Book Review: The Real John Le Carré

A new biography by Adam Sisman deciphers the coded life of novelist David Cornwell

Duplicity and betrayal are constant themes in the writing of “John Le Carré”, the pen name of Cold War tale-spinner David Cornwell. In John Le Carré, The Biography, Adam Sisman illuminates the formative elements in Cornwell’s layered life that helped to make him one of the most respected espionage novelists of all time.

Born in England in 1931, Cornwell had a Dickensian childhood – one day living in high style, the next running from the creditors, or the bailiff, chasing his father, Ronnie, a world-class con artist. Charming, grandiose, sentimental, Ronnie seemed incapable of empathy, blithely bilking family, friends and strangers to feed his lavish lifestyle. When Cornwell was five, his mother fled; he did not see her again for 16 years. The search for love also became a frequent theme in his novels.

At boarding school, Cornwell developed a finely tuned awareness of class distinctions – in wardrobe, speech and behavior – taking care to conform and hide his own questionable background. He was torn between the values of honor and service he was being taught and fealty toward his father, who increasingly used his sons as accomplices: “At school David was being trained to run an empire; at home he was helping to diddle widows out of their pensions.”

Cloak and Dagger

At 16, Cornwell escaped to Bern to study German language and literature, a lifelong passion: “I remember not belonging anywhere and taking refuge in a foreign language,” he recalls. He did his National Service in Graz in1951, where he interrogated refugees fleeing communism and ran a network of small-fry agents. Later, as an Oxford student, he was recruited by British Military Intelligence MI5, to infiltrate leftist groups, even reporting on his friends – a duplicity that became another frequent theme.

It was after joining MI5 in 1958 that Cornwell began to write. Publishing as “John Le Carré”, his third novel, The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963), published while he was posted to Bonn with MI6, the ministry’s foreign intelligence service, became an international best-seller and freed him from his job and dependence on his father.

His finest novels – including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) – are set in the murky world of Cold War espionage and serve as nuanced guides to post-imperial England. His world-weary spy George Smiley is dutiful but ambivalent; the agency he works for is “England in miniature, looking back with nostalgia and contemplating the future with foreboding.”

When the Cold War ended, there was much handwringing among Le Carré fans. They needn’t have worried: He simply took up new subjects, from arms trafficking to money-laundering and terrorism. Still, his later novels are different, less nuanced and more polemical, and increasingly marked by outrage – about U.S. policies and UK complicity, human rights abuses and corporate corruption. Among the best, The Constant Gardener (2001) channels his anger into a compelling revelation of exploitation by Big Pharma in the developing world, which some claim advanced the cause of low-cost, generic drugs.

A delicate truth

Sisman provides a balanced assessment of Cornwell’s life and literary career, portraying this complex and difficult man with compassion. He touches lightly on prurient details (such as Ronnie’s alleged abuse of his children) that could have been Freudian fodder for a lesser talent. The novels are placed in context, including the people who inspired key characters and a fair analysis of literary merit. Sisman also shines a light on Cornwell’s writing process, inhabiting his protagonists much like a method actor.

At 84, Cornwell is still at work and will publish a memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, this fall. Writing, Sisman makes clear, is Cornwell’s life force, and he is likely to continue working as long as he can hold a pen.


carre-biography-xlargeJohn Le Carré, The Biography

By Adam Sisman

London 2015

pp 672

list price €29

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