The fellow biographer for whom I always felt the most sympathy was James Atlas. Mr. Atlas, who has left an extensive account of his tribulations in The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale (2017), made the fatal mistake of writing a life of Saul Bellow while its subject was still alive. Bellow, you may not be surprised to learn, revealed himself to be a devious, shifty and manipulating old cuss. He interfered, blew hot and cold, disparaged his encomiast’s prose style, intelligence and research techniques and finally remarked, “I like you Atlas, but cut the crap.” If Adam Sisman didn’t quite plumb these soul-sapping depths in the near-half-decade of his life spent compiling John le Carré: The Biography, then, as his new book demonstrates in abundant detail, he came dangerously close.
Sisman’s original work appeared in 2015, five years before le Carré’s death at the ripe age of eighty-nine. It was a mammoth endeavor, over 600 pages in length, never explicitly stating that biographer had ever fallen out with biographee, and yet offering unignorable hints that Sisman’s relationship with “David” — as in Cornwell, le Carré’s baptismal name — had been as challenging as Atlas’s with Uncle Saul. “It would be disingenuous to suggest that there have not been difficulties,” Sisman proposed at one point. There were laments about David’s diffidence on the matter of “his time in the intelligence services.”
Post-publication, Sisman could be found complaining to a BBC interviewer that he had been “gazumped” by the discovery that le Carré was now at work on a memoir (The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, 2016) and worrying that the subject had been deliberately withholding information, flinging obstacles across what should have been a primrose-strewn and unimpeded path.
Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, actors were always advised not to work with animals or children. Well, life writers ought always to be counseled not to work with the living, who, however flattered they may appear when sanctioning the project, have a habit of turning nasty if discreditable aspects of their private lives are brought unvarnished to the enterprise. The Secret Life of John le Carré is not, it should straightaway be said, an exercise in score-settling. Sisman, the author of fine books about the British historians A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, is far too kindly (and admiring) a writer for that. On the other hand, his book is a determined and at times forensic attempt to set the record straight, detailing the full extent of what was kept from him, going to town on le Carré’s obstructiveness and reality-softening, undermining various aspects of the le Carré legend and exposing the decades-long exercise in stage management that lay at its unexpectedly chilly heart.
It would be surprising, given the depth of top-drawer novelists’ engagement with their characters, if all this didn’t lead us back to the bookshelf, and sure enough the bleak, workaday evasions and routine duplicities of the modern espionage novel are a feature of the daily life of the man who may be credited with inventing it. One of le Carré’s great achievements, it might be argued, was to make the world of counterintelligence ordinary. His protagonists may, from one angle, be surfing the tides of postwar history, watching twentieth-century power politics unravel and reconstitute themselves from one book to the next, luxuriating in their ringside seats at the Cold War, but behind the skulduggery and the occasional derring-do lies an assumption that spying is, in the end, a job like any other. Many of the best scenes on Planet le Carré take place in offices, and are to do with protocol, procedure and mundane stuff.
There was plenty of mundane stuff in le Carré’s — I was going to call it his domestic life, where personal and professional have an infallible trick of shading into each other. Sisman, for example, makes a plausible case for his subject’s deliberate cultivation of a tricksy, wife-betraying, send-the-billet-doux-to-the-safehouse-will-you-darling? emotional existence in order to maintain the atmosphere of tension he imagined he required to function creatively. If this is so beguiling a proposition, it’s because it seems counterintuitive. After all, the evidence of thousands of literary biographies suggests that most writers, a few wild-eyed dements aside, like a quiet life — what Louis MacNeice called “the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums.”
Le Carré, on the other hand, seems scarcely have been able to pick up a pen without congratulating himself on the fact that his wife Jane was leaving the house at three and young Miss Frisky, star-struck, attentive and half his age, was arriving at five.
Sisman’s sad yet horribly instructive story begins in 2010 when, with the Trevor-Roper biography under his belt, he writes proposing himself as biographer (facsimiles of choice fragments of the Sisman-le Carré correspondence are reproduced in the text). Charming and agreeable to begin with, le Carré only starts to throw his considerable weight around once the book starts to take shape. His displays of wounded amour propre include a pained remonstrance from early 2014 (“Your book as it stands is not doing its job…You can’t expect me to enjoy, least of all applaud, my own trivialization”), and, when the manuscript has reached copy-editing stage, a twenty-two-page memorandum containing 196 numbered points. This had its comic side: on at least one occasion, Sisman was able to demonstrate that the source le Carré was questioning was in fact himself. And, yes, The Pigeon Tunnel is intended as a spoiler — “an antidote to Sisman,” le Carré informed his chum Tom Stoppard.
In another letter to Stoppard, le Carré describes the finished work as “an elephantine work of ballbreaking banality — but otherwise conscientious, fact-based and, for me, a horrible mirror.” Some biographers would be cross about this revelation, but Sisman displays an almost saint-like objectivity while continuing to stack up more facts — most of them highly disagreeable — that have since come to light. Le Carré’s diffidence over his career in the intelligence services is soon disposed of with a brisk “he was no George Smiley.” There are wounding accounts of his tendency to criticize and belittle those around him, particularly friends or relations who themselves hankered after the writing life. A godson who published a novel was cast adrift once he discovered that its subject was the world of male modeling, with le Carré convincing himself — wrongly as it turned out — that the young man had finessed a publishing deal with Hodder & Stoughton by judicious use of his godfather’s name.
As for the women, it is no disrespect to their individual personalities to say that most readers will simply lose track of the labyrinthine catalog of adultery, lies and what le Carré himself called “hole-and-corner nonsense” on display in these increasingly melancholic pages. “Without a new muse for each book, his inspiration dried up,” Sisman gamely concludes. He devotes an incriminating chapter to a woman called Sue Dawson, whose The Secret Heart: John le Carré: An Intimate Memoir, published under the pseudonym “Suleika Dawson,” unveiled their relationship to the world in 2022. When it ended she was congratulated by a woman in le Carré’s circle for having “the strength to get out when you did, before he used you up completely.” Among other choice confidences, le Carré revealed that he had turned down a knighthood and claimed that he didn’t wish to be considered for the Nobel Prize. When Ms. Dawson complained that he had no right to make her suffer for his art, he is supposed to have replied “Would you have said that to Goethe?”
Of course, all this is very funny: accounts of well-known writers behaving badly nearly always are. It is a mark of le Carré’s awfulness that I was several times reminded of the late-period Kingsley Amis, who, when people protested at his self-aggrandizement, rudeness, cantankerousness and so on would reply, “Yes, but you see I’m Kingsley Amis.”
Naturally, the accumulated dirt raining down on le Carré’s reputation has nothing to do with the merits of his books. As Orwell once remarked, the second-best bed left to Shakespeare’s wife in his will doesn’t invalidate Hamlet. But as a connoisseur of literary biography, I was disappointed by The Secret Life of John le Carré. This feeling of flatness has nothing to do with Adam Sisman, who has written a deeply entertaining book, but is entirely the fault of his subject. Which is to say that while I expected the le Carré who emerges from it to be a womanizer, a fantasist and a self-server, I didn’t anticipate that he would be such a terrible bore.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2023 World edition.