Far more friction than fiction in John Le Carré’s troubled childhood

JOHN LE CARRÉ is David Cornwell’s penname. The world’s most famous spy thriller writer has given Adam Sisman access to his private papers and some 50 hours of interview time to write his biography. 

Far more friction than fiction in John Le Carré’s troubled childhood

One wonders why he invited such intrusion.

At one stage during the project, Le Carré writes to Sisman: “I know it’s supposed to be warts and all, but so far as I can gather it’s going to be all warts and no all.”

Sisman’s 600-page book is a masterpiece, as could be expected from a US National Book Critics Circle Award winner.

The writing is fluid and the research, conducted over four years, covers all angles. It is the raw material Sisman has to work with, however, that makes it such a formidable work.

Le Carré was born in 1931 in Dorset, on the south coast of England. His father, Ronnie, was a monster. He was a confidence trickster who swindled his family and friends out of their savings.

He spent time in a debtor’s prison when Le Carré was a toddler and used to park his car in the woods behind his house, out of sight of exasperated creditors.

His sins were endless.

He infected his wife with syphilis when she was pregnant with Le Carré and used to drunkenly grope his children in their beds at night.

When Le Carré was an adult, Ronnie found out he was having an affair and blackmailed him, his own son, for £1,000, the price of his silence.

Le Carré was left to be brought up by Ronnie, along with Le Carré’s older brother, when their mother abandoned them, eloping with another man when Le Carré was five years of age.

Le Carré never saw her again until he tracked her down, “16 hugless years” later, while studying at Oxford University. He used to wet his bed into his middle teens even though he was popular at school and good at sports.

It was at Oxford in the early 1950s that Le Carré was first tapped up to do some espionage work.

He adopted a left-wing persona and ratted out subversive elements on campus to an MI5 handler, which led later to a career in MI5 and MI6.

The Foreign Office posted him to Bonn in the early 1960s, not far from Berlin, which, it being the height of the Cold War, was a powder keg.

“I relished the notion of appearing to be someone dull, while all the time I was someone terribly exciting,” he wrote in 1986, about what attracted him to the trade.

He had the attributes for a good spy. He was charming, an excellent mimic, fluent in German, secretive and possessed a yearning to belong.

The way in which he casually put loyalty to his country over loyalty to his friends while snitching on them in university hints at a troubled soul, although he professed that it didn’t bother him. “Somebody has to clean the drains,” he maintained.

Having left the spy game in 1964 to write full-time — following the huge success of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which was made into a movie starring Richard Burton and filmed in Dublin — Le Carré has publishing 23 novels over his literary career.

He hasn’t always found inner peace, though. He suffers from the “black dog”, enduring days of listlessness, migraines and suicidal thoughts.

He has married twice, and carried on adulterous affairs through both marriages, liaisons that have been reluctantly tolerated by his second wife.

“Nobody can have all of David,” she said recently.

John Le Carré: The Biography

Adam Sisman

Bloomsbury, €27.00

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