Inside Story

The biographer’s last word

Adam Sisman lifts the curtain on his dealings with John le Carré

Patrick Mullins Books 20 November 2023 3192 words

“Nobody can have all of David”: John Le Carre and his wife Jane Cornwell at the premiere of The Tailor Of Panama at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival. Franziska Krug/Getty Images

Adam Sisman is an attentive reader. As he demonstrated in biographies of the historian A.J.P. Taylor (1994), poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (2006), and academic Hugh Trevor-Roper (2010), he is alive to detail, implications and subtleties. As a scholar of biography, moreover — as manifesting in his prize-winning Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (2000) — he knows the dynamics and tensions that make the form so energising to read and work in.

Thus, in 2013, while working on his biography of David Cornwell — known the world over as John le Carré — Sisman understood immediately what Cornwell was saying to him in the following letter:

It is no coincidence that in Spy [Who Came in from the Cold], A Perfect Spy, and A Constant Gardener [sic], the protagonist kills himself. Ditto The Tailor of Panama. Enough?

As Sisman writes with considerable understatement in his latest book, The Secret Life of John le Carré, “I was alarmed.” His project was at risk and his subject was hinting that he might kill himself.

Cornwell’s letter was triggered when Sisman revealed that he had accumulated evidence of Cornwell’s repeated infidelity during his marriage to his second wife, Jane Cornwell (née Eustace). Some of the relationships in question were shortlived, some never even consummated. Some were conducted almost entirely via letters, with only one or two meetings in the flesh. More than a few were of a long duration and had a significant effect on both Cornwell and the women with whom he had the affairs. Common to all was fervent passion on Cornwell’s part, an insistence on secrecy, and evasion and dissembling as he extricated himself from relationships when they came to demand he make honest choices.

Sisman had not gone hunting for this material. Word of one affair arrived during a drunken discussion at a party about the merits of various Proust translations. Word of another came from Cornwell’s half-sister. Another Sisman came across while reading letters in Cornwell’s home. He heard of more still from Cornwell’s friends. Sisman was not wholly interested in this part of Cornwell’s private life, per se, and nor did he initially think that the affairs were important. And yet he saw a connection with Cornwell’s oeuvre: “I could scarcely ignore the fact that betrayal was a current theme of his work.”

Over time, as he learned more about these affairs and detected their influence in Cornwell’s fiction — in how characters resembled lovers and how Cornwell took new lovers for each new book and discarded them shortly afterward — Sisman became convinced of their importance. Cornwell’s behaviour was a key to his fiction, unlocking a duality and tension that seemed necessary for Cornwell to write. According to his lovers, Cornwell went out of his way to provoke this tension: he insisted on using dead letter boxes for correspondence, recorded his lovers’ addresses and phone numbers in code, would mislead taxi drivers about their destinations, and would give the women cash to book trips and holidays so that he could evade his wife’s scrutiny.

Sisman and Cornwell had enjoyed a relatively fruitful relationship since Sisman’s proposal, in 2010, to write the biography. Cornwell, cautious at first, had been “very divided about how to respond.” His messy private life was in conflict with his wish that Sisman write “without restraints.”

His fears had been assuaged by a formal agreement between the two men in which Cornwell agreed to grant access to his archives, offer introductions and be interviewed at length. Sisman, in turn, agreed to allow Cornwell the opportunity to correct factual errors and advise whether “any passages should be amended or removed on the basis that they do not give due respect to the sensitivities of living third parties.” Introductions that Cornwell readily supplied testified to his willingness to live up to this agreement. “I have put my trust in him,” Cornwell told an old friend and former lover. “I have no editorial control over what he writes, beyond checking dates, places, & bald facts.”

In the early days, Cornwell seemed pleased by Sisman’s efforts. “Wherever you’ve been, you’ve left a benign impression, for which I am very grateful,” he wrote him, in January 2012. “I can’t imagine how I will come out of it, but I think that’s what drew me into it: the notion that this was never something I could do for myself, & that somehow, whatever the outcome, this was going to be a gift of sorts to my children; a gift of truth, insofar as there ever is one, & it can be told.”

And yet, by the end of the year, as Cornwell learned that Sisman had contacted at least one former lover, Cornwell’s pleasure and peace of mind vanished. “I admire your work & your tenacity; I would wish that in your position I would show the same acumen; I have a genuine respect for your tact & integrity. I also have a sense of, on the strength of recent experience, of impending disaster in my life — i.e. in the lives of those I hold most dear — and I can’t allow any more time to pass without expressing it to you, and indicating to you the heavy footmarks of your recent explorations.”

Cornwell wanted to revise the terms of their agreement, principally to make the biography “authorised” and thereby, presumably, denuded of the material about his infidelities. Sisman resisted, but Cornwell’s intimation of suicide meant he couldn’t ignore the grave implications of continuing without compromise. An uneasy détente followed when Cornwell seemed to “calm down” and recover his composure. Sisman continued to work, but there was no denying that the relationship between biographer and subject was changing.

Sisman mentioned he had met with another of Cornwell’s lovers; Cornwell mentioned that he was contemplating writing a memoir — a book that could overshadow or gazump Sisman’s biography. Sisman responded by proposing a shorter first volume that would be published before Cornwell’s memoir and then, after Cornwell’s death, publishing a second volume that would cover Cornwell’s life after the end of the cold war. Jane Cornwell, meanwhile, suggested her husband’s patience with the whole project was flagging: “The constant pressure for more sessions with David may make him feel that he has to draw a line and say, That’s enough.”

“We feel we are living with a ticking bomb,” Cornwell soon told Sisman, and over the year that followed Cornwell made repeated efforts to dispose of the bomb. He took exception to the proposal for two volumes (from fear that it would suggest, as many critics already did, that he had lost his subject when the cold war ended), pushed again and again for a change in the agreement with Sisman, then shelved his memoir and agreed to go back to the original plan.

When he was given the draft manuscript, Cornwell was predictably dissatisfied with its conclusions, tone and implications. “You can’t expect me to enjoy, least of all applaud, my own trivialisation,” he wrote. At one point Cornwell complained that the book was “all warts and no all,” and became suspicious and panicked: “There are glaring omissions that almost seem deliberate. There are a string of small calumnies and one or two large ones.”

Cornwell used every advantage he could, it seems, to push Sisman into changes. He claimed that the biography could hurt the forthcoming “sensational years” in his career and implied that Sisman’s project was responsible for the limp, heartless novel that he had laboured over and then shelved: “It’s pretty clear to me that my (exaggerated) apprehensions about the biography played a part.” In the background of these negotiations and arguments, for Sisman, lurked predecessors who had failed to produce the goods: the journalist Graham Lord, whose effort had been sued into disappearing, and Robert Harris, the journalist-turned-novelist who had been encouraged, then discouraged, then monstered into silence. There was also the possibility of Cornwell’s withdrawing his cooperation and waiving of copyright, which would all but kill Sisman’s book.

In the face of all this, Sisman hedged, acquiesced, resisted. He compromised on little things, deleting references to “Huns” and “Krauts” in Cornwell’s correspondence out of deference to his German readership. He took in edits, tweaked passages. At times he pointed out to Cornwell that, in taking exception to something, he was disputing himself: “You asked me in your list of the questions what my source was for saying that you had fallen out of love with Ronnie [Cornwell, David Cornwell’s father], and at the time I couldn’t remember, so I took this out,” Sisman wrote, in May 2015. “But I have just stumbled across it, at the beginning of the last section of your wonderful New Yorker article…”

Sisman was understandably feeling “divided in two.” He was grappling with the competing duties he owed — to truth and transparency, to his subject and the imperative to ameliorate the prospect of harm, to the ownership of the book he was writing — yet he also simply wanted to get the job done. His work was being chipped away, his energies were flagging. He wanted “simply to get to the end of the process, one way or another.” He got there in October 2015, when John le Carré: The Biography was published by Bloomsbury.

“I’m sure you’re having a great time, so enjoy it,” Cornwell wrote him, on the day of publication. “What’s done is done.”

Cornwell had, in many ways, won out. As Sisman recounts, reviewers of John le Carré, while otherwise praising it, noted that the detailed and relatively open account of Cornwell’s life changed profoundly in its second half, just as Cornwell married Jane Eustace. “At a certain point,” wrote Theo Tait in the London Review of Books, “the reader is banished from Cornwell’s life.” Certainly, from page 320 — exactly halfway — the book becomes repetitive and distant: yet another novel, yet another dust-up with publishers and literary agents (Cornwell was perennially dissatisfied with the publishing industry), yet another award, yet another film or television adaptation, and yet more grumblings from Cornwell about snubs from the “literary establishment.” Hanging over all this were two weighty paragraphs, full of portent but shorn of the information and evidence that might have backed them up, on page 320:

In Jane [Eustace], David had found a helpmeet, a companion, who would support and encourage him in his writing for the rest of his days. She recognised from early in their life together that she would have to share him with other women. The restless, self-destructive search for love is part of his nature. It has led him into impulsive, shortlived affairs; none of them has threatened the stability of his relationship with Jane. “I think we’re more monogamous than most couples,” he told one guest. For him, she would always be his best friend, his wise counsel and his anchor through every storm.

David’s infidelities have created a duality and a tension that became a necessary drug for his writing, often brought about by deliberate incongruity. The secrecy involved and the risk of exposure have themselves been stimulating, bringing a dangerous edge to the routine of everyday existence. From an early stage in their relationship Jane has suffered David’s extramarital adventures, and tried to protect him from their consequences. Though it has not been easy for her, she has behaved with quiet dignity. “Nobody can have all of David,” she said recently.

That comment of Jane’s, Sisman suspects, was dictated to her by Cornwell as an answer to the indignities she had been forced to bear by her husband and his biographer. It was, of course, also a message to Sisman — that he would not be permitted the full life he was hoping to depict. Perhaps too it was a message to the public-at-large that, no matter the claim John le Carré: The Biography made to being definitive, it was not the whole story,

If that message was too subtle, Cornwell made sure to underline it. Within ten days of publication of Sisman’s book, Cornwell announced the revival of his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, to be published the following year. Sisman knew immediately that the announcement’s timing had been designed to damage his biography. Correspondence in the posthumous A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré (2022) confirms this: writing to Tom Stoppard, Cornwell called his memoir a “sort of antidote to Sisman,” and in the introduction to Pigeon Tunnel he conspicuously pulled rank on his biographer:

A recently published account of my life offers thumbnail versions of one or two of the stories, so it naturally pleases me to reclaim them as my own, tell them in my own voice, and invest them as best I can with my own feelings.

Yet Cornwell still hadn’t exhausted his ambivalence about Sisman’s biography. It is possible to detect his feelings in A Legacy of Spies (2017), in which an aged Peter Guillam, former right-hand man to spymaster George Smiley, is called from retirement to answer for the events of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1962), the book that made Cornwell’s career. Amid interrogations and documents exposing again and again the gap between reality as recorded on paper and as Guillam recalls it (or, at least, is willing to explain it), Cornwell writes of the fugue that sweeps over the former spy:

Humiliation, certainly. Frustration, bewilderment, no question. Outrage at having my past dug up and thrown in my face. Guilt, shame, apprehension, any amount. And all directed in a single blast of pain and incomprehension…

For Sisman, this and the other novels that Cornwell was now writing were “less interesting and more formulaic” than his earlier works and unwittingly betrayed the absence of tension in Cornwell’s life as he aged. By now in his eighties, his lovers were infrequent. “Without a new muse for each book, his inspiration dried up.”

And while the le Carré novels kept coming — angrily railing against Brexit and the dangers of populism, each one more uneven and slighter than its predecessor — Sisman was aware that his dealings with Cornwell were likely soon to change. Since 2010, his relationship with Cornwell had fulfilled a basic tenet of biography. As he puts it: “The subject is, almost by definition, the senior figure; the biographer is in a subordinate position. Each is thinking about posterity. In any agreement between them there will be an element of quid pro quo: while the subject remains alive he or she retains some measure of control, even if the restraints are rarely visible.” Once the subject was dead, however, that changes: “The biographer is likely to have the last word.”

Thus, three years after Cornwell’s death and two years after Jane’s, we have Sisman’s Secret Life of John le Carré. The book is not a substitute for the biography, nor a condensation of that book. It is, Sisman writes, a supplement to it, containing the material he felt obliged to cut and information that has come to light since. The idea was seeded by Cornwell’s eldest son, Simon, back in 2014–15 when tensions between Cornwell and Sisman were at their height: “He fully agreed with me that David’s relations with women were key to a full understanding of his work, and proposed that I should keep a ‘secret annexe’ for eventual publication in some form after both David and Jane were dead.”

At its most obvious, the Secret Life goes a significant way to backing up the pregnant paragraphs that Sisman wrote but could not provide evidence for in the original biography. In considerable detail, he tracks Cornwell’s infidelities and their influence on his fiction. He establishes correlations between lovers and characters — journalist Janet Lee Stevens was central to The Little Drummer Girl (1982), activist Yvette Pierpaoli was the model for Tessa Quayle in The Constant Gardener (2001) — and shows Cornwell’s awareness of their influence on him. His infidelities, Cornwell admitted to Sisman, were not a “dark part” of his life, separate from his work, “but, alas, integral to it, & inseparable.”

A good deal of it is dark. While still married to his first wife, Cornwell lured Liz Tollinton, a typist in MI5, to become his secretary and then seduced her. After six months during which she attempted suicide, he bought her a ring that she wore on her engagement finger — then he dumped her as both lover and secretary. He seduced the family au pair, who fell pregnant and suffered a miscarriage, and accused her of wanting to sell his secrets to newspapers. American journalist Janet Lee Stevens had an affair with Cornwell and was killed in the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut while pregnant with a child that might have been his.

Cornwell was also mercurial with Sue Dawson, a researcher who met him during recordings for his audiobooks and become his lover afterward. During a long-running affair, he once leapt onto Dawson, pinned her down with his forearm on her throat and accused her of walking in such a way that his wife might hear, through the telephone, her heels clacking on the floor. Dawson observed that Cornwell took as much satisfaction from reading his own work as he did from sex; after their affair, when she considered writing a memoir, he sued to ensure it would not see the light of day (it was published in 2022 under a pseudonym).

“Much of David’s behaviour described in these pages is reprehensible: dishonesty, evasion and lying, for decade after decade,” Sisman writes. “Does it lower him in our estimation to know that he lied to his wife? Yes, of course it does; it is natural to feel dismay when those whom we admire behave less than well. But few individuals would be comfortable in subjecting their private behaviour to public scrutiny.”

Nor would all biographers be so comfortable exposing the ups and downs of their relationships with their subjects. In this vein, The Secret Life of John le Carré fits into an admirable tradition of biographers writing, with apparent candour, about the tensions and ethical problems of the form. If he is not as self-flagellating as James Atlas in The Shadow in the Garden (2018), nor as revealing of his own doubts and regrets about his own choices during the years working on Cornwell’s biography, Sisman is remarkably forthcoming about his subject’s interventions. Excerpts from letters are abundant, and photos of these and typescripts of his own manuscript — with Cornwell’s handwritten edits — offer insight about the long and wearying struggle of writing the biography of a living person.

It is frequently fascinating, always salutary, and a fitting reminder of Samuel Johnson’s declaration of the biographer’s duty: “If we owe any regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.” •

The Secret Life of John le Carré
By Adam Sisman | Profile Books | $32.99 | 208 pages