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Author John le Carré is profiled in Adam Sisman’s new biography.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press

John le Carré: The Biography
Adam Sisman
Knopf Canada

It wasn't enough, apparently, for Adam Sisman to write a biography of the reigning monarch of espionage fiction. John le Carré, the man responsible for the eye-opening Cold War-era novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and a host of subsequent thoughtful thrillers (including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Perfect Spy; and The Tailor of Panama) that imagined the spy world as a bureaucratic nightmare filled with bespectacled, paunchy men with tremendous global responsibility.

Instead, Sisman's new 600-plus-page book arrives touted as "The Biography" of le Carré, at least as far as the subtitle is concerned. The preposition is a bold declaration, a provocative dare and a big risk. But it's also hard-won, as Sisman, previously the biographer of Hugh Trevor-Roper and James Boswell, outclassed other would-be le Carré life chroniclers – including Robert Harris, before he became a bestselling thriller writer in his own right – and won the author's approval. Sisman was granted access to le Carré's apparently voluminous personal archive, tacit permission to ferret out truths the novelist might have preferred stayed unferreted, and a licence to tell the entire life story of the man otherwise known as David Cornwell.

And yet. For all of Sisman's diligence, for all of his dutiful chronicling of the rare literary career that garnered great commercial success and critical acclaim in tandem, his le Carré remains a figure we're told about, not shown. His le Carré, we are told, was born into pilfered privilege, affected by the cruelty of a public-school education and burned with anger thereafter. But we don't see nearly enough of it. His le Carré remains a cipher.

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This curious distance between biographer and subject is best summed up by le Carré's statement to Sisman that "I am bound, legally and morally, not to reveal the nature of my work with the SIS." Le Carré's brief career as a spy, with both MI5 and MI6, and over once The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a bestseller, is fleshed out further in Sisman's biography in spite of, not because of, le Carré's admissions.

That led the biographer on a frustrating quest to corroborate stories through third parties. At times this proves successful, as when Sisman delves into le Carré informing on would-be communists while a student at Oxford, the extent to which (including the friendships ruined) was not made clear before this book. But Sisman's overall frustration emerges in an oblique footnote, when le Carré remarks that a former MI5 chief "must have known pretty well that when I was in MI5 I ran one of its most prolific and successful agents for the better part of two years without mishap," but then, as Sisman notes, he "would not be drawn on who this was."

Absences dot the landscape of this entire biography. Sisman shines when he shifts focus to le Carré's parents, Ronnie and Olive Cornwell, their impulsive love corroded into a hell-made match that saw Olive flee her family when le Carré was 5, his older brother Tony 7. That left the boys with Ronnie, who would spend the remainder of his 69 years on Earth looking for the quickest way to riches and the most spectacular means of failure, taking every mark down in the process. Bad loans, failed mortgages, numerous affairs – one where he pretended to be his son, the famous author, which left le Carré baffled when the woman later claimed she knew him – and outright fraud.

Le Carré would sever ties and renew them over his life but he could never, ever shake his father's shadow. As such, whenever Ronnie appears in Sisman's narrative, like the drunk uncle you wish with utter fervour would stop talking at you in the loudest possible voice, it's a cringe-worthy, emotionally fraught experience for the reader, as it must have been for le Carré and his family. But the spectre Ronnie casts was grist for le Carré's fictional mill, most of all for Magnus Pym's filial ties in The Perfect Spy, and at times for several attempts at memoir, the most successful a short piece published in The New Yorker in the late 1990s.

Sisman tries to tie the effect of Olive's abandonment of her family on le Carré's emotional state, but the relationship seems more correlative than causal. (Men with absent mothers cheat and hold grudges just as men with present mothers do.) Le Carré's youthful marriage to Ann, mother of his first three children, was fraught with disaster, especially when he more or less freaked out at the prospect of fatherhood by involving himself in a love triangle with Susan and James Kennaway as he transformed from intelligence operative to famous writer.

Le Carré admits to Susan in a 1967 letter that he can't commit to her because he is "a painkiller, a concession man, grown-up on negotiating other people's emotions. A great big fat fraud." Ann's side gets her due, too, and her letters to her husband as their marriage fails seethe with jealousy and bitterness, accusing le Carré that she was "no more than a tie from the past he hasn't the heart to cut." But Sisman has little to say about le Carré's second wife Jane, a onetime scout for his long-time publisher Hodder & Stoughton, and as such we know little about her as a person instead of a veritable helpmeet. Presumably she co-operated with Sisman in limited capacity, but it means that what Jane does say to the biographer, notably that "nobody can have all of David" while referring to his propensity for extramarital affairs, packs a harder punch.

The le Carré on view in Sisman's biography is a man in perpetual motion, whether to escape his "black dogs" through constant travel or side affairs, or because his famous-author status afforded him opportunities unavailable to others. This emerges in a sly set piece in 1964 when le Carré gets off a plane in New York, driven to a "packed press conference" at the Plaza Hotel, and "as cameras flashed and microphones were pushed towards his face, [le Carré] realized that he was famous." He's also continually angry at something or someone, sparring with Salman Rushdie by letter for years over The Satanic Verses (neither man emerges unscathed), fighting with publishers and agents over payments due and being properly marketed or complaining in private about reviews he claimed in public not to have read. No wonder le Carré gravitates toward regimented solitude to get any meaningful fiction writing done.

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What is missing, despite repeated attempts to denote his daily writing life at his Treffigian estate in Cornwall, is a sense of le Carré's intellectual influence. Aside from what the younger le Carré memorized in public school, Sisman hardly notes what the man read, or even if he did much at all. Part of it, granted, is le Carré's general aversion to the London literary scene, but that doesn't seem enough explanation for this particular biographical absence.

Sisman hedges his bets on writing the definitive le Carré take with the introductory caveat that he plans a revised and updated edition "in the fullness of time." So it's no surprise Sisman ended up "a whaler in [the] skiff, being towed by a leviathan." Last month le Carré, now 84, announced he would publish his memoirs, titled The Pigeon Tunnel, next September. It may fill in the gaps he withheld from Sisman. It may be a series of entertaining anecdotes, along the lines of his thriller-peer Frederick Forsyth, whose own unabashedly enjoyable, if politically incorrect, memoir was just published. And it may show that a man well-versed in lying for a living cannot possibly be the subject of an authoritative biography, no matter how dutiful the attempt.

Sarah Weinman is the editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s.

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