a day job gradually led to his estrangement from his wife Ann and a much needed distancing from his overbearing father.

Sisman casts a sceptical eye over the life of a man all too ready to reinvent situations and stories from his own life for dramatic effect. Often Cornwell’s version of events are contrasted to other’s views or, where possible, the facts.

Each book is analysed via the author’s writing process, development of the plot and characters and his surprisingly sensitive reactions to the critical receptions to them. Some of the best parts are little hints to Cornwell’s past in character’s name and habits as well as more substantial analysis such as the men who lie behind characters as famous as George Smiley.

There are also excellent insights into the field work le Carré carries out, when he travels to the setting of the story and essential imagines himself as his lead character to help research and write the book. He first tried this for The Honourable Schoolboy, the second book of his famous Smiley-Karla trilogy, travelling to Hong Kong. There he was put in touch the Washington Post journalist David Greenway and posing as his photographer shadowing around the region researching his lead character Jerry Westerby, a journalist. Assumingly during this period photos taken by Cornwell accompanied Greenway’s pieces in the Post attributed to ‘Janet Leigh Carr’ to which Greenway received an angry letter from his editor saying that he was married and shouldn’t be travelling around Asia with a young female photographer.

What emerges from this biography is a picture of an author who is addicted to writing, quelling his restlessness through it, and blending his own life with his art to dramatic effect. Delving into this most interesting of lives, brilliantly documented by Sisman, is a journey well worthwhile for any le Carré fan.

You can read my reviews of a number of John le Carré novels here. Please leave your comments below.

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