Book review: 'John le Carre: The Biography' is absorbing

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Betrayal, abandonment and the yearning to belong — these are the psychological tent poles of John le Carre's 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 flamboyant and 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."

"He has reimagined incidents in his past for his fiction," says Sisman, who interviewed the author for about 50 hours and had access to his archives, "and what he remembers afterwards tends to be the fictional reimagining rather than what actually occurred."

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

Cornwell, 84, asked his biographer to show "due respect to the sensitivities of living third parties," and as a result, the narrative of his private life is somewhat patchy. There is very little about the breakup of his first marriage or his relationship with his four sons. On the other hand, there's a lot of detail about his odd "Jules et Jim"-like relationship with his best friend, the writer James Kennaway, and Kennaway's wife, Susan.

As a boy, David Cornwell was embarrassed and humiliated by the con-man shenanigans of his high-living, social-climbing father, and as an outsider he tried hard to fit in at boarding school. He was poised, charming, a talented mimic and a gifted performer, but like the hero of his most autobiographical novel, "A Perfect Spy," he was in turmoil inside — aggrieved over his chaotic family life and the corporal punishment inflicted on him at school. These emotions would surface in the complicated attitudes toward authority and the establishment evinced in his novels.

"His was a hidden life, of outward conformity and inner rebellion," Sisman writes. "In retrospect, he would feel that he had been schooled into becoming a spy, learning the enemy's language, wearing his clothes, aping his opinions and pretending to share his prejudices."

As a student at Oxford, we learn in this book, Cornwell was asked to adopt a left-wing persona, infiltrate groups suspected of subversive leanings and report back on his fellow students to MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence service. Sisman's assessment: "Though perhaps not an ideologue, he had chosen loyalty to his country over loyalty to friends. The dilemma continued to trouble him; it was a theme that would recur repeatedly in his fiction."

Cornwell was disenchanted with MI5 as an organization: "For a while you wondered whether the fools were really pretending to be fools, as some kind of deception," he later wrote, "but alas, the reality was the mediocrity" — "everyone seemed to smell of failure." Training for MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service, was more intensive, including lessons in tradecraft (put to ample use in his novels), shooting and knife fighting, though Sisman observes that Cornwell "would never be at personal risk in his secret work."

Cornwell had harbored artistic aspirations since boyhood, and "going mad with boredom" with his work in intelligence, he began writing what would become his first novel, "Call for the Dead." When it was clear that his third effort, "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," was going to be a financial success, Cornwell quit his government job.

It was way more than an international best seller, of course. "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" — which explored the ambiguities of the Cold War and reflected Cornwell's disillusion with his job and his marriage — not only signified Cornwell's emergence as a thriller writer of the first order but also helped revolutionize the genre, which until then had been defined by the Manichean unsubtleties of Ian Fleming.

"John le Carré The Biography," by Adam Sisman. Illustrated. 652 pages. Harper/HarperCollins. $28.99.


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