Unlocking the secrets of John Le Carré

“John le Carré: The Biography” by Adam Sisman.
“John le Carré: The Biography” by Adam Sisman.

Betrayal, abandonment and the yearning to belong – these are the psychological tent poles of John le Carré novels, driving the plots of his spy stories and lofting his best work way over the genre’s walls. As Adam Sisman’s absorbing new biography of le Carre (or, rather, of David Cornwell, the man behind the pseudonym) makes clear, these emotions were deeply rooted in the novelist’s unhappy childhood. His father, Ronnie, was a shameless con man who racked up debts and marks around the world and served prison time for fraud. His mother, Olive, abandoned the family when David was 5.

Young David survived the “16 hugless years” that followed his mother’s departure by escaping into a world of fantasy and imagination. Storytelling also became a way to charm, to entertain, to hide – a skill that later served him well in his career in British intelligence, and as a writer. “I’m a liar,” Sisman quotes him saying. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.”

In “John le Carre: The Biography” 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. Sisman does a nimble job of tracing correspondences between le Carre’s novels and David Cornwell’s life, while judiciously trying to sift out what he calls “examples of false memory on David’s part.”

The first half of the biography detailing Cornwell’s youth, education and years with British intelligence are never less than compelling for the le Carre fan. The second half devolves into a fairly rote recitation of books, but these chapters shed light on Cornwell’s arduous research and writing process – and almost obsessive devotion to his vocation.


“John le Carré: The Biography”

By Adam Sisman

Harper/HarperCollins, 652 pages