The biographer strikes back

Review: Vivien Horler

The Secret Life of John le Carré, by Adam Sisman (Profile Books)

Most of us will never have biographies written of our lives, and just as well, judging from the tension and upset between John le Carré and his biographer Adam Sisman.

John le Carré was published in 2015, and at least one reviewer complained there seemed to be a lot the reader was not being told. He was right, because it turned out Le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, had what he called “my own messy private life”, which he did not want made public.

Although the biography was written with Le Carré’s cooperation, it was agreed from the start that it would not be described as “authorised”. Sisman assumes this was so Cornwell could distance himself from it if necessary.

And as time went by he did want to distance himself, to the point that Sisman says Le Carré tried to undermine the work.

At one point the whole project seemed about to implode, and it was only the intervention of Cornwell’s son Simon Cornwell, who mediated between the two men, that ensured it continued.

Cornwell was married twice. His first wife, Alison, appears to have resented how his writing took him away from the family, and they divorced. His second wife, known as Jane, had worked for a leading publishing company and understood that his writing came first. She became his gatekeeper, looked after the administrative life of a top author, and dealt with all the legal business of book, audio and film rights.

She also typed his manuscripts, and made his writing life possible.

But for a man who had had a moderately interesting life in his youth as something of a spy, working for both M15 and M16, writing quietly in his study was not enough.

He wrote to Sisman that he needed his series of sexual affairs that “produced in my life a duality & tension that became almost a necessary drug for my writing, a dangerous edge of some kind”.

They were also driven by Cornwell’s search for the perfect woman, caused by his heartbreak at his mother’s departure from the family when he was just five.

Sisman says some of the women with whom Le Carré had affairs are recognisable as characters in his novels.

Jane knew some of it, and it must have hurt. At one point Cornwell told Sisman she had “suffered greatly, but endured”. He never left her, despite telling some of the women he would. This was not necessarily a result a of devotion – more likely he recognised she was indispensable to his life and work

Discovering the truth of this part of Cornwell’s life was not difficult, Sisman says, but Cornwell restricted what he could include in the biography. When relations became strained, Simon Cornwell agreed his father’s relationships with women were key to a full understanding of his work, and suggested “a secret annexe” of information which could be published after Cornwell and Jane’s deaths (he died in December 2020 and she a few weeks later).

Sisman says this information could have been titled What Was Left Out. In his acknowledgements for this volume Sisman says he owes “a special debt of gratitude” to Simon Cornwell for the idea, adding: “I would be the first to recognise that he has not endorsed its content and may not agree with all my judgements.”

The bulk of the book deals with the women, some of whom Sisman interviewed, and the affairs, and true Le Carré fans will find it fascinating to trace the women’s influence in his writing. But for me it is the next-to-last chapter, in which he describes the tetchy to-ing and fro-ing between himself and Cornwell over the manuscript, that was most interesting.

Cornwell wrote: “You can’t expect me to enjoy, least of all applaud, my own trivialisation.”

He referred in a letter to “glaring omissions, a string of small calumnies and one or two large ones”. There were also inaccuracies.

In a letter to the playwright Tom Stoppard which Sisman came across years later, Cornwell described the biography as “an elephantine work of ballbreaking banality – but otherwise conscientious, fact-based, and, for me, a horrible mirror”.

Days after the biography was published in 2015, Cornwell made it clear he intended to write his own memoir, an announcement Sisman believed to have been timed to damage the biography. In another letter to Stoppard he described the memoir as “some sort of antidote to Sisman”.

When it was published, under the title The Pigeon Tunnel, Cornwell sent Sisman an inscribed copy, but Sisman was not impressed. It was, he writes, a book of 38 brief anecdotal chapters, one consisting of just two sentences. More than half the content had been published before in various newspapers and magazines.

Two reviewers, one in London’s Financial Times and one in the New York Times, said it seemed to be a collection of the stories of a British foreign correspondent in a hotel bar. The New York Times described it as the tales of “a veteran raconteur who has not expended quite enough effort determining which of his oft-told tales are profound and which a bit pointless”.

Two ouches here: the fact the remarks were published in the first place, and that Sisman, evidently smarting, decided to repeat them in this book.

Sisman concedes he might be being a bit of a bore: “As [Cornwell] says, these were his stories, and if he lent me a few of them for a while, he was entitled to reclaim them. It was, after all, his life.”

This chapter brims with Sisman’s indignation and hurt. Yet he believes that Cornwell was a great writer, “worthy of comparison with the best. Assuming people are still reading novels in a 100 years’ time, I think there is a good chance they will be reading Le Carré”.

He concludes that after the controversies has been forgotten and we’re all dead and gone, “it is [Cornwell’s] work that survives”.


One thought on “The biographer strikes back

  1. David Bristow

    As lecturer Don MacClennan pointed out in English 1 – never confuse the writings with the writer. And someone else remarked, don’t meet your heroes.


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