John Le Carré : the biography

by Adam Sisman

Hardcover, 2015




New York, NY : Harper, [2015]


"In this definitive biography Adam Sisman reveals the man behind the bestselling persona. In John le Carré, Sisman shines a spotlight on David Cornwell, an expert at hiding in plain sight. Of course, the pseudonym John le Carré has helped to keep the public at a distance. Sisman probes Cornwell's unusual upbringing, abandoned by his mother at the age of only five and raised by his con man father (when not in prison), and explores his background in British intelligence, as well as his struggle to become a writer, and his personal life. Sisman has benefited from unfettered access to le Carré's private archive, talked to the most important people in his life, and interviewed the man himself at length" --

Media reviews

In “John le Carré: The Biography” Mr. Sisman creates an insightful and highly readable portrait of a writer and a man who has often been as elusive and enigmatic as his fictional heroes. Mr. Sisman does a nimble job of tracing correspondences between le Carré’s novels and David Cornwell’s life, while judiciously trying to sift out what he calls “examples of false memory on David’s part.”

User reviews

LibraryThing member alexbolding
Magnificent read on the life of one of my heroes. I rarely read biographies, but this one was one I savoured – reading sparingly in it, spreading it out over one whole month, after buying it straightaway in a bookstore in Utrecht. I came in, saw it from the corner of my eye, and despite a rucksack full of books, picked this thick one and almost ran to the cashier, in disbelief. Off to the central station, jumping in the train, and there it started. The book seller looked at me, and said – ‘Yes, interesting man. I would read this one too’. It is any good? As a biography? I dunno. It seems that Sisman was critical at the start with his references to events David Cornwell made up and which Sisman attributed to ‘false memory’.

In actual fact it becomes clear that David specialised early on in the art of cultivating multiple personalities and multiple versions of events. This is not surprising considering the propensity at conjuring, scheming and double-dealing of Ronnie, David’s maverick father. It provided an excellent preparation for David the spy and an even better school for David the entertaining raconteur, who could add spicy elements to a suspenseful story. The countless incidents of humiliation foisted on David and his brother John by their father, must have given David a bleak outlook on life and the motives of men. Ronnie was a womaniser, a drinker, a gambler, a connoisseur, a British gentleman, a Mafiosi. David’s mother disappeared from the scene early on in his life – she was fed up with Ronnie’s tricks which invariably resulted in another bankruptcy or jail sentence or both. Two traits emanate from such a childhood – a remarkable capacity to please and charm while at the same time embellishing the truth AND some difficulties with the female species (certainly when his father’s absence resulted in boarding school at Sherborne and later, teaching at Eton). One other remarkable thing about le Carre is his tendency to become an angry ‘old’ man over time, moving steadily to the left and more radical part of the political spectrum (contrary to many men, and particularly rare among the class of filthy rich men, whose ranks David has joined, no matter what or how). Ironically that is how I got to know le Carre – my first le Carre novel was a ‘The constant gardener’, one of his angry books, written in old age, speaking out against the baseless and morally bankrupt behaviour of the pharmaceuticals. Once I had read that I was hooked. Le Carre showed how one could write a book which is a million times more effective than whatever scientific research. This provided the seeds of my own writing aspirations (and disillusion with academia). I continued with reading all his recent work and then going backwards in time.

Of course another influential event in Le Carre’s life was his magnificent success with A spy who came in from the Cold. His third book was a game changer, not only for the genre of spy thrillers but also for David himself. My personal favourite of his cold war spy novels is Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. In between these two spy thrillers David went through a process of adjusting his life to his newly found affluence, experimenting with adultery – big time – and searching, initially, in vain for renewed success and greatness. It was only Tinker, tailor, which brought him back to the pinnacle of success. And from there it went on and on and on, starting with the magnificent BBC tv series made of Tinker, tailor with Alec Guinness starring as George Smiley (I still haven’t seen the series, but I did hugely enjoy the 2012 movie with Gary Oldman as George Smiley – one of the best movies made, ever – and with Gary Oldman starring big time, after his magnificent 24 hour Party people, a forgotten movie on a forgotten era of tremendous success of Manchester music).

Throughout the book it becomes clear David is a serious writer, who lives like a Hermit most of the time, talking books with his second wife Jayne whilst sticking to a strict writing routine in his rural dwellings in Cornwall. David is meticulous in his writing – rewriting complete manuscripts up to 8 times in a row, throwing out hundreds of pages, starting afresh if it does work for him. The man is a monument. In terms of his craft, I found it revealing that David seems capable only of developing his main protagonist characters once he meets a living equivalent, or to put it better, when he has met or been able to observe the base material of that character in the flesh. A final thing about the craft of writing is that David can develop a draft of a novel and then visit its main locations, and work his scenic impressions back into the novel. There are several scenes and moments that are described in the biography that provide interesting snippets and nuggets on the life of David. Like the scene where David has dinner with the PM at the invitation of Margaret Thatcher. The Dutch PM Ruud Lubbers also attends and despite him being the most savvy of all Dutch PMs in the post-war era, he confesses he doesn’t know Le Carre (Auchh!). I was equally delighted to read that David for his book The Mission Song, which engages with corporate resource exploitation in the Congo, visited the Eastern Congo with Michaela Wrong (so, so) and Jason Stearns (yes! The leading analytical light on the topic!!).
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LibraryThing member annbury
This is a pretty good book, which made me want to read all of the books that Le Carre has published recently. I went through a period of reading all of his books, inspired by the Alec
Guiness portrayal of Smiley in the TV :Tinker'. Lately, the only one of his books that I have read is Absolute Friends. This is a savage book, clearly written in white heat. The ending may have seemed frivolous and too strained at the time, but from what we have learned of the American military or police since then it appears highly likely. I have bought the CD of Geoffrey Burgon's Nunc Dimmitis, which the TV show used to great effect in the 'Tinker' drama, As an old fart American, I feel just as angry as Le Carre about the depths to which this country has sunk in recent years. He was right in his rage in Absolute Friends and he is probably correct on other matters as well.… (more)
LibraryThing member neddludd
One assumes that this huge, dense, satisfying work will become the definitive guide to an author I have enjoyed my entire adult life. Le Carre is presented as something of an obsessive: he is either writing or researching or he is not happy. This excludes the typical seductive elements that accrue to someone of his fame and commercial success; it is a tribute to his ability to not compromise; his unique and intellectually challenging style has not prevented his becoming a favored author for millions of readers in many nations. Popular and critical success began for him with his third novel, a living lesson for creatives in every field that it is the strength and persistence of the artist that counts--the work or output--and not the completion or response that matters most. The dedication of le Carre to publish only the best is shown in his willingness to rewrite and hone until he achieves precisely the structure, language, dialogue, and setting he seeks. His past is haunted; yet it was also privileged and he learned very early in life about resilience and brilliance as well as disloyalty and abandonment. But there is a sense that his charm, his good looks, his ease at moving at the highest levels of society prepared him for triumph. Yet, it also fashioned his ability to deceive and to avoid the entanglements that snare most people. Complex is a word designed for a man like le Carre, and this wonderful, compelling assessment of his work and life provides a comprhensive view of its subject. My only quibble is that at times it is too thorough and academic, for example, citing numerous passages in le Carre's novels to illustrate a particular character trait or aspect of his personal history.… (more)
LibraryThing member camharlow2
In a comprehensive and revealing biography of John le Carré, Andrew Sisman has penned a fascinating portrait of his subject. He has delved deeply into his early life and lays bare how it has influenced and coloured many of the novels that le Carré has written. In his research he has examined papers in a host of archives and spoken with many of the people who have been present in the writer’s life, as well as having been granted lengthy conversations with le Carré.
Altogether it makes for an intriguing portrait of the author and traces how he has drawn on his own experiences and those of people he has met, as well as using selectively their personalities and physical attributes to create the characters that inhabit his stories. Undoubtedly, this book will be of interest to anyone who has enjoyed his novels.
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LibraryThing member viking2917
If you are even remotely interested in John Le Carre, you should read this book. No question it is a masterful study of an extremely complicated man and writer.
LibraryThing member kerns222
I thought Le Carre was a long-time spy turned writer, but he was a dedicated writer almost from the beginning. One with connections. One with contempt for the upper class Brits.
The latter chapters deal mostly with details of publishing, reviews, etc. The beginning with his coming to terms with life. Beginning is more interesting.
I found myself wanting the biography of his con-man father, Ronnie, more than of the son. Ronnie puts Trump and his shady deals to shame. Ronnie would take from his son, his mother, old widows, young just-got-my-inheritance aristocrats, princes, dictators, and even his jailers. Many still loving him after they were fleeced. He would have made a classic American businessman.
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LibraryThing member AliceaP
If the goal of a biography is to both inform the reader about their subject (in this case an author) and encourage them to read their subject's entire body of works then John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman accomplished that goal. If you're looking for a fast-paced thrill ride then you're paging up the wrong book (did I take that metaphor too far?). Firstly, this is one of those weird occasions where the biographer's subject is still living. (I just checked and the last biography I read was I Am Scout back in May 2014 and it was also about a living (at the time) subject.) It is abundantly obvious that Sisman did his homework which is due in large part because he had the cooperation of the man himself. I must first inform you that John le Carré is not the author's true name. He is actually David Cornwell, an Englishman and former member of MI5 and MI6. (This isn't a spoiler as apparently it's a well-known fact and I'm just slow on the uptake.) A large part of Cornwell's life had been shrouded in mystery because of his prior career but in truth it was just a minor aspect of what made him into the author that he has become. Sisman explores at length Cornwell's family life and his upbringing and how that came to mold his character (and the characters in his novels). In particular, David's relationship with his father is harked upon multiple times in both Sisman's biography and in the works of le Carré. Honestly, a chronological timeline of all of Ronnie's movements wouldn't have gone amiss as that man was all over the place. I found the pacing of this book extremely slow and I felt it necessary to take frequent breaks so that I wasn't bogged down by the facts (it felt at times like I was being set up for a quiz on dates which I always fail). My overall feeling was that the book was very dry and as a result I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I had hoped I would. :-/ However, it served the purpose of instructing me on the topic of the author known as John le Carré so there's that. So I guess I'll give it a solid 4/10 because I did find it somewhat disappointing.

I'm definitely going to check out more of John le Carré's books though. In fact, I have a copy of Smiley's People that's been lurking for entirely too long on my shelves...
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