Adam Sisman, John LeCarré: The Biography

A few days ago I finished reading Adam Sisman’s biography of writer John LeCarré, pseudonym of David Cornwell.

I think the first I ever read of LeCarré’s work was The Little Drummer Girl, and I saw the movie at around about the same time, which was I think when it came out on videotape. I was in my late teens and discovering the world and its politics, safe in my family home. My father is an academic, specifically an economist, even more specifically an economic historian. We had a fairly impressive library at home, and both my parents encouraged us (my brother and I) to visit other libraries. I read voraciously and pursued various obsessions. As a young teenager I had discovered Anne Frank’s diary while we visited Amsterdam, and following that read everything I could find on the Holocaust. Politics and current affairs were always discussed at home, and even as a young child I had been picking up on the terrorism of the 1970s as remote to Australia as it was then.

The Little Drummer Girl was an eye-opener for me. Charlie’s idealism spoke to me at exactly the right age, I think, and the tale is cautionary in the way it shows how complex these things are. How difficult – there is no single right or wrong side, but numerous of each. Makes it easy to cower in inactivity, but actually one of the messages I took from the book is that small actions build into more powerful changes.

I am writing this in 2016 with a Cold War between the USSR and the Western democracies having disappeared into a strange narrative, and the Middle Eastern and West Asian wars having fractured and splintered into multiple deadly offshoots that few understand but many worsen through a simplistic narrative. Spy thrillers like the James Bond books, the Bourne books and movies, etc, etc, etc, all play their part in shaping those narratives. As does political discourse, the advantage of hindsight, the stories written by the victors, the victims…

I majored in politics and political history at university, specialising in international affairs. I took multiple units in Soviet politics and history when the USSR still existed, and we were caught by surprise when the break-up happened so quickly. When George Bush Snr was up against Michael Dukakis in 1988 I took a year-long course in US politics. I dove into the safety of theoretical politics and related philosophies during 1989 and 1990, but dipped my toe into the broiling mess of what was then called the Arab-Israeli conflict. I learned to be wary of any simplistic dichotomous explanations, which I have applied to my work during my career. One of the things that appealed to me about LeCarré’s writing is how well he weaved those complexities and contradictions together.

As the biography points out more than once, one of the reasons for LeCarré’s success as a novelist was his apparently uncanny ability to anticipate changes in the world. I don’t think it was uncanny, or particularly prescient, but does illustrate a mind able to see patterns in chaos. I think LeCarré keeps his eyes and ears open, and at some point fairly early on in his life was able to work out that human beings are bundles of contradictions. He is clearly very clever and quick – all great ingredients for an author of books that, for all their adventures and thrills, have people at their heart.

One little scene has remained with me from that first reading of the Little Drummer Girl. When Charlie tells the Mossad recruiters the story of her father returning home from prison, broken, and waiting for someone else to open the doors in her home for him. Then, later, them disabusing her of that tale. The vignette fascinates me because it neatly encapsulates the human capability for self-delusion.

When I read in the biography David Conwell’s description of his father returning home from a stint in prison for fraud it clicked immediately with Charlie’s story as told in a novel written decades later. Self-delusion is a key theme of the biography; the very human way in which we create our narratives about our lives, often without realising it. Sisman’s description of his process in writing a proper biography of a subject who is still alive (at time of writing – 2016 has been a cruel year for celebrities), who has part of his life shrouded in secrecy because of where he worked (MI5 and MI6, variously during the 1940s and 1950s – a very different time and place to now), and who has such a difficult relationship with his constantly scamming father. Then there is the media lens, assumptions made, perspectives filtered through new events and disclosures. Different points of view.

Cornwell strikes me as a principled man who has his flaws, but who doesn’t? I am impressed by the research he does for his books, but also when it’s clear he is writing from his heart. I was interested in what Sisman was able to write about Cornwell’s times with the two British secret services, and also interested in learning more about LeCarré’s writing processes. I am sure that some of my readers will find the tales of book-to-film/TV series to be interesting. For those bits I recommend the book; but if you’re after tales of real-life spying derring-do, then I suggest you stick with the stuff about Ian Fleming… although the notes about the veracity of autobiographical narrative are pertinent.

One last thing – I am amused by the biographer’s name being Sisman. SIS being the initials for the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. Sadly, though, I know there will be those who will read far more than amusement into that coincidence… (as I write this I have been reading conspiracy theories stating that MI5 or MI6 will be erasing pencil votes in today’s referendum in the UK…).