You don’t need the detective powers of George Smiley, or a conspiratorial mindset, to divine that something odd is going on behind the scenes of Adam Sisman’s new biography of John le Carré. In the past, would-be biographers have been discouraged from poking their noses into the business of David Cornwell, the former spy who has written under that curious pseudonym since 1961. Robert Harris chose not to proceed, for reasons that are hinted at but not made clear in this book, while in the early 1990s the journalist Graham Lord withdrew under a heavy legal barrage, after circulating an allegedly libellous proposal for his book. ‘I didn’t want him gumshoeing around my children, my ex-mistresses, my everything,’ Cornwell said years later. Lord told the Daily Telegraph that he ‘had letters from lawyers arriving every day. It was probably the worst time of my life.’
Cornwell agreed to co-operate with Sisman after reading his last book, a Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper. In an intriguingly cagey introduction, Sisman describes the resulting deal. Cornwell would give him long interviews, access to his archives, and a list of introductions. ‘I was to have a free hand to write what I wanted, provided that I showed “due respect to the sensitivities of living third parties”. I also agreed that he should have the opportunity to read the typescript before anyone else.’ It would be ‘disingenuous’, Sisman writes, to suggest that there had not been ‘difficulties’ between them; and there were certain areas, such as his career in the intelligence services, which Cornwell refused to discuss in detail. One day, while examining Cornwell’s archives at his home near Land’s End, Sisman noticed ‘a shadow over my shoulder’, and looked up to see the novelist standing over him. It’s an image that stays with the reader. The book depicts Cornwell as a man you wouldn’t want to cross: very clever and very touchy; helpful and generous to those he trusts, but unforgiving and vindictive towards those he sees as a threat or a disappointment.
Perhaps the back-story explains this rather strange book. For the first 350 pages, covering the period from Cornwell’s birth in 1931 to the early 1970s, this is an exemplary biography of an old-fashioned sort, and it tells a fascinating story. If you’re interested in what Sisman calls the ‘vintage period’ of le Carré’s fiction – up to Smiley’s People (1979), by my reckoning – it is a delight. It will tell you that he got the idea for Leamas, the burnt-out case in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), while watching an exhausted, dead-eyed traveller at Heathrow, who drew a handful of coins in different currencies from his pocket ‘and slammed them down on the bar, demanding a large Scotch, in … a faint Irish accent’. It will give you Kim Philby’s astute judgment on le Carré’s work: ‘Although his plots were more complicated than anything within my own experience, they were good reading after all that James Bond nonsense … Actually, I have all his books and have enjoyed them all, except The Honourable Schoolboy; it was so long and so far-fetched that it faded long before the end.’ The second half, though, is something else altogether. In it Sisman appears to have abandoned any real effort at examining the man and his life, in favour of summarising the plots of his novels, offering snippets from the reviews, and listing awards and honours.
The story of Cornwell’s early life will be familiar if you’ve read le Carré’s most obviously autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy (1986), and it is dominated by his father. I had assumed that there were elements of satirical exaggeration in the portrait of Rick Pym, the father of the novel’s protagonist; in fact, it seems le Carré toned his father down. Ronnie Cornwell was, according to Alan Clark’s brother Colin (one of his many victims), ‘the best conman ever’:
I had never seen anyone who looked so trustworthy in my life. He was your favourite uncle, your family doctor, Bob Boothby and Father Christmas all rolled into one. He was stout and beaming with white hair and bushy white eyebrows. He wore a black jacket and a waistcoat, and striped trousers like a faithful old family retainer, or Lord Reith. Ronnie knew how to fix anything – tickets for the Cup Final, a box at Ascot, dinner at the most exclusive restaurant in town. He had an attractive wife who hardly spoke and who obviously worshipped him. His accountant was perpetually on call to substantiate his claims to wealth and inside knowledge.
Raised as a devout Baptist in Poole, Ronnie inherited from his father, a pillar of the local tabernacle, ‘an oratorical style and an evangelical vocabulary’. He was able to cry at will, and often did. A man of immense charm, he had a devoted ‘court’: a long-serving group of hangers-on, including a crooked lawyer, a dodgy accountant, a builder and a chauffeur. There were often several ‘lovelies’ in his entourage, which at his many parties expanded to include worthies from the local Masonic lodge, jockeys, boxers, stand-up comedians, and on one occasion the entire touring Australian cricket team. When he was jailed for the first time in 1934, for fraud, Ronnie befriended not only the prosecuting barrister but the prison governor. His family lived the life of ‘millionaire paupers’, inhabiting lavish houses in the Home Counties, holidaying in St Moritz and keeping racehorses with personalised livery – for as long as the creditors were kept at bay.
There’s something near heroic about the scale and range of Ronnie Cornwell’s scams. Mostly he ‘worked’ in property, but he also ran for Parliament in order to avoid being called up during the war, which he spent as a spiv, selling chocolate, benzedrine, nylon stockings and ballpoint pens on the black market. Eventually, he was briefly and ingloriously conscripted. Afterwards, he styled himself Colonel Cornwell, but would pretend to be embarrassed by the rank. ‘“Colonel,” he would say. “What’s all this about Colonel? Don’t be so damn foolish. We’re all civilians now.”’ He failed to pay the fees at David’s smart boarding schools, sometimes offering shipments of contraband goods in lieu, but would arrive in a Bentley to take his son and his friends out for lavish meals. Later on in life, he would turn up in, say, Berlin, claiming to be his son’s business representative; he even appears to have seduced a woman on a night train in Europe, passing himself off as the well-known author John le Carré. Towards the end of his life, Ronnie moved around the world leaving a trail of unpaid bills, getting himself in ever more improbable scrapes. He was arrested for failing to pay his hotel bills in Vienna, and for gun-running in Jakarta. He presented himself in Singapore and Malaysia as the representative of the Vernons and Littlewoods football pools; returning to England, he appeared at the two companies’ offices, declaring: ‘I represent the prime minister of Singapore and the tunku of Malaysia.’
Less amusingly, he also inflicted devastating damage on many people. Sisman tells the story of a sad, alcoholic ‘upper-class remittance man’ called Gordon Hobson, who attached himself to Ronnie ‘like a lost dog’. ‘I hope your father knows what he’s doing,’ he told David, ‘because he’s had all my money!’ All the money disappeared, and Hobson killed himself. Ronnie’s first wife, Olive, was the sister of the Liberal MP for East Dorset, raised, she said, amid ‘Bible-punching hypocrisy’. Her family disapproved of Ronnie, whom she married in 1928, and he confirmed their worst suspicions by fleecing them of large amounts of money. Olive was roped into cashing his bouncing cheques, and called into the bankruptcy courts. Ronnie, she said later, was ‘incorrigible’: he twice impregnated her best friend, Mabel George, and inveigled the pair of them into a threesome. Eventually, Olive eloped with one of his business associates, leaving her two sons, David and Tony, then five and seven, sleeping upstairs.
After her departure, Ronnie sometimes intimated that she was ill; at others that she had fallen into immoral ways. (‘Never judge, son. That’s God’s job, not ours.’) The two abandoned boys were left ‘frozen’, in David’s words. He would ask women visiting the house if they were his mother. Years later, when he re-established contact with Olive, she explained that Ronnie had infected her with syphilis while she was pregnant, and that when David was born in 1931 he had pus dripping out of his eyes. ‘Olive spoke freely about Ronnie’s sexual appetites,’ Sisman writes, ‘and presented her son with a tattered copy of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis as a guide.’ As a child, David was enlisted in Ronnie’s bizarre business schemes, such as a whisky racket involving the Panamian ambassador to Paris. He and his siblings also seem to have been ‘groped’ by their father. In later life, Ronnie sponged off David, blackmailed him emotionally and financially, and threatened him with libel actions. When David started work at MI5 in 1958, the head of personnel asked him: ‘Have you got over your father yet?’ The answer, clearly, was no.
Boarding schools play a significant role in le Carré’s fiction, from his second novel, the whodunit A Murder of Quality (1962), to the opening scenes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), to the central motif of The Honourable Schoolboy (1977). But it’s no wonder, given Cornwell’s early life, that he clung to the public school ethos as if it were a lifeline. After attending a prep school in Berkshire, he went to Sherborne School. There he reinvented himself very successfully, like one of those clubbable but secretive characters from his books: he ‘seemed mature both physically and psychologically, successful in his academic work and on the sports field … witty and popular with his schoolmates, a charismatic individual apparently at ease with himself – though guarded about his family’. His housemaster, R.S. Thompson, ‘known to the boys as “Thompers”’, an awkward, balding High Anglican, realised that Cornwell was suffering, and told the boy at a crucial moment that he must choose ‘between God and Mammon’. By Mammon, he meant Ronnie.
Cornwell later wrote about his habit of ‘embracing an institution, then fighting my way clear of it’. This pattern first emerged when, aged 16, he bolted from Sherborne to study German in Bern. As is often the case during critical episodes in his life, the circumstances are slightly mysterious and Cornwell’s own stories don’t quite tally. In Switzerland, he honed his excellent German, studied German literature and was recruited over a glass of sherry by a pair of British diplomats who called themselves Wendy and Sandy to spy on left-wing student groups. ‘Keen to prove himself a patriot’, he agreed.
Over the next decade and a half, Cornwell performed a whistlestop tour of the British establishment, with added espionage thrown in, charming and impressing people wherever he went. In 1950, he started his National Service, serving mostly as an intelligence officer in Austria, where he debriefed refugees from behind the Iron Curtain. In 1952, he went to Lincoln College, Oxford to study modern languages. Again, he spied on his fellow students and friends, this time for MI5, adopting a ‘left-wing persona’ in order to identify the Burgesses and Macleans of the future. He conceded later that there was something ‘morally repugnant’ about this – some of his reports may have affected his targets’ careers – but also said that ‘somebody has to clean the drains’: he thought what he did was ‘necessary’ while the Soviet Union remained a threat. He bolted from Oxford – this time to marry his long-term girlfriend, Ann Sharp, the intelligent and artistic daughter of a raffish RAF war hero. The couple would have three boys. His father’s latest bankruptcy had left him penniless, so Cornwell taught for a while at Edgarley Hall, a prep school in Somerset, before going back to Oxford to complete his final year. He graduated with a first class degree in 1956.
The next stop was Eton, where Cornwell taught German and French. He was impressed by his cleverer students but horrified by the snobbery and pointless, arcane rules. Teachers told him to pass the vegetables from the left-hand side, while the boys were appalled that he and Ann put the milk in the cup before the tea. Sisman quotes his former pupil Ferdinand Mount’s memoir Cold Cream, which calls Cornwell a ‘born teacher’: ‘He switches on charm or menace at will and when the yobs at the back start to make trouble he delivers merciless and exact parodies of their arrogant, languid voices.’ But after two years he was on his way again, to a new job in the civil service. Word got round Eton that ‘Corns is going to be a spy.’
Sisman’s depiction of MI5 is atmospheric, even if the specifics of Cornwell’s work are a little hazy. It was, Sisman says, a ‘dead-end sort of place’: former colonial policemen mingled with ‘failed academics, failed lawyers, failed missionaries and failed debutantes’. Faded war heroes and hopeless alcoholics rubbed up against skilled intelligence officers such as John Bingham, an inconspicuous, ‘short, tubby, bespectacled man’ who cleaned his glasses with the fat end of his tie. Le Carré borrowed many of Bingham’s traits for his unassuming super-spy George Smiley (another model was Vivian Green, a chaplain at his school and his Oxford college, and a long-term mentor). The unmasking of some, but not all, of the Cambridge spies had left MI5 ‘riven with suspicion and rumour’. Cornwell seems to have run some agents and informers, and to have done a lot of vetting work. This provided the plot for his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), about a senior civil servant, a former communist, who commits suicide after being vetted by Smiley. Again, Cornwell impressed people greatly; again, he left, this time for the more dashing and socially desirable MI6. As Sisman explains: ‘MI6 was White’s, MI5 the Rotary Club.’
Cornwell, Sisman suggests, was never ‘at risk’ during his four-year stint in the foreign intelligence service, which started in 1960. The closest he came to the sort of cloak-and-dagger work depicted in his books was during his training, when he had to pose for a few days as a German tourist in Brighton. ‘On his last day the local police arrested him and subjected him to an intense interrogation, after a cooling off period in the cells … Apparently David spoke in a convincing German accent throughout.’ Cornwell was at a secret training site in Portsmouth when he heard that his first novel had been accepted for publication by Victor Gollancz. He was posted to Bonn soon afterwards, with a brief, it seems, to spy on local neo-Nazi groups. By this time, his marriage had come under strain; he began an affair with a married woman, not named by Sisman.
His first two novels earned him some money on the side; but Cornwell’s life changed completely with the publication in 1963 of his third, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a dingy, bleak and brilliantly plotted novel about a game of bluff and counter-bluff between British and East German intelligence. Graham Greene helped it on its way by calling it ‘the best spy story I have ever read’. It took the genre into what the paranoid CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton, citing T.S. Eliot, called ‘a wilderness of mirrors’, and topped bestseller lists in Britain and America. Cornwell described his sudden success as ‘like being in a car crash’. He resigned from MI6 in 1964. Once again, the exact sequence of events is unclear, but he left shortly after learning that his authorial cover had been blown by the Sunday Times, and that his net worth had reached £20,000.
His new lifestyle involved moving the family to Crete or Vienna, then jetting off to America on publicity tours or visiting Dublin to work with Richard Burton on the film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In time, it ruined his marriage. Cornwell became passionately involved with the writer James Kennaway and his wife, Susan, a glamorous couple described by one friend as ‘Scott and Zelda, with manners’. James was an enthusiastic philanderer, which he explained to Susan with reference to his artistic needs. But when Cornwell and Susan began an affair, he took it very badly and briefly left Susan. He sent worrying telegrams from Italy, and made threatening phone calls to Cornwell from a brothel in Marseille. The three met up in the Austrian Alps to clear the air. At one point James interrupted the ‘swearing and laughing and crying’ to declare: ‘My god, this is going to make a good book.’ (He was wrong: le Carré wrote a fictionalised version of the love triangle in his only non-thriller, The Naive and Sentimental Lover, published in 1971, which many readers, like the reviewer from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, struggled through, ‘gripped by a wild yearning for secret agents’.)
Up to this point , Sisman’s book has convincingly described Cornwell’s life, with special reference to the parts of it that found a home in his fictional world. This is exactly what you want a biography of a novelist to do: Sisman doesn’t force any definitive interpretations, just presents the material in a lucid and suggestive way. The surprising thing about the best le Carré novels isn’t that they tell exciting stories which have obvious metaphorical weight – there are, after all, countless novels and films about double agents and upper-class traitors during the Cold War – but that he gave such a realistic and distinctive texture to his ingenious, diagrammatic plots. His early books contend, as Bill Haydon puts it in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, that ‘the secret services are the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.’ And they manage to make this strange claim quite compelling.
Sisman provides at least part of the explanation for this: Cornwell spent his whole early life at a point where the ruling class shaded into the underworld, where deception and betrayal were part of the wallpaper. By his early thirties, when his first big hit was written, he had been sent by his father to place illegal bets on horses; he had spied on his friends at Oxford; he had probably run agents at home and abroad; he had translated for German politicians visiting a doddery Harold Macmillan in Downing Street. Cornwell, apparently an excellent mimic and raconteur as well a keen caricaturist, was taking notes all the time, and subtly reinventing what he saw. Sisman is tactful but persistent about what he calls ‘the need to be wary’ about relying on Cornwell’s testimony; there is a long series of footnotes and asides, pointing out cases of ‘false memory’, or gently asserting that ‘it is difficult to understand how this could be so.’ As the author himself has warned: ‘I’m a liar. Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist.’
You can see that, by contrast, the second half of his life provides relatively little material. Le Carré’s autobiographical sketches dry up, and although he has been writing superior thrillers for fifty years, the more recent books are much less distinctive and interesting. There may be a simple reason for this: whereas his early books were distilled from a particular world that he knew intimately, from The Honourable Schoolboy onwards le Carré has necessarily had to rely on heavy research. Even the best of his later work – notably The Constant Gardener (2001) – is journalistic. It has the virtues of journalism: an eye for a good story and a righteous cause. It also has its vices: a tendency towards rant, cliché and stock character. As he cast his net wider, he came across certain classes of character, largely absent from his earlier books, which he struggled with: women, Americans, young people.
But the real problem with Sisman’s book is that at a certain point the reader is banished from Cornwell’s life. In 1968, he met Jane Eustace, who worked in publishing as a foreign rights manager. Described as ‘modest and retiring’ but ‘forceful’, she has served as his gatekeeper ever since; and here the gate is largely kept shut. Sisman, for instance, reveals that Cornwell continued to have numerous affairs. ‘From an early stage in their relationship Jane has suffered David’s extramarital adventures, and tried to protect him from their consequences,’ he writes. ‘Though it has not been easy for her, she has behaved with quiet dignity.’ I don’t see why a biographer shouldn’t deal with infidelities in this unprurient, reasonable way – but the difficulty is that this skating over the surface is part of a wider pattern.
In the first half of the biography, we get a rounded portrait of David Cornwell. In the second half, we get John le Carré the public author: his successes, his reviews, his celebrity friendships (with Alec Guinness and Stephen Fry), his celebrity spats (with Salman Rushdie). There is little about his son from his second marriage, Nicholas (who writes as Nick Harkaway), and practically nothing about his relationships with his three sons from the first marriage. We’re told that he felt discouraged from writing an autobiography because ‘the prospect is so sad, and potentially disquieting for my children, & the truth of it so hard to get at.’ Yet we are given only glimpses of why this might be the case, mostly from his professional life: flashes of temper as he fires an agent of long standing, or rages against his (mostly very respectful) reviews.
It’s hard not to feel that there is a great deal we’re not being told, as we read at length about the arrangements for his eightieth birthday party (‘Guests were asked to leave their cars in a field, from which they were transported to the site by taxi-van’). Did he switch on the menace with Sisman, as well as the charm? Possibly: the publication of Sisman’s biography was delayed. In the meantime, it emerged that, after all, a le Carré memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, will appear next year. Sisman says that his biography is ‘a work in progress’. I find myself suspecting, and hoping, that he has a rather more revealing version of the second half of his book stashed away.
But perhaps this is to imagine too much. It’s interesting that, although Cornwell has given various accounts of what his pseudonym means, the truth appears to be that he chose it simply because it looked intriguing. Similarly, Sisman suggests that ‘one does not have to be excessively cynical’ to suspect that he has refused to discuss his career as a spy less out of loyalty to his agents than out of a desire to preserve his mystique. The habits of suspicion die hard when dealing with le Carré, but while he’s certainly a slippery character, the older man may well be a sphinx without a secret.