I confess an interest: I know and like the subject of this biography and greatly admire his literary achievements. I should also confess to having doubted the wisdom of his biographer in taking it on. Writing about the life of a living person, even a cooperative one, is difficult, especially someone as layered as David Cornwell, the real name of the author John le Carré. Also, a long and busy life brings with it a comet’s tail of living witnesses whose opinions will be varied and contradictory. Some of them will be offended to be left out, others unwilling to be identified. But Sisman pulls it off: this is a well-written and highly readable book which is neither hagiography nor hatchet job and which promises, according to his hint in the introduction (‘I hope to publish a revised and updated version of this biography in the fullness of time’), more to come.
In most biographies the chapters covering the early years are the least interesting, but here Cornwell’s extraordinary upbringing, at once privileged and deprived, makes them fascinating. The reason is his father, Ronnie, a con man, crook and charmer. To read about, he’s a likeable rogue, glad-handing everyone from Don Bradman