Adam Sisman’s “John le Carré” Spies on David Cornwell

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Photo of David Cornwell provided by HarperCollins.

One Sunday in the early 1990s, a grey, overcast December afternoon, I was walking across London’s Hampstead Heath not far from Parliament Hill when I saw two whippets tear across a field. They raced 100 yards or so and then dashed around in the direction from which they’d come.

Curious as to whom the whippets belonged, I watched them reach and then circle the only other person on the misty grey-green field. He was a tall, grey-haired man wearing a heavy overcoat and leaning into the wind as he trudged. Veering towards him with what I hoped would pass for random strolling but was actually deliberate — “stalking” isn’t quite the right word, but it’s close — I confirmed my suspicion.

I was approaching John le Carré — or as I knew him when not between book covers, David Cornwell. I recognized him from the photographs on dust jackets. I’d read most, if not all, of his novels and considered myself an ardent fan. I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to speak to a cultural idol — something my London friends found astonishing when I reported it to them later.

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With some deference and, I hoped, broadcasting no sense of entitlement, I walked up to him (he certainly saw me coming) and said, “Excuse me, but are you David Cornwell?” He acknowledged he was, and I identified myself as a devoted reader. He thanked me for that and didn’t seem to mind going along with a conversation that lasted about 10 minutes.

I asked him when I could expect the next novel but otherwise veered away from questions that I assumed he heard all the time, including “Where do you get your ideas?” and, perhaps more pointedly, “Were you really an MI6 spy?” They seemed to me to be surefire conversation stoppers. I remember getting a laugh from him when I said I imagined I’d see him not with whippets but with borzois — the Knopf logo. (He was one of their authors in those years.)

Only long after we’d parted did it occur to me that when I first spotted him, he could have been described as looking like a spy who’d come out into the cold. And it only occurred to me to wonder, when I started reading Adam Sisman’s just-published biography, John le Carré, whether my encounter might inexplicably appear in its pages. Sisman does refer to Cornwell, who lives near the Heath, saying he once based a character on someone he saw on one of his Heath walks. I’m sorry to say, however, that it couldn’t have been me.

This doesn’t deter me from praising Sisman for a book that gives as full an account of Cornwell as I could wish to find about a man who, as the son of an inveterate scam artist, was raised with a penchant for the elusive — a man bred to be hard to pin down.

It may be we flatter ourselves into thinking we can size someone up within minutes. Sisman gives the definitive lie to that presumption with his portrait of le Carré, a canvas that he acknowledges in his introduction cannot, by virtue of Cornwell’s contained cooperation, be finished.

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One thing Sisman confirms for me, however, is a conviction that le Carré, called David throughout, may be considered a crucial observer of the spy world — in large part based on his Oxford time working as an MI5 factotum and a subsequent few years dealing with MI6 operatives. But that spying is only his thematic cover.

Amassing pages on David’s relationship with his father, Ronald (“Ronnie”) Cornwell, Sisman leaves little doubt that through many of the novels — and certainly in A Perfect Spy — le Carré is driven in his fiction to handle the traditional and complex tussle between fathers and sons.

My guess is that if Cornwell hadn’t had Ronnie and his endless list of mostly failed schemes as a role model, there might have been no le Carré. Cornwell’s confusion as a young man regarding Ronnie’s exploits, and later as he frequently extricated his father from incorrigibly tight spots, is thus consistent. This was a father so devious that he once leaned on his son to pony up royalties for the schooling he’d paid for. Ronnie once even complained that Cornwell’s didn’t mention him in an interview.

This is another way of understanding the maxim that le Carré, like most authors, writes what he knows. And what he knows exists much of the time in the shadows of unhappiness. This is despite the eventual success when The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was published and the revenues billowed in.

Marrying Ann Sharp early on and having two sons, and when that marriage deteriorated marrying Jane Eustace and having another son — plus indulging in many extra-marital connections — can be regarded as a spin on his father’s life as well. Even when he assumes the name le Carré, Cornwell appears to be acting out a human condition more common than we might have thought: determining his true identity.

(That Cornwell is the performer his father was is crystal clear, though little else may be. The evidence is readily found on the audio recordings he’s made of his thrillers. He proves extremely able to slip into myriad accents for his characters. He’s also convincing the few times he’s shown up in cameo roles in adaptations of his novels. His half-sister Charlotte Cornwell is also an accomplished actor, which begs the question: Is acting a different form of Ronnie’s penchant for forgery?)

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Reviews of John le Carré maintain that the chapters leading up to the publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold are the most enthralling. It’s true that Cornwell’s formative years, up to and through his schooling at St. Andrew’s and Sherborne, his subsequent covert operations experience, his relationships with mentors like the George Smiley-ish figure Vivian Green, and his beginnings as a writer, are all full of enough intrigue to nearly match the intrigue on his pages.

It’s also true that most, if not all, the chapters following the arrival of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold — and the film adaptation with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor — are given to the subsequent works in an and-then-he-wrote fashion. But Sisman includes much worthwhile information on how the books came to be, and he particularly proves that with books like The Constant Gardener, the end of the Cold War didn’t stop le Carré from mining for subject matter, as many predicted it would,

Sisman might have included more about Cornwell’s relationships with loyal older brother Tony and with his three sons, and he could coax only so much from the author about his intelligence work. But the only lapse that may bother some readers is that he mentions more than once what an accomplished cartoonist Cornwell is and then omits any examples from among the illustrations. Still, the diligent biographer proves his implicit thesis that Cornwell, writing as le Carré, is one spy-vs-spy writer who does what many critics and readers have said so often of him that it’s now a cliché: He “transcends the genre.” Sisman gives abundant reasons why.