John le Carre: The Biography by Adam Sisman

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John le Carre: The Biography by Adam Sisman

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An enthralling, thoroughly comprehensive account of one of the most successful British writers of his age, paradoxically one who admits to being 'completely out of step with the English literary scene'. Sisman has presented a fully rounded picture of his life and work, as an authorised biographer who has treated his subject with both affection and objectivity.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 672 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1408827925

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Some twenty years ago David Cornwell, better known as novelist John le Carré, told a couple of would-be writers about him that he did not believe in 'authorised' biographies or critiques. Adam Sisman, who has since then been granted exclusive access to the man and his private archive, can therefore consider himself a lucky man.

Cornwell (I'll use his real name, when referring to the man) is approaching his mid-eighties, and this blockbuster of a life deals searchingly with the author, his story, and his stories. To an extent the 600-page narrative is obviously a labour of love, a full portrait of the writer that Sisman has admired for many years. Yet he has trod a fine line in maintaining something of a critical stance, admitting freely that he has been at times 'leant on' by a subject whose memory is not infallible, and whose own version of events, at the mercy of a tendency to self-mythologise as well as forget, cannot always be taken for granted.

Cornwell's family life was an unsettled one. His father was a rogue, a serial fantasist, rather like P.G. Wodehouse's Ukridge. Full of seemingly wonderful get-rich-quick schemes, he was an incorrigible fraudster who would put one hand on your shoulder and the other in your pocket, who served two terms of imprisonment, and a bullying husband whose wife walked out on him when their son was only five. Sisman's theory – remembering the book has Cornwell's more or less wholehearted endorsement – is that young David retreated into a land of make-believe, a kind of 'lost boy', who reinvented himself through a vivid imagination. In doing so he became, in the estimation of some, the most acclaimed British novelist of his generation. He has been the first to admit that nothing he writes is authentic; 'it is the stuff of dreams, not reality'. And as he readily admits, 'people who have had very unhappy childhoods are pretty good at inventing themselves.'

The path is charted through his unsettled childhood with an unscrupulous father who knew how to turn on the charm when it suited him, and an absent mother, through a period of teaching at a public school – somewhat ironic in view of his politically left-leaning views – and then recruitment into MI5 and MI6 at the time of the Cold War, an era overshadowed at various times by the Cuban missile crisis and the antics of Philby, Burgess, Blunt and Wright. These experiences were to make him the master of the espionage thriller, the most successful in his field, a writer whose books such as the ever-popular The Spy Who Came in from the Cold with their down-to-earth, sometimes squalid settings, were always shot through with more realism than Ian Fleming's James Bond stories with their glamorous restaurants, casinos and the clearly-delineated goodies and baddies.

His attitudes towards East-West relations form part of the backdrop. There was a theory that he was a victim of his own success and that he 'lost his subject' when the Cold War ended, but as he made clear, the spy story had been a part of literature many years before the Berlin Wall was erected. Attention is also given to a spat he had with Salman Rushdie on the matter of the latter's controversial 'The Satanic Verses', erupting to a fierce war of words in the press.

At one point about two-thirds of the way through, the biography becomes to some extent a chronicle of one book after another, with a look at the publishing deals, reviews and general reception, and sales. Some readers may find the pattern a little repetitive, but I personally found it all added to the picture and indeed the 'industry', as an overview of how the publishing process works along business lines for an author, yet without straying too far into the tedious minutiae of commerce and balance sheets, which it would have been all too easy to do. It is interesting to note that he is quoted as saying that 'The Mission Song' in 2001 would be his last book, and it was time for him to stop after that – but before long he had a change of heart. Once a writer, always a writer.

Sometimes, it is as if the man we are reading about is a split personality. Le Carré is one of the most successful writers of his age who has admitted to being 'completely out of step with the English literary scene', a man who has dined with presidents and prime ministers, a lifelong Labour voter yet an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and one of several in public life to have declined a knighthood. Cornwell is a very private man, the inference being that he perhaps never really escaped the shadow of his father, and seems keen to avoid the limelight. Nevertheless, Sisman has opened the door firmly on the man, his personal life and work, and succeeded at taking on the mantle of an authorised biographer who has treated his subject with affection and a measure of objectivity at the same time. The result is a truly comprehensive read.

Bookbag has already reviewed five of John le Carré's novels, namely Call for the Dead, A Delicate Truth, A Most Wanted Man, A Murder of Quality, and naturally The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, while Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticisms 1981 - 1991 by Salman Rushdie includes an essay analyzing him as a writer.

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