- - Tuesday, December 1, 2015


By Adam Sisman

Harper/HarperCollins, $28.99, 652 pages

“I’m a liar,” John le Carre explained to Adam Sisman, his biographer. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.”

John le Carre, 84, aka David Cornwell, is a spy novelist who has received critical acclaim as well as commercial success since 1964 when he published “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” The former British intelligence officer has published 21 espionage novels, including the Cold War classic, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which was made into a fine BBC TV seven-part series that starred the late, great Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

Mr. le Carre has led an interesting life, as we learn from the biography. Born in 1931 in Poole, England, he had an unhappy childhood. His father Ronnie was a notorious con man who served time in prison for fraud, and his mother deserted the family when Mr. le Carre was only five. His motherless childhood and his ambivalent feelings toward his crooked father have influenced nearly all of his fiction, especially “A Perfect Spy,” which Mr. Sisman says is Mr. le Carre’s most autobiographical novel.

After attending the Universities of Bern and Oxford, Mr. le Carre taught briefly at Eton and then became an MI5 officer. He later transferred to MI6, the foreign intelligence service, and served in Germany. While a young, junior intelligence officer, Mr. le Carre published his first novel, “Call for the Dead” in 1961 and published “A Murder of Quality” in 1962. He left MI6 in 1964 to become a full-time novelist.

Although Mr. le Carre’s spy fiction has been hailed by critics as the realistic antidote to Ian Fleming’s admittedly highly romanticized James Bond thrillers, many of Mr. le Carre’s former intelligence colleagues have been highly critical of the moral ambiguity portrayed in his novels. Even his mentor and friend from MI5, John Bingham, one of the models for Mr. le Carre’s George Smiley character, disliked the negative portrayal of the service in the novels. According to the biography, Bingham disliked the bleakness and the nihilism presented in the books.

“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” had presented the Circus as fiendishly cunning, if disturbingly amoral; “The Looking Glass War” portrayed the Department as incompetent and deluded,” Mr. Sisman writes. “For David’s former colleagues in MI5 and MI6, his satirical depiction of a botched operation by fools living on past glories made uncomfortable reading. Some of them resented it, or found it offensive. ‘I suppose it is better to foul one’s nest by remote control after one has left it,’ Bingham commented to his wife.”

Mr. le Carre, while basking in the critical acclaim, writes that his spy novels are not realistic. “Nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality. Yet I am treated by the media as though I wrote espionage handbooks.”

The biography covers Mr. le Carre’s affairs and marriages, literary feuds, and squabbles with editors and publishers, but what most interested me were the passages about his worldwide travels while researching his novels; who he met and who he based his characters on. I also enjoyed reading about the making of the miniseries “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy” and Mr. le Carre’s friendship with Alec Guinness.

I wish the biography covered more of his five years in British intelligence, but that’s a subject in which Mr. le Carre was not very forthcoming, even all these years after the Cold War ended.

Mr. Sisman states that this is not an authorized biography, although Mr. le Carre allowed the biographer to spend 50 hours interviewing him. He also allowed Mr. Sisman access to his archives. Mr. le Carre only asked his biographer to “pay due regard to the sensitivities of living persons.” From his extensive research, Mr. Sisman was able to catch several errors in Mr. le Carre’s recollections during the interviews. Mr. Sisman kindly called these lies and exaggerations “false memories” and “fictional recreation.”

It will be interesting to see how Mr. le Carre’s memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life,” which will be published in September 2016, matches up to the biography.

I’ve been a reader and admirer of Mr. le Carre since the 1960s, although I don’t subscribe to his leftist views and his anti-Americanism. His later novels are not as good as his earlier ones, in my view, as they are marred by his political shrillness. Yet I continue to read Mr. le Carre because he is, after all, a fine writer.

Mr. Sisman offers a well-written and well-researched biography of a most interesting writer.

Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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