How John le Carre’s Serial Adultery Shaped His Spy Novels

From a Washington Post review by Dan Fesperman headlined “How John le Carre’s serial adultery shaped his spy novels”:

The compact size and suggestive title of Adam Sisman’s new book, “The Secret Life of John le Carré,” might lead you to believe it is a tawdry rush job, thrown together to cash in on prurient curiosity now that its subject — the late David Cornwell, better known as literary spymaster John le Carré — is no longer around to defend himself or threaten to sue.

While there is plenty of tabloid-worthy material between its covers, the book is nonetheless complex and consequential — a portrait of lifelong duplicity and betrayal as carried out by a novelist whose work so often focused on those themes. By the end, we’re convinced that one reason le Carré wrote with such insight on these dark arts is because he was such an able and enthusiastic practitioner of them. He was a serial philanderer who employed the tradecraft of a spy — codes, cover names, dead letter boxes and safe houses — to carry out one affair after another during the 66 years of his two marriages.

As a bonus, the book is also a fascinating examination of the biographer’s art. Sisman published a much longer biography of le Carré in 2015. But in these new pages, the author humbly confesses that his earlier book failed to give readers the full story, mostly because, in exchange for his subject’s cooperation, he had allowed le Carré to shut down several lines of inquiry, make deletions from the text and badger him into several major acts of suppression.

By bending to le Carré’s will (and also to the United Kingdom’s high-risk libel and defamation laws, which can hamstring writers even when their material is reliable), Sisman, in effect, helped keep le Carré from blowing his cover, right up until his death nearly three years ago at the age of 89.

This new book, Sisman writes, “might be described as What Was Left Out,” and he maintains that it was le Carré himself who made the strongest biographical case for someday exposing this aspect of his life:

“My infidelities,” he wrote to me at a time when, for better or worse, the issue had come to dominate our discussions, “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.”

One can’t help but suspect that Sisman might be hiding an additional motive — literary vengeance. Not only did le Carré undermine Sisman’s previous book, he also upstaged its publication, by announcing just days beforehand that he was writing a memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel.” And that book was a bit of a rush job; more than half its pages had previously appeared elsewhere. (Errol Morris has recently released a documentary of the same name, built around interviews filmed a year before le Carré’s death.)

Whatever the case, Sisman’s new book casts le Carre’s life and writing in a fresh light, because up to now the dominant perception was that he wrote so well about deception and betrayal due to his horrible childhood.

He was 5 years old when his mother abandoned him, which left him in the hands of his father, Ronnie Cornwell, an incurable con man who taught the young David to lie and deceive on Dad’s behalf as Ronnie schemed his way in and out of trouble. The fuller version of that story is available in Sisman’s earlier biography and, better still, in the fictionalized account le Carré gave us in “A Perfect Spy,” perhaps his finest novel.

The young Cornwell supposedly refined his skills in double-dealing by working as a low-level spy for MI5 and MI6. He then began to write fiction under his pen name. When his third novel, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” became an international bestseller, he quit the spy game to write full time.

At that point, according to Sisman’s earlier biography (and also according to many interviews given by the novelist), le Carré’s education in duplicity and betrayal were mostly complete. In reality, Sisman says now, there was plenty of learning yet to be done, mostly through personal acts of deception carried out in an almost continuous stream of extramarital affairs.

Sisman writes that he was easily able to identify 11 women with whom le Carré had affairs during his second marriage, “and I am aware that there were plenty more besides these.”

Like a prosecutor presenting a case, Sisman then lays out his evidence, woman by woman. These accounts accumulate somewhat drearily, like pellets of sleet against a windowpane, and the effect is chilling. If you were editing this as a work of fiction, you’d be slashing and condensing, partly because le Carré tended to use the same tactics and even the same words in letters and conversations as he pursued each subsequent object of his intense but fleeting passions.

Gradually one sees the point to this repetition, as it becomes apparent that le Carré was using material from these relationships to create characters, build plots and illuminate the themes of his novels. Or, as Sisman writes, “Thus Liese Deniz inspired ‘The Honourable Schoolboy,’ Verity Mosley and Janet Lee Stevens ‘The Little Drummer Girl,’ Sue Dawson ‘A Perfect Spy,’ the Italian journalist ‘The Russia House,’ Susan Anderson ‘The Tailor of Panama’ and to some extent ‘Our Game’ also, Yvette Pierpaoli ‘The Constant Gardener,’ and so on.”

The women themselves noted these influences right away, of course, when they would recognize scenes from their lives — and sometimes dialogue from their own conversations — turn up in their lover’s novels, often after he had already moved on to some other muse.

One of them, Dawson, has already spoken out on the subject. A year ago, she published a tell-all of her affair, “The Secret Heart,” under the pen name Suleika Dawson. Although Dawson figures prominently in Sisman’s account, her story is quickly submerged in the sheer volume of all the others.

This book may enrich Sisman materially, but he seems quite aware of the cost to his reputation as a biographer. It is an implicit admission that he fell short in his initial, and much longer, attempt: “In theory I was free to write what I thought fit; but in practice I was constrained.”

Whatever one ends up thinking about this book, it will surely shape the way future readers and biographers view le Carré, not only as a human being but as a writer. Clearly, he drew upon his infidelities to enrich and enliven his fiction, and in doing so he often conducted his life as if it were a progression of clandestine ops; the author who never came in from the cold.

Dan Fesperman is the author of 13 novels. His latest, “Winter Work,” will be available in paperback in December.

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