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Book cover: A man wearing a top hat and holding a briefcase.

Adam Sisman
The Secret Life of John le Carré

Adam Sisman’s 2015 work, John le Carré: The Biography, did a great job of narrating the writer’s life. The man who created Smiley and Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was born David Cornwell, the son of an astonishing con man, and worked for the Secret Service. Biographer and subject agreed they would avoid mentioning le Carré’s affairs until after his death.

These affairs have now come to light. A year ago we had the reminiscences, published as The Secret Heart – John le Carré: An Intimate Memoir, of Suleika Dawson, who had met le Carré while abridging his work for an audio book. She is one of a handful of women who seem to have provided him with a solace that it’s difficult not to see as solipsistic and self-regarding.

Sisman met le Carré’s wife, Jane Cornwell, in 2014; le Carré went for a long walk, leaving his wife and biographer alone to discuss his infidelities. She uttered words Sisman is certain she had been instructed to repeat: “Nobody can have all of David.” Le Carré claimed they were more monogamous than most couples but The Secret Life suggests the only person who had all of David was le Carré himself.

Sisman delineates a gargantuan egotistical sublimity in le Carré. It is as if these women existed only to excite his sense of personal dominion and to spice up his quest for a self to conjure with.

He really does sound like a “fuckboy”, with a charm that reached a level of grandeur. Pity the poor women, not least his wife.

There’s an extraordinary imaginative power in le Carré’s re-creation of the false memory of his father in prison garb waving to him from a window. It makes perfect sense that his biographer should put together the appalling and enthralling stories of these women.

The other thing that complicates Sisman’s account is le Carré was limbering up for the documentary, The Pigeon Tunnel, which was also released this year and perhaps upstages the biography. There’s an irony in the fact that director Errol Morris’s interrogation of le Carré should have been released on Apple TV+ at almost exactly the same time as Sisman’s very tight account of these boggling affairs. 

Profile Books, 208pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "The Secret Life of John le Carré".

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The Secret Life of John le Carré

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