New John le Carré Biography Attempts to Unravel the Spy Writer's Mystique

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Prolific spy novelist David Cornwell (better known by his pen name, John le Carré) in 1985. David Montgomery/Getty/HarperCollins

Adam Sisman seems dazed. The night before I speak with him, he attended a launch party for his latest book, the 672-page biography John le Carré, about the prolific British spy novelist, which took Sisman half a decade of intense research to complete and had been published in the U.K. two days earlier. Before the party, he sat down for three consecutive interviews on BBC Radio, and in a few days the Guardian would publish a piece he wrote about le Carré's political beliefs. A few days after that, the book hit U.S. shelves. "My job is a bit like being a mole tunneling underground," Sisman tells me. "You don't have anything to do with anybody for several years, and then suddenly you pop up into the light." The sudden rash of attention is understandably disorienting for the award-winning biographer. Or, as he puts it, "It's a bit confusing."

The last time Sisman was above ground was five years ago, in 2010, after he published a biography of British historian and Nazi expert Hugh Trevor-Roper. Sisman was having lunch with the thriller writer Robert Harris, who mentioned that he'd been authorized to write le Carré's biography in the early '90s but had sat on the project for nearly 20 years. Needing a new subject, Sisman got Harris's blessing to take over. He wrote to le Carré, at this point nearly 80 years old, who agreed to let Sisman tell the story of his life after reading the Trevor-Roper biography.

Le Carré is one of the most significant—and, because he is often unfairly labeled a genre writer, one of the most undervalued—fiction writers of 20th century. Since 1961, he has never gone more than four years without publishing a new work, marking 23 in all (so far). Ten of these have enjoyed a second life on the big screen, most recently in 2011 when his 1974 classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was adapted into an Oscar-nominated thriller starring Gary Oldman. Four of them have been turned into TV series, a number that will increase to five in 2016 when 1993's A Night Manager will premiere as a BBC-AMC miniseries. Also due out in 2016 is le Carré's memoir.

His fans will know to read this memoir with at least a pinch of skepticism. Le Carré is a notorious liar—he's said so himself, somewhat paradoxically but without shame. He's lied about his political beliefs, his career, his relationships and even his name—which is David Cornwell, as I will refer to him from here on out. Raised by a con man father who often forced him and his brother to assist with scams, Cornwell developed an understanding of how to use his preternatural charm and wit to manipulate those around him. This ultimately led to a career in British intelligence at the height of the Cold War. When his third novel, 1963's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, drew international acclaim, he was forced to resign as he could no longer maintain his cover. His breakout novel, and everything else he wrote about the Cold War, dripped with authenticity, and speculation abounded as to how much of it was fiction and how much Cornwell drew from his life. "There are bits of him in every single book, and ultimately, quite a lot of him," says Sisman. "So he's always kind of writing about himself, and readers pick up on that."

Sisman first visited Cornwell in 2011 at his home in Cornwall, England. He would visit him several times over the course of the next four years to pore over stacks of the author's papers and interview him. "He's probably the most charming person I've ever met in my life," Sisman says. "He's very witty, he's generous, and he tells brilliant anecdotes."

But as Sisman notes in the book's introduction, his relationship with Cornwell had its troubles, and their time together was often tense. For Cornwell, who'd spent decades misdirecting anyone who inquired about the specifics of his life, suddenly unpacking his most private moments for a stranger with a tape recorder wasn't a pleasant experience. "My impression was that it was very difficult for him," says Sisman, who concedes that the principal reason the author allowed him to write his biography was as a defense against the other, more speculative biographies that would inevitably be written.

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The headquarters of MI-6 at 55 Broadway in London's West End, where le Carré was an intelligence agent from 1960-1964. HarperCollins

Complicating their relationship further was the degree to which Cornwell neglected to distinguish fact from fiction throughout his career. At 84, his memory is often an unnavigable amalgam of his fictional characters and his actual life. "He is particularly prone to this business of reinventing himself," Sisman says of Cornwell. "Partly because of the childhood, partly because of being a spy, partly because of being novelist. Because he acts all these roles and because he writes about himself, he kind of comes to believe the fictional version of himself." This was an obstacle for Sisman, whose primary role as biographer was to report the facts. Through exhaustive research of everything from public records of his father's multiple bankruptcies to the diary of Cornwell's first wife, Sisman often came to know the reality of what happened in Cornwell's life better than Cornwell himself did.

"I remember once I met him for lunch," says Sisman. "We sat down, and he started to tell me a story about how when he left Oxford he went to teach at Eton. I stopped him. I rather brusquely interrupted him and I said, 'That's not correct.' He looked at me rather puzzled. I said, 'No, because I read the files.' He looked completely amazed. His mouth literally dropped open. It was clear that he had come to believe the version he was telling me was correct and was quite taken aback to learn that it wasn't."

Through the course of his fact-finding, it struck Sisman that his task of separating fiction from reality was not unlike that of a le Carré protagonist striving to uncover a mystery within a British intelligence agency. While researching at the British Library in London, a curator mentioned to Sisman that one of the most exciting fictional scenes to take place in an archive was in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, when Peter Guillam steals a file at the risk of being arrested as a traitor. "The whole of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is really [George] Smiley going through records and documents and trying to work out what happened," Sisman says. "It's rather like the sort of thing that I do. Being a detective."

Sisman would inevitably feel drawn to the book that cemented Cornwell's legacy as a Cold War author. No book captures the disarray at the center of the intelligence agencies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does. Loosely based on the story of Kim Philby, a British double agent working for the Russians, the book is full of true-to-life details, including much insider jargon. (Cornwell is credited with bringing the word mole into popular usage.)

It's hard not to wonder how many ways Cornwell tried to influence the way he was portrayed. After all, if his novels have taught us anything it's that a spy's job is to manipulate someone without that person knowing he is being manipulated. Sisman's directive to write freely about Cornwell's life, flaws and all, could have been Cornwell's way of convincing Sisman that he was at his mercy—that he was, in a way, vulnerable. Could Cornwell have been playing the role of biographical double agent, allowing Sisman to think he was burrowing through an idle novelist's life, and all the while Cornwell was the real mole, controlling the narrative by ingratiating himself to Sisman?

Elsewhere in the book, Sisman includes anecdotes about how, when Cornwell was a student at Oxford, he infiltrated left-leaning political groups and formed seemingly genuine friendships with members, only to later out them as potential Communists to the British intelligence officers. "I've had to remind myself that we're not friends," Sisman says.

Both to Newsweek and in the book's introduction, Sisman referenced writer Graham Greene's maxim that all writers need a splinter of ice in their hearts. Wisely, he used his introduction as kind of disclaimer, warning readers that he often had to make judgment calls when it came to which account of an event to include, and that he was somewhat under the spell of Cornwell. It will be up to the readers, Sisman wrote, to determine whether his splinter of ice melted.

I ask if he thinks Cornwell will make any appearances to promote the book. But of course he won't. "In some ways, it would be great if he could comment on the book and we could have debates together, but you could see that it would actually be quite artificial," says Sisman. "I think it's quite sensible for him to just maintain a silence from a distance. It furthers the mystique."

New John le Carré Biography Attempts to Unravel the Spy Writer's Mystique