The Secret Life of John le Carré by Adam Sisman review – the constant philanderer

Three years after le Carré’s death, his official biographer reveals the adultery that was off limits during his lifetime. Does it further our appreciation of his work?

Soon after the deaths of John le Carré, AKA David Cornwell, and his wife, Jane, weeks apart in 2020 and 2021, a long silence came to an end. In The Secret Heart, a memoir published last autumn, le Carré’s sometime research assistant, Sue “Suleika” Dawson, outed herself as one of more than a dozen women to have had an affair with the former intelligence agent after the success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) encouraged him to give up the day job and, seemingly, monogamy.

The gory details of le Carré’s affairs had been ruled a no-go zone in the otherwise diligent 2015 biography by Adam Sisman, who hadn’t previously written about a living subject. Dealing with le Carré, he soon found, was different. Not long after speaking to his lovers, including Dawson, the novelist began meddling, seemingly warning off possible interviewees, suggesting that he would nullify Sisman by bringing out his own memoir first, not to mention hinting that he might kill himself if Sisman persisted in researching his infidelities.

This new book collects what le Carré wanted kept out. We see that his philandering began during his first marriage to Ann, the mother of three of his four sons, with an MI6 colleague’s wife in Bonn while writing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Under pressure to match that hit – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was 10 years away – le Carré then walked out on his family and into what he later called a “galaxy of inappropriate affairs”, which continued into his second marriage, from other novelists’ wives to aid workers on research trips. Moving to Hampstead in the 70s, he gets a cleaner – a drama student from the US – and pays her return fare after she miscarries his child. He sleeps with his secretary then drops her only to resume contact 30 years later to make sure she doesn’t spill the beans to a would-be biographer, Graham Lord, whose book proposal he duly lawyered into oblivion.

No one is a peeping tom for reading (or writing) about this, Sisman says. “The more we can understand this complex, driven, unhappy man, the more we can appreciate his work.” Was le Carré’s hectic adultery “an ersatz form of spycraft”? Method writing for his bestselling tales of double-cross? Fallout from being abandoned by his mother and molested by his conman father? All of the above, Sisman speculates, adding that “the literature of early German romanticism… took a grip on him at an early age”. No doubt, but as he also points out, with almost risible solemnity, his lovers were mostly younger women, “some of them much younger. One was the au pair looking after his youngest son.” We can probably keep Goethe out of it.

I wish I could say different, but I’m not sure the books survive quite the level of daylight Sisman lets in on his subject’s writing process. Not for him the second cup of coffee or sly KitKat to fire the synapses; le Carré required nothing less than the prospect of extramarital sex in exotic locales (or failing that, Heathrow while en route to one). His jet-set research, already dubiously self-important – war-torn Cambodia, Chechnya, Congo – can’t help but be diminished by its dual purpose. Sisman learns that in the early 90s, “looking for another affair”, le Carré answered a fan letter from a woman in Baton Rouge and soon “concocted a reason for a research trip to Louisiana”; Sisman leaves the dots unjoined, but that’s presumably why a few pages of The Night Manager (1993) are set there (in addition to its other settings in Lisbon, Washington DC, Quebec, Switzerland, the Bahamas…).

One lover tells Sisman she heard Jane ask why le Carré couldn’t “just stay at home and ‘make it up’”. I bet. While The Honourable Schoolboy, The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House and others had heroines modelled on his pan-continental hook-ups, Jane was instead the trusty helpmeet who typed and retyped every draft – to say nothing of handling the sort of logistical admin that fills the in-tray of a globally bestselling author whose novels are routinely adapted for the screen. It’s morbidly fascinating to contemplate Jane’s line-by-line midwifery of these cherished books, tales of deceit that were also products of it. Hard now, too, not to view le Carré’s oeuvre as the bittersweet fruit of a psychosexual pathology that held him in a relentless cycle, creating the opportunity to stray as well as the means, oiling a lifestyle of clandestine trips and gifts (jewellery, a Saab).

Jane made her choices, as did Sisman. Robert Harris did warn him off, but nobody ever got into bed with a player thinking they’ll be the one who gets played. In the end, this book isn’t about le Carré and his women but le Carré and his biographer. The most shocking part, I think, is a facsimile of a typescript page from the 2015 biography, showing how le Carré revised phrases about “significant” affairs. Look at the published text and it’s clear he got his way.

No wonder Sisman wants to take back control with this coda, a jigsaw of offcuts and previously thwarted lines of inquiry. Not all of it is revealing – just because le Carré vetoed something doesn’t mean we need to read it – but it’s useful to know he offered to broker a deal for Sisman to write the biography of his friend Tom Stoppard. The job went to Hermione Lee and was surely never in his gift; hard not to hear an echo of le Carré telling Dawson that if she wanted a baby, he – then aged 67 – would leave Jane and look after it.

It’s Dawson’s book that hangs over proceedings here. Sisman’s title is over-juiced; as he says himself, “the cat is out of the bag” since The Secret Heart. He and Dawson first met in 2013 when he was tipped off by an agent unable to sell her book because of legal threat. Both puppets of le Carré in their way, they “became, as she put it, chums”. But when Sisman says The Secret Heart “makes it possible to provide a detailed narrative of their affair”, surely Dawson’s own book is the “detailed narrative of their affair”? We don’t need his summary, not least because Dawson – in laying on so graphically what she and le Carré got up to – gives a more vivid sense of the emotional stakes involved, slightly lost in Sisman’s comparatively zestless account (not an ice cube or stupendous ejaculation in sight).

Ultimately, he’s reasserting ownership of the narrative. I feel for Sisman: out to be definitive, he got cornered into granting copy approval before being scooped by someone whose story it actually was. Not the secret life of John le Carré, then, so much as the secret life of John le Carré, the 2015 biography whose blind spots – we now know – can’t be pinned on its beleaguered author.

The Secret Life of John le Carré by Adam Sisman is published by Profile (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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