A lot more than a kiss-and-tell

Review: Archie Henderson
The Secret Heart – John le Carré: An intimate memoir, by Suleika Dawson (Mudlark Harper Collins)
It’s easy to dismiss this as another kiss-and-tell, except that it reveals parts of the world’s most famous spy novelist that has his official biographer reaching for the original manuscript to make changes.
Suleika Dawson is a cover name, and a poor one. She was easily unmasked as Sue Dawson, a scholarly and smart editor who worked for an audio book company in the 80s when David Cornwell (she refers to him by his real name throughout) came in to read one of his books.
Dawson’s job was to edit the books down to a three-hour length because at the time it was all that a cassette tape could accommodate.
When he arrives, the staff are in awe of the Great Man, as they refer to him behind his back, and a bit nervous because they’re worried his reading might not be up to his writing. Was he virgo intacta when it comes to reading his own work, Graham Goodwin wonders before the first recording. Certainly not, Cornwell’s agent tells him
It turns out Cornwell is good. In reading Smiley’s People, the first to be recorded, Cornwell didn’t just do Alec Guinness (who is George Smiley in the BBC productions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People), he did it better than Guinness.
Goodwin, “a tall, silver-haired and habitually laid-back gent-about-town”, runs the company that does the recordings. “Fuck me – the bloke can’t half read!” he says after the first session.
Everyone else in the studio is impressed, Dawson too even though he virtually ignores her, although it’s clear he has noticed her. It was hard not to.
At their next meeting, the Great Man invites her to lunch and soon into his bed. “This was sex as I had never encountered it before, the sex I had determinedly pursued all my adult life, the sex I truly believed I had always been enjoying – until then,” she writes.
“This was sex that only the hero and heroine can have; sex for the cameras, sex for the Olympics, sex for the gods.”
OK, so she was smitten. The direct quote is purple, at times she is prolix and at others even irritating, but you forgive her because you sense she’s a nice person, that he is not and that her love will be unrequited.
They apply Moscow rules to the tradecraft of their affair, a term first used by Le Carré in Smiley’s People where strict levels of secrecy and security are employed while operating in enemy territory). They use dead-letter boxes, fallbacks, safe houses and all the Le Carré-isms of spying that have become part of the language.
Did she love him? “I loved and adored David completely and utterly.” But she also suspects he was running her as one of his agents, “a covert relationship” that turned “hazardous secret meetings into encounters of irresistible seduction”.
The book can be read as a love story, a spy story, a tragedy – but it’s more than a kiss-and-tell because the lady can write – as even the Great Man concedes when he reads her letters to him.
He pays her his ultimate compliment: “That one doesn’t go into the shredder, I can tell you.” The reply adds an “I love you, my Sue”, but it lacks conviction.

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