“The Secret Life of John Le Carré” by Adam Sisman (published by Profile Books)

Tinker, tailor, shagger, liar and serial philanderer

When Sisman published “John Le Carré, The Biography” in 2015, it was after the novelist placed constraints on him, leading to the omission of unflattering revelations. Now, with the death of le Carré in December 2020 Sisman is back for a second bite, this time unfettered. “I don’t care what you write about me after I’m dead,” le Carré had often told his biographer.
12. May 2024 5:50

As might be suspected, illicit sex is mostly what the secrecy was about, and the death of le Carré’s wife Jane in February 2021, two months after his, also helped lift the duvet. Sisman writes that he could fairly easily identify 11 women with whom le Carré had affairs during the first 30 years of their marriage, and Sisman was aware that there were plenty more.

In a nice piece of self-justification, le Carré once wrote to him: “My infidelities produced in my life a duality & a tension that became almost a necessary drug for my writing, a dangerous edge of some kind… They are not therefore a ’dark part’ of my life separate from the ’high literary calling’, so to speak, but, alas, integral to it, & inseparable.”

Alas indeed [and while not quite up to fellow author Georges Simenon’s extra-marital activities in the name of research, naughty enough – editor]. Nonetheless, le Carré restricted what Sisman could write in his lifetime – the truth but not the whole truth. Still, warts and all is the standard for an honest biography, and now Sisman is revealing that the subject of adultery loomed large in his interviews with le Carré and during his research.

He writes: “As I progressed, and inevitably uncovered more discomfiting details, David [le Carré’s real name] became agitated, and wrote to me in increasingly fervent terms. Our relations became strained.

“The book was only able to proceed after mediation by his eldest son Simon, who visited me in Bristol to discuss the project. He fully agreed with me that David’s relations with women were key to a full understanding of his work, and proposed that I should keep a ’secret annexe’ for eventual publication in some form after both David and Jane were dead.”

Sisman’s “secret annexe” is the basis of his new book and not a substitute for or a condensation of the 2015 biography, which was a doorstopper of 600-plus pages. A few paragraphs from “John Le Carré, The Biography” are included in “The Secret Life of John le Carré” so that interested readers and fans don’t necessarily need both volumes, though it would seem to be advisable in order to get the full picture.

As well as mainly catching up on the material that Sisman felt obliged to omit the first time round, the newer book offers fresh information that has come to light in the intervening years. It’s slimmer, shy of 170 pages, and these include around a dozen facsimiles of correspondence mostly between the two men. Call it an addendum.

Particularly telling is a facsimile of a typescript page from the 2015 biography, showing how le Carré revised phrases about “significant” affairs and got his way in covering up gory details. It must have become somewhat of an awkward position for Sisman to be in, though, the enforced control and then needing a second effort to enhance his own earlier work.

Also, he was beaten to the punch somewhat by the publication in October 2022 of “The Secret Heart, a memoir by le Carré’s sometime research assistant Sue “Suleika” Dawson, in which she outed herself as one of more than a dozen women to have had an affair with him after the success of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold provided sufficient funds for le Carré to indulge in willing women, luxury hotels, expensive presents, champagne lunches and “ research” trips away from home, including to remote islands.

Such extra-marital adventures required considerable planning, using code names in his address book, false names such as Congrove or Cosgrave to check into hotels, dead-letter boxes like those used by spies to pass on information, safe houses to take women in secret and sympathetic male friends to receive letters so that his wife wouldn’t see them.

Sisman is at pains not to be accused of prurience. “Now that he is dead, we can know him better,” he writes. And he offers a line from le Carré himself from his 1986 novel “A Perfect Spy” – “All of his life he’s been inventing versions of himself that are untrue.” Aficionados consider this book to contain much that le Carré based on his own life.

Sisman says that rather than being someone who voyeuristically peeps through keyholes, he is more inclined to linger in the corridor harrumphing to show he’s there. While he doesn’t believe that sex is the creative spark for writers, he does think le Carré’s pursuit of women was a key to unlock his fiction. It helped explain what, how, when and why he wrote.

Le Carré was the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell, who was born in Poole, Dorset, England on October 19, 1931, and so was aged 89 when he died at Royal Cornwall Hospital, Truro, on December 12, 2020 after a fall at his home. Jane lived to age 82. He wrote 26 suspenseful, realistic spy novels based on a sound knowledge of international espionage.

He was a member of the British Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom, and said “I am a writer who was a spy, not a spy who writes novels”. But Sisman says that in reality while John le Carré was a major writer, David Cornwell was only ever a very minor spy.

It was with an MI6 colleague’s wife in Bonn, Germany, that le Carré’s philandering began. This was during his first marriage to Ann, with whom he had three of his four sons. He was writing “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, his third novel, published in 1963 (after “Call for the Dead” in 1961 and “A Murder of Quality” in 1962) and the one that found huge success, enabling him to give up his day job.

But it also increased the pressure when writing book four, “The Looking Glass War” (1965), and he walked out on his family and into what he later called a “galaxy of inappropriate affairs”. Living in Hampstead in the 1970s, his cleaner was a drama student from the United States and he paid her fare back home after she miscarried during their affair.

A tryst with his secretary ended after he dropped her but then resumed contact three decades later to prevent her giving the game away to would-be biographer Graham Lord, whose book proposal he used lawyers to kill. And so it continues, bonk after bonk.

In conclusion, Sisman says much of le Carré’s behaviour was reprehensible: dishonesty, evasion and lying for decade after decade. It lowers him in our estimation, he says, but quotes the Bible: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” And the author’s troubled childhood helps excuse his defects as an adult, Sisman adds.

For the public, the hoary question arises: is it OK to continue to love films, books, music, paintings or whatever if the creator tarnishes our earlier trust? Readers can come to their own conclusions about popular and regarded author Mr John le Carré. The riches he earned allowed him to indulge in some sort of hidden fantasy life. However, the quotes from his letters to extra-marital lovers reveal someone who seems to be playing a silly and pathetic side game for his own delectation.

“Now that he has died, it is important to add this coda to the biography that he encouraged, semi-authorised and then tried to undermine,” writes Adam Sisman.

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