Which le Carré Do You Want?

John le Carré, Beirut, Lebanon, 1983; photograph by Don McCullin
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John le Carré, Beirut, Lebanon, 1983; photograph by Don McCullin

What happens when a biography collides with an autobiography? Adam Sisman’s careful, comprehensive life of “John le Carré” (his real name is David Cornwell) has been followed within months by the novelist’s own memoir. It covers many of the same anecdotes and characters. Did Sisman realize that David Cornwell was going to do this? I don’t know the answer, but at some stage he probably did. More to the point, would Cornwell have written the book if he hadn’t read Sisman’s take on his life first? I am pretty certain he would not.

So there’s a causal relationship between these two books. But it would be wrong to see The Pigeon Tunnel as some sort of angry riposte. By Sisman’s account, he and his subject became something like friends after four years of work and fifty hours of interviews; his book seems very fair and often close to affectionate. Possibly, though there’s no evidence for this, there are things Cornwell now wishes he hadn’t told his biographer. But I suspect that the main motive is professional. It’s the pang of a writer who lends out his or her best anecdotes to be written up by somebody else.

There is also a difference of form. The Pigeon Tunnel is mostly a book of personal encounters. Each section introduces a figure—beloved, contemptible, terrifying, comical, or mysterious—who has left a mark on David Cornwell’s life and work and, often enough, served as inspiration for a character in a le Carré novel. In contrast Adam Sisman’s biography, while including many of these encounters, is a full account of a life with all its circumstances as well as its people.

Nobody writing in English does better biographies than Sisman. His last book, a life of the inflammable English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, was generally found to be a triumph: accurate, fair, and often funny. He is intelligently judgmental about his touchy subjects without boxing them into crude psychograms. And if he doesn’t know why somebody acted “out of character,” or what they did when they temporarily disappeared, he says so. He does sensible commentary but not much intrusive guesswork.

So given Sisman’s skill at his craft, it’s curious, with the appearance of le Carré’s own The Pigeon Tunnel, that his book about John le Carré/David Cornwell almost runs out of his control.

The problem is Cornwell’s father. Ronnie Cornwell was an exuberant con man whose excesses and betrayals shaped the characters and lives of his children. David (today in his eighties) spent half his life struggling to escape from him, from his disasters, his emotional blackmail, his domineering love that David found so hard not to return. Many of his novels, A Perfect Spy especially, reflect or are even part…

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