The Secret Life of John le Carré by Adam Sisman - review by Suleika Dawson

Suleika Dawson

The Spy Novelist Who Loved Me

The Secret Life of John le Carré


Profile 208pp £16.99

Adam Sisman presents this new book on John le Carré as a ‘secret annexe’ to his earlier biography of the author. Its subject is the women in le Carré’s life – the ones the novelist didn’t marry, that is, but to whom he repeatedly offered the secret parts of himself, which the ones he did marry almost never got to see. It’s only a slim volume, but, as we are so often told, size doesn’t matter if a fellow knows what he is doing. As one of le Carré’s women myself, I feel in a position to take a view.

The reason why Sisman had to keep his annexe secret is that le Carré (real name David Cornwell), whom Sisman initially believed had given him a free hand to write a ‘warts and all’ biography, ultimately forbade him from including details of these previously hidden affairs. Given that equally able writers – Robert Harris, Graham Lord, Jeffrey Meyers and others – had previously fallen at this Becher’s Brook of biography, variously deterred and outmanoeuvred by the ever wily and always wary novelist, Sisman should perhaps have seen the volte-face coming. Since he evidently didn’t, it must have smarted when, believing he had cleared the jump and made it to the finishing line, he was forced to capitulate: ‘such a bruising experience’ is his description of the heated and then chilly final negotiations with le Carré. It clearly still rankles with him, enough that he devotes the final (and longest) chapter to a blow-by-blow account of the wrangling. It’s hard, therefore, not to see this book as an attempt to settle a score.

So this soon begins to seem a book about a book, centred more on its author than its supposed subject. Sisman gives many pages over to explaining how he proceeds in his craft. He takes great care in laying out his toolkit, which he sees as enabling him properly and fairly to memorialise the life of another man. Regrettably, he shows no such nuance when it comes to the stories of the women themselves, my own among them. Frankly, I’m not even sure that the women are the point of the exercise.

For the first two chapters they – I should say we, I suppose – hardly feature. The space is instead used for a somewhat spikier account of David’s earlier life and career than Sisman felt able to submit to scrutiny previously. It’s not until page sixty or so, a third of the way in, that the newly identified lovers start to appear in any detail. ‘The trajectory of his affairs was always the same,’ Sisman declares sweepingly: ‘he would pursue the woman urgently, and then he would lose interest.’ Yet in his own telling this plainly isn’t true. A former Vogue model, to whom David turned in the early days of his second marriage, ended things by slamming the door in his face. A French aid worker whom he met a couple of years later became not just a friend, but a family friend for life. With two American women, the relationships also continued largely platonically, one by letter, the other by phone. One poor woman died prematurely in the relationship, in a terrorist bombing, while pregnant with what might well have been the novelist’s child. Far from his losing interest, it seems from the letters quoted that it was David’s fear of losing his domestic equilibrium which mostly forced those break-ups he himself brought about. But the biographer doesn’t seem to notice the discrepancies in his book – of which there are any number more, plus some misappropriations and misleading slants in what he relates about me. I’m disinclined to give Sisman the benefit of the doubt when considering his intentions, since he had my own memoir to consult (The Secret Heart, published by Mudlark last year). He read the words and either missed the message or discarded it for his own ends. And not just that. He bases the entire fourth chapter and half of the sixth on my book, going so far as to appropriate the last words David ever said to me for a meaningless chapter title. Even Dr Bowdler might have shown more delicacy and restraint.

But even in seeking to reclaim his place as biographer of record – the real point of the exercise – Sisman gets the heart of his subject wrong. His thesis seems to be that it was the lavish attention, expensive gifts and exotic trips that drew each of us to David, to hang helplessly on empty words of love until he dropped us down a hole. David’s largesse added to the package, of course, but it would only make us easy tarts if that were all. The truth is, there was much, much more, and Sisman either can’t or won’t acknowledge this. For all the maddening complexities of knowing him, David had extraordinary magnetism. What he gave was always far greater than what he took. Contrary to Sisman’s cynical suspicions here, the love was real. If he believes it wasn’t, then he has us all down not just as tarts but as fools too.

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