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20 October 2023

John le Carré, the great deceiver

The duplicity that defined his spy novels also enabled his relentless pursuit of sexual pleasure.

By John Banville

When they die, many writers, even some of the great ones, suffer a steep decline in reputation, or even disappear, if only for a time. The novels of Henry James, especially the late ones, sank into near oblivion after his death in 1916, until a superb essay by Raymond Mortimer published in Cyril Connolly’s magazine Horizon in 1943 instantly recalled the attention to them of critics and, more importantly, readers. As to giants of a later generation, who now reads Rebecca West or Norman Mailer? And when was the last time you picked up a Saul Bellow?

None of this applies to John le Carré. He died in 2020 at the age of 89, and now, nearly three years on, interest in him shows not the least sign of waning. A tell-all, or nearly all, memoir by one of his numerous lovers, the pseudonymous Suleika Dawson, was published last autumn. Now, in The Secret Life of John le Carré, Adam Sisman has given us an addendum to his 2015 biography, and in it tells all he was not allowed to tell while his subject was still living. And a long interview with Le Carré by the documentary film-maker Errol Morris, produced by Le Carré’s sons Simon and Stephen Cornwell, will soon be coming to a screen near you. David Cornwell – Le Carré’s real name, as everybody knows – would be delighted. He was no shrinking violet.

[See also: The darkness of the secret world: Mick Herron and John Gray in conversation]

Nor should he have been. He was an immodest man with much to be immodest about. He derived a shameless delight from his success as a writer, enjoyed the money, the travel, the champagne, which he called “shampoo”, and, of course, the women. He was involved with lots of women – lots and lots and lots, as we long suspected and as Sisman now confirms.

The instant and enormous success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, published in 1963, brought John le Carré to worldwide fame, and as a celebrity he immediately began making up for lost time. Just how many mistresses, casual lovers and one-night stands he notched up is incalculable. Sisman makes no claim to comprehensiveness, though he tells how one of Le Carré’s friends, the writer Derek Tangye, “would jokingly keep a tally of women that David had taken to bed: ‘51, 52, 53…’”. The Secret Life of John le Carré, therefore, is not for the faint-hearted. Le Carré was relentless in the pursuit of his pleasures.

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With David – this is how Sisman refers to him throughout – everything, really everything, referred back to his father. Ronnie Cornwell, who died in 1975, was one of the most ingenious, daring and ruthless con men of his day, or of any day, for that matter. He owned racehorses, drank “shampoo” by the case, was a friend to the stars, and also to the Kray twins and their underworld associates.

Ronnie’s successes were impressive, but there were also failures, and spells in prison. In 1954 he went bankrupt, with liabilities, according to a Daily Express report, of £1,359, 570, which Professor Google calculates as about £476m in today’s money. He came out of court chuckling. “Disaster? Not a bit of it,” he was quoted as telling a reporter, “just the beginning of a fight after a temporary setback.”

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Anyone who met David Cornwell will tell you that inevitably and within minutes of the start of any conversation he would bring up the subject of his father. After Ronnie’s death he declared: “I never mourned him, never missed him, I rejoiced at his death.” He even held him responsible for his tireless philandering. “When I was faithless, I blamed him, when I promised love all over town, it was his fault…” This expresses real pain, but it is hard not to see Ronnie as, at least to some degree, a handy excuse.

Like father, like son? It might be said that David himself, on the strength of Sisman’s new book and other sources, was an amatory, or maybe just a sexual, con man. In the Morris film, The Pigeon Tunnel – the title Le Carré gave to his distinctly scrappy 2016 memoir – David describes his writing as “a home for my larceny”. He says this with a twinkle, but it is a telling metaphor. It is significant, in this context, that a discarded title for what is perhaps his finest novel, A Perfect Spy, was The Love Thief.

Sisman’s book will be a shock for those who loved and admired David Cornwell, and for the millions who read and loved John le Carré’s books. Yet keep in mind that he suffered many betrayals in his life, especially in childhood and, as WH Auden might have said, those who suffer betrayal will likely betray in their turn.

One night Ronnie’s wife walked out of their marriage, without even saying goodbye to five-year-old David and his brother. When he encountered her in later life David found her as heartless as ever, and peevishly self-justifying. Would it be too cheaply Freudian to see in David’s almost obsessive pursuit of women a hopeless quest for the mater absconditus? He mentioned the possibility himself on a number of occasions.

Although Sisman’s book is horribly fascinating, at times the reader will look up from the pages haggard-eyed after being splashed in the face with yet another revelation of yet another of David’s serial infidelities. But to be fair to the man’s memory, it should be said that he was no beady-eyed roué preying on the weak and the lonely. His lovers were in the main strong, independent women who knew more or less what they were letting themselves in for when they let him into their beds. He conducted each affair, at least at the outset, in what seems to have been a romantic rapture. There were lavish endearments, expensive gifts, stays at fancy foreign hotels, repeated promises to leave his wife, and sex, sex, sex.

[See also: John le Carré’s acts of deception]

Who could have resisted? He was handsome, charming, funny, a wonderful mimic and a compelling storyteller; what a good time they must have had, all those women, a good time spiced with a hint of danger, and more than a hint, sometimes, of violence. Dawson recounts how one day she walked out of the room when David was on the phone to his wife, Jane, who heard her footsteps and knew he was with a woman. Sisman writes: “[Dawson] was sitting on the sofa in another room when David stormed in a few minutes later. He leaped on top of her, pinning her down, his forearm against her throat. ‘You did that deliberately, didn’t you?’ he seethed.”

In the filmed interview with Morris, David makes a telling comparison between his worked-at charm and “a wrecker’s light”. Did at least some of his women feel they had been lured under false pretences on to the rocks of betrayal and heartbreak?

He was in his early twenties when in 1954 he married for the first time. David and Ann Sharp “were a childlike couple”, Sisman writes: “He called her ‘mother’ and they communicated with each other in baby talk.” As far as is known, he was faithful for the first eight years of the marriage; then, in Bonn, where he was working at the British embassy, the wife of a diplomatic colleague made a pass at him. “It was a tormented love affair,” Sisman tells us, “consummated only once, but it was the precursor of things to come.”

By that time he was working for MI6, running agents and conducting interrogations and all the other things that secret agents get up to. His career in spying had started much earlier. When he was still at Oxford he was recruited to monitor fellow students with left-wing leanings, and joined the university Communist Club in order to do so. He never apologised for this: on the contrary, to the end of his life he insisted that it had been the right thing to do, since the communists were working for the downfall of the realm, and had to be stopped. All the same, his betrayal of people who imagined themselves to be his friends does leave a whiff of brimstone.

What Sisman describes as “perhaps the most tempestuous” of his early affairs was with Susan Kennaway, the wife of his friend the writer James Kennaway, with whom “arguably he was just as much emotionally involved – and possibly more so”. When the affair ended, Sisman reveals, David’s wife, Ann, accused him of having had a homosexual liaison with his lover’s husband, “the man David wanted to be: adventurous, virile, uninhibited”. We cannot know if there was a homosexual aspect to the friendship. Sisman, although he toys with the notion of a gay side to David’s character, leaves the matter in abeyance.

There is no doubt that David’s power to attract was overwhelming, when he put his mind to it. His friend Nicholas Shakespeare, Sisman tells us, compared him to Bruce Chatwin, of whom a friend had said: “He’s out to seduce everybody, it doesn’t matter if you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy.” And those who are seduced more often than not end up rejected. In the Morris film, David describes Kim Philby –the real-life British spy who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963 – as having been addicted to deceit, and speaks of the “voluptuous” joy of the double agent, glorying in his “self-imposed schizophrenia”.

Did David love the women whom he seduced? A simple question, to which there is no easy answer. He treasured them, in his way, and certainly showed them a good time, while the going was good. But he could be dismissive of them, too. Janet Stevens was an American journalist and human rights activist with whom he had an affair in Lebanon in the early 1980s. After she was killed in the terrorist bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in 1983, David said of her, with offhand though uncharacteristic brutality, “She was just a little plain bit of a thing, but she was a wonderful lover.” 

In The Pigeon Tunnel David shows himself as undeceived as to the nature of the self, whether loving or indifferent. There is no “inmost room”, he assures his interviewer, no chapel in the heart where a sanctuary lamp burns forever undimmed. “Truth,” he says, “is subjective” – yes, as every spy knows, one cannot help adding – a sentiment that is as useful for the philanderer as it is for the secret agent. To be successful, both must, as Nietzsche said, be able to impersonate themselves, and never for a moment let the mask slip.

The details of a writer’s private life may help to flesh out his character but they have no bearing on his work. John le Carré’s books stand apart from David Cornwell the womaniser. In the figure of the spy he found the perfect representative of our low, dishonest age, yet as a writer he was truthful in the way that an artist can only be – for art, if it is art, does not lie. Errol Morris, in a nice formulation, puts it to David that he is an “exquisite poet of self-hatred”, to which David responds with the simple affirmation: “I am an artist.”

John Banville’s latest crime novel is “The Lock-Up” (Faber & Faber)
“The Pigeon Tunnel” is available to stream on Apple TV+

The Secret Life of John le Carré
Adam Sisman
Profile, 208, £16.99

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[See also: John Le Carré and the spectre of British decline]

This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War