Born to Lying

Theo Tait

  • John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman
    Bloomsbury, 652 pp, £25.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 4088 2792 5

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in