For sheer entertainment, there is no better postwar English novelist than John le Carré. When Adam Sisman tells us in his intriguing biography that the brilliant Karla trilogy of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People was planned as a loose, extended novel cycle after the manner of Balzac’s Comédie humaine, the tease is almost too mean, especially for those of us who think that le Carré’s work has suffered since the end of the Cold War and would like nothing better than to know what poor shabby Toby Esterhase did with himself in the “Cool Britannia” ’90s.
Unlike so many other specimens of the spy genre, le Carré’s best novels continue to delight upon rereading not because we are able to suspend our knowledge of their plots but because, like the Matryoshka dolls that appear in the credits of the old BBC miniseries adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, they can be taken apart and put back together over and over again with a kind of inexplicable childish wonder as we hope for a glimpse of something hidden amid the curiously painted faces.
The nesting doll is an appropriate symbol for le Carré’s life as well as his work. Like A.J.A. Symans’s classic The Quest for Corvo or Evelyn Barish’s recent life of Paul de Man, this is biography as detective work, or, if you like, as espionage. Sisman, previously the author of excellent biographies of A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, questions his subject’s truthfulness for the first time on page four, when he tells us that le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, was either being credulous toward his mother’s memory or simply inventing when he gave an account of his parents’ first meeting in an essay in the New Yorker in 2002. Though he secured le Carré’s cooperation for the book, including 50 hours of interviews and access to the author’s private papers, there are many things that at the end of 600 pages he still does not know. Even something as fundamental as the origin of his subject’s pen name, French for “the square,” is shrouded in mystery.
Le Carré, referred to throughout as “David,” was born in 1931 to “Ronnie” and Olive Cornwell. The elder Cornwell is one of the most colorful and least sympathetic fathers in literary history. He dominates the first fifth or so of the book. The son of a Non-Conformist businessman and local Liberal politician in Dorset, Ronnie was a confidence trickster who lost thousands of pounds of other people’s money in various investment schemes and was twice imprisoned. He fondly bragged that he had never read a book. He molested his children, including the young le Carré, and told them that he would be judged by God on the basis of how he treated them.
After attending Sherbourne, where le Carré did his best to brush off embarrassing questions—where did the money come from?—about his family, most of which he could not then have answered, the young le Carré continued his education in Berne. Following military service abroad, he continued to Oxford, where he studied modern languages and had his first stint in intelligence work reporting on undergraduate left-wing activity for MI5. Upon earning his degree in 1956, he became a schoolmaster, like Jim Prideaux in Tinker Tailor. Two years later, however, he was working as a spook again, doing, it appears, mostly low-level dirty work—phone tapping, breaking and entering, interrogations, and the like. In 1960, he was at the British Embassy in Bonn at the behest of MI6. By the time he left the service in 1964, he had already published three novels, the third of which, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was an immediate, albeit surprising bestseller. It was also a great critical success.
It is instructive to compare this novel’s spare, dialogue-driven opening pages, with their effortlessly established atmosphere of tension and indeterminacy—is it dust or fog or cigarette smoke rising from beneath the lamps?—with those of another representative thriller of the period. Here is how Ian Fleming begins Moonraker, with gunshots and brand names and dialogue that would be embarrassing in a TV Western:
The two thirty-eights roared simultaneously.
The walls of the underground room took the crash of sound and batted it to and fro between them until there was silence. James Bond watched the smoke being sucked from each of the room towards the central Ventaxia fan. The memory in his right hand of how he had drawn and fired with one sweep from the left made him confident. He broke the chamber sideways out of the Colt Detective Special and waited, his gun pointing at the floor, while the Instructor walked the twenty yards towards him through the half-light of the gallery.
Bond saw that the Instructor was grinning. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “I got you that time.”
This biography is investigative, not interpretive or analytical. Minus a few lines in the introduction, Sisman is uninterested in shoring up his subject’s reputation. He does not pass judgment on le Carre’s numerous love affairs, most of them, even the ones recounted without naming the other party, very cold-blooded sounding indeed. Nor does he tell us what he thinks about le Carré’s increasingly conspiratorial and vapid politics, which have nothing of the charm of his characters’ gin-soaked Tory nihilism.
It is hard not to admire le Carré’s professed willingness to let Sisman go about his work, though it is clear that he has not been above all interference. It may be many decades before all our questions about his intelligence work—much of which, he claims, was utterly inconsequential—are answered. In his introduction, Sisman tells us that he is preparing “a revised and updated version” of the biography to be published after his subject’s death. I look forward to seeing the second edition, and not only because I am curious about what has been held back. There are some questionable editorial decisions here. Why do Sisman’s editors think that anyone interested in reading 600-plus pages about le Carré would need to be reminded who Rudyard Kipling (“the great imperial poet”) was? Why would the same reader not be thrown off on page one when Gladstone is referred to simply as “the Grand Old Man … of blessed memory”?
Still, this book is a substantial achievement. It confirms Sisman’s reputation as one of the best literary biographers now working in English.