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John le Carré’s acts of deception

Even in his love affairs, the spy novelist used tradecraft. Has his double life come to overshadow his work?

By William Boyd

Towards the end of 1990 the New York Times asked me to review the latest novel by John le Carré, The Secret Pilgrim. I was already an avid consumer of Le Carré’s work, having read almost all the novels up to A Perfect Spy (1986), and accepted the commission immediately. I wrote a largely positive review (I was not and am not an uncritical admirer), little realising that this was to be the beginning of an intermittent literary-journalistic connection with the man and his work that has now lasted 30-odd years. As well as some of the novels since The Secret Pilgrim I’ve reviewed Adam Sisman’s biography and Le Carré’s curious autobiography. I’ve written a forensic analysis of Le Carré’s idiosyncratic writing style, the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and a lengthy A-Z of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when Tomas Alfredson’s film adaptation was released in 2011.

I never met David Cornwell, to give his real name, though we shared mutual friends and acquaintances. In 2007 we spoke a few times on the phone when I tried – in vain – to persuade him to appear in the 100th issue of Granta magazine, which I was guest-editing. It will be clear that the Le Carré connection, though not remotely intimate, is fairly substantial. Somehow, John Le Carré has become one of the authors I have written about most, joining a small club that includes Anton Chekhov, Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh.

Consequently, a sizeable new selection of his letters seemed particularly alluring. The editing – by his son Tim Cornwell, who sadly and suddenly died in May – is scrupulous and unobtrusive, and the linking biographical passages give the letters extremely valuable context. The whole – letters and commentary – forms a kind of alternative autobiography, albeit one inevitably on the sketchy side. Readers who want the full fleshing-out will need to go to Sisman’s excellent and thorough biography.

Why do we read the letters and journals of eminent writers? I think the answer is because biography and autobiography are formats that give an illusory “shape” to a life, and what one is looking for in letters and journals is the unadulterated voice, one not coloured by 20/20 hindsight. Reading John Keats’s correspondence, or Philip Larkin’s or Virginia Woolf’s, gives you access to the writer in the present moment of that letter being written, with all its unconscious revelations, unbothered by posterity.

Somewhat disappointingly, however – with a few exceptions – A Private Spy doesn’t quite deliver this frisson. The tone of the majority of Le Carré’s letters is one of articulate, suave, high-class pabulum. He writes perfectly-pitched fan letters (to Graham Greene, to Alec Guinness); his invitations to friends to visit or dine and his gratitude when he has visited or dined himself are models of clever politesse. His letters to collaborators, editors, researchers, expert readers, actors and directors are blueprints for the use of flattering superlatives – it must have been a joy to receive them. He fires editors and agents with rueful gentleness. His commentaries on the Cornish weather, the state of his family life, his observations on current projects are always interesting and well expressed but somehow urbanely bland and formulaic.

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Le Carré was an assiduous correspondent – even when he adopts emails late in life they are letter-length – and he was a talented illustrator and caricaturist, often adding cute or funny drawings to his correspondence (many of them reproduced here). Only occasionally does one gain a glimpse of the real man beneath the carefully guarded façade. There’s a letter to a former school friend that is high camp (“We have a couple of rooms (& a spare bed in one of them for you darling)… Sweetheart, come and stay the weekend here”).

[See also: The prose style of John le Carré]

Letters to another close friend, the Scottish novelist James Kennaway (1928-68), reveal a different Le Carré, as do his ardent love letters to Kennaway’s wife, Susan, with whom Le Carré began a passionate affair. All three members of the love triangle eventually wrote books about the destructive liaison. Susan Kennaway’s was the best.

But the publicising of the Kennaway affair alerted readers to the fact that Le Carré was not a benchmark of fidelity. The relationship occurred during Le Carré’s first marriage. His behaviour didn’t change after his second, to Jane Eustace. Literary London’s grapevine was audible with gossip regarding Le Carré’s extra-marital activities, for anyone who cared to listen. The facts were confirmed, albeit discreetly, by the publication of Sisman’s biography in 2015, where it was made clear that Le Carré had enjoyed many affairs, some short-lived, some longer and more intense – but they were not enumerated and the lovers were not identified. Both Le Carré and his wife were still alive when Sisman’s biography appeared.

This volume of his letters reproduces two of his love letters to Susan Kennaway and two to an American lover called Susan Anderson. It also contains two heartfelt, almost-confessions to Jane, acknowledging his “infidelities” and declaring undying devotion. (“I love you. And that, contrary to many bad signals in the past, I am pledged to you in love & constancy always.”)

However, by malign synchronicity, a book by one of Le Carré’s lovers, writing under the pen-name Suleika Dawson, is appearing simultaneously with the letters. The Secret Heart could only have been published after the death of both Le Carré and his wife – it is too intimately detailed, too wounding and hurtful – but revenge is a dish best served cold and, clearly, Dawson now regards the temperature to be sufficiently chill, as she stakes out her claim to be maîtresse-en-titre.

Dawson relates the details of her two affairs with Le Carré. The first, beginning in 1983, was when she was in her mid-twenties and Le Carré, twice her age, in his early fifties. There was a 14-year hiatus and they re-engaged in 1999, when Le Carré was 67.

The tone of this kiss-‘n’-tell memoir is chatty-verbose, leaning to the salacious. One quote will supply the flavour:

“I very badly want to fuck you,” David told me earnestly, as we sat together in a low-lit corner of the airport bar, his hand below the table, earnestly between my thighs.

[See also: Why DH Lawrence still gets under our skin]

There is a lot more of the same. Le Carré is presented as a tireless super-stud, running his affair with Dawson as if he were running an agent in the field. Dawson, for all the breathy sex-details she offers, and her mind-boggling recall of lengthy verbatim conversations that took place 40 years ago, is always aware of the complex duplicities Le Carré is indulging in (she’s no fool). Astonishingly, he takes her to spend time with him at his family home (and bedroom) in Cornwall when his wife is away. He proudly introduces her to his local friends. They communicate through dead-letter drops and in code. As Dawson comments, “His personal life [was] his one remaining area of covert activity.”

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point,” as Blaise Pascal sagely observed. What were the heart’s reasons for Le Carré’s serial adultery? Looking at his incredibly difficult early life, an armchair psychiatrist could no doubt produce a fistful of diagnoses: a con-man, crook, jailbird father (another philanderer); a mother who abandoned her son when he was five years old; the unique polarities of the English class system. Perhaps equally significantly, Le Carré became an MI5 informer on his left-wing friends and coevals in his early twenties at Oxford, so betrayal and cover-up, falsehood and fake identity – as well as a significant amount of guilt – were part of his DNA almost from the outset of his adult life.

All human beings are complex but some are more complex than others. It’s tempting to see the David Cornwell/John le Carré dual-identity as a modern version of the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. I have often wondered what it’s like to achieve great fame under a pseudonym, particularly for a writer. Does the double persona begin to grate? Does the pen-name become an unwelcome burden? The evidence of the letters in A Private Spy underlines the tensions of this duality again and again. Le Carré can be overweeningly grand and modestly self-deprecating. He can be vain and touchingly insecure. He can write fawningly to a writer and then slag the same writer off. He can indignantly call Tony Blair a consummate liar and “arch-sophist” without seeing how the same appellations apply equally to himself. It may seem facile, but the notion of one man consciously leading a convoluted double-life has a real validity when linked with Le Carré. One overt life: famous writer, hugely wealthy, happily married, global public intellectual. The other covert: dark, philandering secretly, controlling, manipulating, using his wealth and connections to provide a seductive alternative to the public face.

[See also: The Secret Life: John le Carré]

The final letters in A Private Spy, as Le Carré enters his eighties, testify to a mellowing, an unfamiliar serenity. They are very moving in their way, knowing, as we now do, the torments that preceded them. Le Carré declares his love for Jane and his family, issues instructions for his mortal remains, reckons up the nature and totality of his long life and finds it good. And this seems fair and just.

However, a minatory note sounds in my ear – prompted by the steamy revelations of Suleika Dawson’s sly and clever book. She claims to have “dozens” of unpublished letters from Le Carré. What of the other lovers? Might they now be emboldened to speak out, also? As the curtains begin to be drawn apart on Le Carré’s singularly fraught private life I worry that we may become more and more interested in the individual rather than the work – a fate that has befallen Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath and Evelyn Waugh, to name but three.

Let’s hope not. It would be a shame if the secret transgressions of the man, David Cornwell, became the focus of new interest at the expense of the writer, John le Carré. The body of work – especially the great Cold War novels – should stand enduringly as his best advocate and monument.

William Boyd’s novel “The Romantic” is published by Viking

A Private Spy: The Letters Of John le Carré
Edited by Tim Cornwell
Viking, 752pp

The Secret Heart: John le Carré: An Intimate Memoir
Suleika Dawson
Mudlark, 352pp

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?