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John Le Carré: The Biography

July 31, 2017

‘People who have had very unhappy childhoods’, John le Carré once wrote, ‘are pretty good at inventing themselves.’ He is exceptionally good at this himself. As a boy he learned to invent, making up stories to entertain, to fantasise, escaping from reality, and to dissemble, adopting one persona to conceal another. As a man he put these skills to professional use, first as a spy, and then as a writer. ‘I’m a liar,’ he explains. ‘Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist.’

That’s the opening paragraph of Adam Sisman’s Introduction to his exhaustive, thoughtful and definitive biography of writer David Cornwell, the English spy who chose John le Carré as his pseudonym over a half century ago, and in the intervening decades has defined, redefined and repeatedly expanded the boundaries of the literature of espionage.  (He continues to do so, with a new novel due out next month.)

In writing John Le Carré: The Biography, Sisman had extensive cooperation (over 50 hours of interviews and access to Cornwell’s voluminous papers) from his subject. More importantly, Sisman appears to have done an excellent job of factchecking—to the extent possible—what Cornwell has written and said about his own life…because Cornwell is arguably a less-trustworthy-than-average narrator of his own life. Sisman doesn’t waste time debating whether Cornwell is lying; he simply concludes that reshaping stories to fit his purposes is such an ingrained habit for Cornwell that Cornwell himself may not even know, many times, whether he’s telling the truth, lying (for purposes honorable or otherwise) or merely saying what he imagines the truth to be about his own life.

For me, the most interesting parts of the John LeCarré: The Biography were those that illuminated the writing life Cornwell has created for himself, key elements of which include:

  • The discipline: Cornwell has for decades lived in the country, far from the London literary scene, where he can keep a daily routine of rising early to write, then walking or visiting with friends after lunch, before reviewing the day’s work with his wife, Jane, who still serves as his primary typist.
  • The research: Since leaving Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Cornwell has done extensive field research, traveling for weeks at a time—often with trusted guides (e.g., longtime American foreign correspondent H. D. S. Greenway, whose journeys with Cornwell throughout southeast Asia in the closing months of the Vietnam War informed The Honourable Schoolboy)—to the places where his stories are set, and absorbing hundreds of local details that make their way into whatever novel he’s working on.
  • The rewriting: On both the micro and the macro scale, Cornwell is a prodigious reviser of his own writing. Sisman reproduces a page of typescript from an early draft of “the book that became Smiley’s People“. There’s scarcely an untouched line of typescript. Even Cornwell’s revisions have revisions. And this isn’t even the final draft. At another point in the book, Sisman reports that Cornwell once spent 18 months writing (and nearly completing) a novel, before tearing it up and starting over with a new story.
  • The imagination: For Cornwell (as for many creators), imagination goes far beyond the initial inspiration for a story or character. He’ll change a character’s name…and then change it again. He’ll cut a character out of one book and put her/him in another. Like a costumer for a movie, he’ll write a scene with a character in one set of clothes, then rewrite it with the character in another outfit entirely. Buildings, weather, food, aromas—anything and everything is up for grabs, creatively speaking, throughout the entire writing process, from the first day’s handwriting right up until the completed text goes to the printing press.
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