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John le Carré is still at the top, more than half a century after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a worldwide bestseller. From his bleak childhood - the departure of his mother when he was five was followed by 'sixteen hugless years' in the dubious care of his father, a serial-seducer and con-man - through recruitment by both MI5 and MI6, to his emergence as the m John le Carré is still at the top, more than half a century after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a worldwide bestseller. From his bleak childhood - the departure of his mother when he was five was followed by 'sixteen hugless years' in the dubious care of his father, a serial-seducer and con-man - through recruitment by both MI5 and MI6, to his emergence as the master of the espionage novel, le Carré has repeatedly quarried his life for his fiction. Millions of readers are hungry to know the truth about him. Written with exclusive access to le Carré himself, to his private archive and to many of the people closest to him, this is a major biography of one of the most important novelists alive today.


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John le Carré is still at the top, more than half a century after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a worldwide bestseller. From his bleak childhood - the departure of his mother when he was five was followed by 'sixteen hugless years' in the dubious care of his father, a serial-seducer and con-man - through recruitment by both MI5 and MI6, to his emergence as the m John le Carré is still at the top, more than half a century after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a worldwide bestseller. From his bleak childhood - the departure of his mother when he was five was followed by 'sixteen hugless years' in the dubious care of his father, a serial-seducer and con-man - through recruitment by both MI5 and MI6, to his emergence as the master of the espionage novel, le Carré has repeatedly quarried his life for his fiction. Millions of readers are hungry to know the truth about him. Written with exclusive access to le Carré himself, to his private archive and to many of the people closest to him, this is a major biography of one of the most important novelists alive today.

30 review for John le Carré: The Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Bettie

    BOTW http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06j13r5 Description: John le Carré is still at the top, more than half a century after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a worldwide bestseller. From his bleak childhood - the departure of his mother when he was five was followed by 'sixteen hugless years' in the dubious care of his father, a serial-seducer and con-man - through recruitment by both MI5 and MI6, to his emergence as the master of the espionage novel, le Carré has repeatedly quarried his BOTW http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06j13r5 Description: John le Carré is still at the top, more than half a century after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a worldwide bestseller. From his bleak childhood - the departure of his mother when he was five was followed by 'sixteen hugless years' in the dubious care of his father, a serial-seducer and con-man - through recruitment by both MI5 and MI6, to his emergence as the master of the espionage novel, le Carré has repeatedly quarried his life for his fiction. Millions of readers are hungry to know the truth about him. Written with exclusive access to le Carre himself, to his private archive and to many of the people closest to him, this is a major biography of one of the most important novelists alive today. 1/5: Born David Cornwell, le Carré's life was in thrall to his remarkable father Ronnie. 2/5: School, then Bern to study, and meeting mysterious Kraemer 3/5: Oxford, then teaching at Eton, employment at MI5 and publication 4/5: Le Carré hits the height of fame, meets Graham Greene, and tackles his most famous book. 5/5: From The Constant Gardener in the 1990's to the present day, and the author is still very much at work - "I find it very difficult to read my own stuff, but I look at it with satisfaction.."

  2. 5 out of 5

    Quirkyreader

    I decided to read the bio of John Le Carre even though I still have yet to finish the catalogue, at this time I still have three left to read. I enjoyed the writing style that Sisman used to write this book. But as we all know, you have to take biographies with a grain of salt. But I will say that I felt like I was reading Le Carre’s memoir “The Pigeon Tunnel” with expanded scenes. And yes, this biography is full of spoilers going up to “A Delicate Truth”. This book came out before “A Leagacy of I decided to read the bio of John Le Carre even though I still have yet to finish the catalogue, at this time I still have three left to read. I enjoyed the writing style that Sisman used to write this book. But as we all know, you have to take biographies with a grain of salt. But I will say that I felt like I was reading Le Carre’s memoir “The Pigeon Tunnel” with expanded scenes. And yes, this biography is full of spoilers going up to “A Delicate Truth”. This book came out before “A Leagacy of Spies”, so that story is still unspoiled for me.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nigeyb

    Between February 2017 and September 2017 I read the entire George Smiley series... 'Call for the Dead' (1961) 'A Murder of Quality' (1962) 'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold' (1963) 'The Looking Glass War' (1965) 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' (1974) 'The Honourable Schoolboy' (1977) 'Smiley's People' (1980) 'The Secret Pilgrim' (1991) 'A Legacy of Spies' (2017) ...and, to varying degrees, each is wonderful. Having reached the end of the series, I was left wondering about John le Carré's life and work, Between February 2017 and September 2017 I read the entire George Smiley series... 'Call for the Dead' (1961) 'A Murder of Quality' (1962) 'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold' (1963) 'The Looking Glass War' (1965) 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' (1974) 'The Honourable Schoolboy' (1977) 'Smiley's People' (1980) 'The Secret Pilgrim' (1991) 'A Legacy of Spies' (2017) ...and, to varying degrees, each is wonderful. Having reached the end of the series, I was left wondering about John le Carré's life and work, and whether to read other books by him. One of the most intriguing aspects of 'John le Carré: The Biography' is John le Carré's self mythologising aligned to false memories. Adam Sisman highlights these on numerous occasions, and John le Carré (known throughout this book by his real name, David Cornwell) acknowledges this himself. Indeed John le Carré is so addicted to storytelling that he now frequently confuses fact with his fiction. 'John le Carré: The Biography' describes an extraordinary life story and a very complex human being, much of which seems to stem from his father Ronnie Cornwell. A conman masquerading as a successful entrepreneur who made and lost several fortunes and was twice imprisoned for fraud. In short, he is a monster, who forced Olive, John le Carré's mother, to flee the family home when John le Carré was just five years old. His mother’s desertion and his appalling father, made for a very unhappy childhood. 'John le Carré: The Biography' is an engrossing read that inspires me to want to read every one of John le Carré's books. To me, he is one of the greatest authors of the last 70 years, however, as this book details, many critics view him as a mere genre writer, and just a superior writer of spy stories. Whatever your view, this is a wonderful, even-handed biography about a complicated and consummate writer who has lived an interesting and eventful life. He has also been a best selling writer for over 50 years, an achievement few, if any, can match. 4/5

  4. 4 out of 5

    Brandon Forsyth

    The first time the name John le Carré entered my consciousness, I remember being intrigued by a hardcover edition of THE RUSSIA HOUSE that sat proudly on my dad's bookshelf (and now sits on mine). Something about the stark red-and-black cover, combined with that accented name that hinted at intrigue and sophistication, must have appealed to me. I had a love of Tom Clancy books growing up, which grew into a love of James Bond movies and Eric Ambler novels, spy stories that have a playful, technic The first time the name John le Carré entered my consciousness, I remember being intrigued by a hardcover edition of THE RUSSIA HOUSE that sat proudly on my dad's bookshelf (and now sits on mine). Something about the stark red-and-black cover, combined with that accented name that hinted at intrigue and sophistication, must have appealed to me. I had a love of Tom Clancy books growing up, which grew into a love of James Bond movies and Eric Ambler novels, spy stories that have a playful, technical quality that entertained and amused, but this, even then, felt like something different. I remember being stunned when I finally got around to reading a le Carré book, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. The bleak and compromised world le Carré depicted was totally different from anything I had read before. It was a tectonic shift in how I perceived the world, one of those books that changed my life. This was no dime novel, or, if it was, it was something that redefined what a dime novel could be. I tore through whatever I could get my hands on from this talented writer; I remember being absorbed in the compelling characters and the lament of British decline in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY; the black-as-night satire of THE TAILOR OF PANAMA made me laugh out loud more than I ever have while reading a book. There was the occasional misstep, of course - I remember urging a friend to put THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY down, and I can't think of anything to recommend it to this day. But on the whole, I had never read a writer who treats his reader with such respect - le Carré writes with startling precision, even as you desperately try to catch up with what's going on. He trusts you to trust him. He writes the kind of mysteries that you want to read over again, and he fills those mysteries with wonderful insight into both character and the times in which we live. All of that is to say that I am the perfect audience for a biography that, in the main, argues that le Carré has redefined what a spy novel can be, that he has elevated it to literature. Of course, le Carré is a pen name - a name that well-designed to sell books is too good to be true. This is the biography of David Cornwell, a British schoolteacher, spy, and writer, who has searched for meaning in several of the hallowed institutions of British lore, only to find it in service to himself and his art. He's far from a perfect man: the book does an admirable job of exploring his fraught childhood, his struggle with loyalty and fidelity (familial, romantic, and national), and his rage and obsession with his critics. The biography also does a fantastic job of highlighting where Cornwell's life experiences are mimicked in le Carré's novels. I don't think I've ever read a biography of a living person before, and there are several times this causes issues: most notably, there is a serious lack of information on what, exactly, Cornwell did while he was a spy, aside from a few tantalizing hints, and there is a very interesting foreword to the book where Adam Sisman (the biographer) talks about how hard and combative the relationship between the two authors has been at times, and how he hopes to release another edition of this book at a later point (read: after Cornwell's death with further details. The book also suffers from a highly condensed version of the last twenty years of the subject's life. But all in all, this is a personal narrative that is absolutely fascinating - Cornwell's life is such a rich example of Britain at a particular point in history, and has such fascinating characters, that it reads like compelling fiction on its own. The exploration of the relationship with Cornwell's father is worth the price of admission alone. All of this is a very long-winded way of elaborating on my original review, below: More thoughts to come, but if you're a le Carré fan, you owe it to yourself to pick this up.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    Very, very detailed and impressively researched. More than I need, really. Not criticizing but I've not yet read le Carre(!). Understandably full of spoilers. Le Carre is presented as a complex character with inaccurate, or, more likely, embellished, memories. Who knows what to believe. If Sisman is mostly accurate, le Carre comes off as someone I'd like to know (perhaps avoiding politics). Le Carre has made himself into a celebrated, successful author from an infelicitous beginning with difficu Very, very detailed and impressively researched. More than I need, really. Not criticizing but I've not yet read le Carre(!). Understandably full of spoilers. Le Carre is presented as a complex character with inaccurate, or, more likely, embellished, memories. Who knows what to believe. If Sisman is mostly accurate, le Carre comes off as someone I'd like to know (perhaps avoiding politics). Le Carre has made himself into a celebrated, successful author from an infelicitous beginning with difficult, unprepared parents. I am amused that le Carre is so disappointed in the US. He seems to think we can't do anything right yet he cares so very much about his book and movie ticket sales over here. Like too many people outside of the US he is both overly drawn to us and repulsed simultaneously. We come from you, other people of the world! Self hatred? Jealousy? I also enjoy the type of British (not le Carre) who think using the wrong fork is worse than sleeping with your best friend's husband. Oh the rituals and habits of the British upper classes! As a US person descended from Poles and Irish, my medium-level anglophilia is not congenital. Later, as a traveler and student of history, I believe we are on the same team and we need each other. Rule Britannia resulted in a lot of good in with the bad. I think I wish we were part of the Commonwealth (I am forever disqualified to run for any public office here with that statement). I'm bemused by anti-Americanism in the UK. Your people made this place. Imitation is flattery. It doesn't make rational sense. Try laughing WITH us for a change, eh? OTOH, I do agree with le Carre's belief that we wasted a chance to do more at the end of the Cold War. Although I feel increasingly isolationist as I age, we really blew that one. Now we're stuck with Putin and his siloviki. Pity Russia. "I am a liar... [b]orn to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist." Le Carre pere comes across as a textbook sociopath. Good thing fils found writing. He could wreak a lot of havoc with that brain power. Almost time for me to tuck into "Call for the Dead." I hope I like it!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    Towards the end of every biography I have ever read, without fail or exception, I become, if not quite overcome – I don't want to oversell the idea here – at least vaguely sad. It's just a touch, but a touch all the same, of melancholia at life's brevity. Which, in the case of the very much currently still alive David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre, is no doubt a keystroke slap to the face. Life's over with so quickly isn't it? Well yes, but I'm still alive, me John Le Carre, and how old are you Towards the end of every biography I have ever read, without fail or exception, I become, if not quite overcome – I don't want to oversell the idea here – at least vaguely sad. It's just a touch, but a touch all the same, of melancholia at life's brevity. Which, in the case of the very much currently still alive David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre, is no doubt a keystroke slap to the face. Life's over with so quickly isn't it? Well yes, but I'm still alive, me John Le Carre, and how old are you anyway? What are you even worried about life's self destruct feature for at your age? I suppose it's a bug of biographies. By necessity any biography is going to seem a breeze compared to the actual life lived with it's innumerable tiny moments of simply existing which never make it onto the page. Call them toilet break moments, or the lunch break cut, their all the mundane and drama free seconds of a person's life which are cut because this thing is six hundred pages as it is and we've got places to be ourselves. So, yeah, if you condense down a man's eighty years to whatever can be crammed into six hundred pages, I suppose it would seem brief. Admittedly it gets depressing. I don't know why I bother. But I do. Because there's a lot of great stuff here. This is a richly written, enjoyable, immersive book, a deserving honour for a man who's written his generous share of classics. David repeatedly, politely, turned down offers of joining the honours list, but hopefully he is more happy with his biography. Though given he's recently released his own memoirs, The Pigeon Tunnel, maybe not so much with the happiness. Who knows. The book does, however, beam with respect and admiration for the man's intelligence, talent and, perhaps most of all, his compassion. A trait which Adam Sisman reflects back onto his subject, illuminating David Cornwell honestly and evenly, neither sycophantic or malicious. There's no sneering hit job here, no glorious altar. Just an engaging account of a man's ups and downs, his travels and travails, yes, his glories, and his crashes. For all my talk above of sadness at how quickly it's all over, this was a life seemingly lived to the full, propelled along by circumstances and his own restlessness. Of the circumstances the most obvious, the most infamous, the most powerful of these was his father, Ronnie. David's father being the perpetually high living, bankrupt, hard drinking, lying, abusive, evasive, manipulative shadow over his life. If he looked up, he'd see his father walking a tightrope. If he fell, and he fell often, David never seemed to be able to say no. He'd always catch him. You know. Financially. The book at times seems to be wrestling with Ronnie as equally as his famous, talented son, as if even now Ronnie is able to charm his way into anything. The complicated relationship David had with his father, as, to be fair, seemingly so did half of England, is riveting and horrifying. More than any other single relationship described in the book, theirs has been one of the defining elements of David's life. His fiction gravitates back to Ronnie even as, it's pointed out, women barely make an impact in his various works. Going into the biography I knew the broad strokes of Ronnie and his impact on his son, even if I wasn't fully read up on the sheer murky depth of his actions. I knew about David's brief career in the services secret. I knew The Spy who came in from the Cold put a swift end to that. I wasn't expecting his many affairs, his passionate and convoluted relationship with a couple called the Kennaways. Hell, I didn't even know how attached he was to Germany and the language. Though that one should have been obvious, I suppose. See, I told you the book was informative. Though your mileage may vary, depending on much more knowledgeable you were than me going in. But one of the joys of reading biographies is in finding these anecdotes and revelations by the dozen. Everyone is infinitely more complex and multi-faceted than any article or review can cover, a fact which can be painful when reading of somebody you admire for their work do something foolish, or hurtful. David seems at times to be overly sensitive and argumentative, and at others insensitive himself, as in his treatment of various agents and editors throughout his career, or his spat with Salman Rushdie. Adam Sisman doesn't sugarcoat anything. He'll give it to you straight, and it's always worth remembering the fallibility of your heroes. A biography which does the job is about the person, not the icon, which means warts and all. Again I don't want to oversell anything here. If it sounds like I've become disillusioned with somebody I held on a pedestal, I haven't. I'm not going to be burning any Le Carre book I find in a barrel, tearful all the while, cursing Sisman for ruining my life. No,Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of my favourite books, and I've enjoyed the few other Le Carre's I've read, but I'm by no means quiz-ready and familiar with his canon. All I mean is that reading about somebody famous being in the news for performing some act of greatness, literary or otherwise, or for some foolish act of transgression, can colour your opinions of them sometimes irrevocably. They become synonymous with, well whatever they got in the headlines for. Biographies are good at revealing the case, like life, is always more complex. People can be both admirable and deplorable. I'm not even referring to David Cornwell here, or, indeed, to anyone in particular. I'm like a defence lawyer making a closing argument with no client. This was just the train of thought I jumped on in the weeks since I finished the book because, honestly, I didn't know how to approach a review of a non fiction book. My usual crutches weren't available here. So that's what I hit on, and those are my ramblings. All you need to take away is; it's well worth the read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    From BBC radio 4 - Book of the Week: The life of John Le Carre by Adam Sisman, is abridged for radio in 5 episodes by Katrin Williams: 'John Le Carre' was born David Cornwell, and his early life was in thrall to a genial, vivid and rascally father called Ronnie, who was never short of surprises. 2. Under his real name of David Cornwell, he leaves Sherbourne, goes to Bern and meets Joe Kraemer, who proves a route of sorts into the spying game.. 3. Oxford, teaching at Eton, employment at M15. And publ From BBC radio 4 - Book of the Week: The life of John Le Carre by Adam Sisman, is abridged for radio in 5 episodes by Katrin Williams: 'John Le Carre' was born David Cornwell, and his early life was in thrall to a genial, vivid and rascally father called Ronnie, who was never short of surprises. 2. Under his real name of David Cornwell, he leaves Sherbourne, goes to Bern and meets Joe Kraemer, who proves a route of sorts into the spying game.. 3. Oxford, teaching at Eton, employment at M15. And publication. During these eventful years the shadow of his father Ronnie continues to loom large. 4. From The Spy Who Came In From The Cold to Tinker, Tailor.., Le Carre is one of the biggest names in the writing world. Then there's the time he encountered Dennis Healey at a party, with genial accusations in the air. 5. From The Constant Gardener in the 1990's to the present day, and the author is still very much at work. Reader Stephen Boxer Producer Duncan Minshull. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06j13r5

  8. 5 out of 5

    Larry Kirshbaum

    For leCarre fans, of which I'm one, this is a thoroughly enjoyable trip through his life and his books. Sisman has done prodigious research (aided by the subject) and the story line unfolds like a novel. I don't think le Carre gets his due as one of the greatest writers in the English language (not just for spy fiction) and Sisman's bio provides the very rich background on each book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    Over the course of John le Carré's 86 years he's written 24 novels. He's maybe most well-known for his aging spy, George Smiley, who appeared in many of his early novels. I've read nine of ten of his books and have in the past few years, started to read his earlier works, as I missed them when I started to explore his writing. This biography, John Le Carré: the Biography by Adam Sisman piqued my interest when I first saw it on the bookshelves in one of my local book shops (It was originally publi Over the course of John le Carré's 86 years he's written 24 novels. He's maybe most well-known for his aging spy, George Smiley, who appeared in many of his early novels. I've read nine of ten of his books and have in the past few years, started to read his earlier works, as I missed them when I started to explore his writing. This biography, John Le Carré: the Biography by Adam Sisman piqued my interest when I first saw it on the bookshelves in one of my local book shops (It was originally published in 2015). I finally purchased a copy and was glad to settle down to it this past month. The book was well-organized and flowed nicely. Sisman has an excellent way in presenting his story. It progresses logically, from le Carré's early childhood until his 80th birthday, finishing with his 2nd most recent novel, A Delicate Truth (2013). I found le Carré's early life very interesting. Much detail is provided about his father and how poorly he treated his wives and children. Ronnie Cornwell (le Carré's real name is David Cornwell) was a ducker and diver, a grifter and philanderer and never changed over the course of his life. He used his children to achieve his own ends, got involved in many financial schemes, spent time in prison for his shady dealings and many times left his boys on the spot. Much of what David accomplished was almost almost in contrast to his father. Not too say his father wasn't loved, as he had loyal friends, but he just wasn't a very good man / father. Cornwell's story moves through his childhood, time spent at boarding schools and gradually to university and a career with MI5 and MI6. Cornwell had marriage difficulties, was somewhat of a philanderer as well but ultimately found the wife who supported and for whom he cared dearly. As we get to David's writing career, we move chronologically through all of his novels, what influenced him in writing them, reviews of the books, problems with publishers, movie and TV tie-ins, etc. It's a very interesting story and we do find inklings of Cornwell's attitudes and how they develop and change over the course of his long life. Work was an addiction to him and his methods of formulating and developing his stories make for some interesting reading for budding authors. If you've enjoyed le Carré's books you might find this biography interesting. It was nice reliving the stories and also remembering the history of the time in which Cornwell grew up and also meeting the people who became his friends. (3.5 stars)

  10. 5 out of 5

    Peter Caron

    An eminently readable biography of a fascinating person. In the second half of the book which focuses mostly in his profession career, fans of Le Carré's novels will appreciate the care the author takes is weaving the plot of each novel into the author's life and the context of the times in which he was living. Dense, though well written, this book is highly recommended to lovers of books and writing. The subject lends himself well to the portrait of a flawed but extremely talented and principled An eminently readable biography of a fascinating person. In the second half of the book which focuses mostly in his profession career, fans of Le Carré's novels will appreciate the care the author takes is weaving the plot of each novel into the author's life and the context of the times in which he was living. Dense, though well written, this book is highly recommended to lovers of books and writing. The subject lends himself well to the portrait of a flawed but extremely talented and principled human being. It is certainly not as Cornwall claims "all warts."

  11. 4 out of 5

    Barry Hammond

    Glad this finally came out as an authoritative biography of this subject was long overdue. As interesting and complex as the books he writes. As dense and convoluted family background as you'd expect. Was slightly surprised at how much of his background comes out in fictional form in the books, especially the portraits of his father. One of the most interesting reads I've had this year. Complete with some great photos of all concerned. - BH.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Brent

    Like the best of literary biographies, this makes me want to read more of the subject's writing. In this case, LeCarre, a.k.a. David Cornwell, is in some ways more interesting for having survived a real con man of a father. The first half of this is thus way more compelling than the more stable last half. Highly recommended.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Florence

    This is a comprehensive biography of David Cornwell, aka John le Carre. Le Carre, the author of many famous spy novels was once himself a spy for Britain's MI5 and MI6. After a rough childhood he bounced around for several years, trying to distance himself from his unbalanced father, becoming an instructor at Eton and eventually discovering that he had an aptitude for fiction. The rest of his working life followed in a somewhat orderly manner - one best seller after another. He was always consum This is a comprehensive biography of David Cornwell, aka John le Carre. Le Carre, the author of many famous spy novels was once himself a spy for Britain's MI5 and MI6. After a rough childhood he bounced around for several years, trying to distance himself from his unbalanced father, becoming an instructor at Eton and eventually discovering that he had an aptitude for fiction. The rest of his working life followed in a somewhat orderly manner - one best seller after another. He was always consumed with producing the next book, never seeming to rest and enjoy his fame. He often bickered with literary agents and other authors, sometimes publicly. He was inspired to create fictional characters from real people that he encountered. Though Adam Sisman diligently presents the events of Cornwell's life, Cornwell still seems somewhat unknowable, certainly apt for the creator of complex, inscrutable characters.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Becca

    A little too much about the books and not enough about the man. But compelling.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Williams

    An extraordinarily detailed and well researched biography. I have to admit to skimming the many descriptions and reviews of the novels, partly as I didn't want to know too much before reading them.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ron Brown

    Over the next 600 pages the reader is taken on a journey of Cornwell’s life punctuated by the many books he wrote and the response from critics and the reading public. Quite a number of his books have been made into films and television series. Throughout the first three quarters of the book the dark cloud of David’s father casts a shadow over Cornwell’s life. Ronnie Cornwell was a habitual con artist, swindler and a down right crook. One would have to have some admiration for David Cornwell to Over the next 600 pages the reader is taken on a journey of Cornwell’s life punctuated by the many books he wrote and the response from critics and the reading public. Quite a number of his books have been made into films and television series. Throughout the first three quarters of the book the dark cloud of David’s father casts a shadow over Cornwell’s life. Ronnie Cornwell was a habitual con artist, swindler and a down right crook. One would have to have some admiration for David Cornwell to have survived so well from having such a nasty individual as a father. It lead to his mother leaving the family when David and his brother, Tony, were still quiet young. Undoubtedly if Ronnie Cornwell was around today he would have numerous mental illnesses attached to his name. Bi-polar, autistic, depressed. He was a man who one moment was awash in money and in the next disappearing from aggravated creditors. Throughout the first half his life his father moved in and out of his life. It was seldom if ever an enjoyable experience. As an adult there were numerous occasions when he had to help/rescue his father from financial failings. It cannot be understated the influence that his conniving father had on David. He finally dies two thirds way through the book. On being told of his father’s death “David sat silent, keeping his news to himself. He felt no sadness, no loss; on the contrary he would later claim that he felt liberated, even jubilant.” Sisman relates a number of anecdotal stories that dot Cornwell’s life. In 1948 His father invited the touring Australian cricket team (the Invincibles) to the mansion that he was living in at the time. When David returned to school his fellow students were gobsmacked when he casually mentioned Bradman, Miller, Barnes, Hassett, Morris and Lindwell had been weekend visitors. Because of his success as a writer he met many famous authors, politicians and film stars. Le Carrè’s writing has often been compared to the work of Graham Greene and although they never became close friends they did admire each other’s work. Cornwell worked with and develop friendships with a number of actors Alec Guinness was someone who he admired and became close to. It was interesting reading about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. He received a letter of appreciation from George H.W. Bush for his writing. Cornwell was definitely not a fan of this Bush’s son. (Nor Tony Blair.) He never received any correspondence from George W Bush. May be if he wrote pop-up books he might have!! Cornwell had a troubles relationship with Salman Rushdie. When the Satanic Verses furore erupted Cornwell was critical of Rushdie for being critical of a major religion. The antagonism between the two lasted for many years. Two aspects of this biography that I greatly appreciated was the depth in which Sisman wrote about how Cornwell took people who he knew and developed them into characters in his novels. Sisman names people who were the starting model for well-known characters in his stories. Secondly, Sisman explains Cornwell’s writing process. Often a story is developed which can be re-written several times and end up being very different to the original outline. Many believed that with the end of the Cold War Le Carrè’s purpose for writing would disappear. This did not occur he skilful develop plots and themes that reflected the new world order. Sisman explains Cornwell’s relationships with his publishers and agents. During his writing career is changes these people which leads to great angst on the part of all parties. I was most interested in how much negative reviews of his writing affected him. I would have thought after so many years he would have been immune for this type of commentary. There are some who admire Le Carrè and argue that he is not only a great story teller but a great exponent of quality literature. There are others who see him as a much published thriller writer. I am with the former. It is a sizeable account of the life of David Cornwell but then he is a sizeable character the world of English writing in the second half of the twentieth century and into this new century. I have been reading and re-reading some of his earlier works and they have a style and content that still impresses today.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Phrodrick

    If one asks the question: Who is the audience for a writer’s biography? The easiest answer is: Fans of that writer. If the author is important enough there may be sales to academics, but this is not for whom the biographer toils. Following this question, a potential reader might want to know of this is a fawning, family sponsored memorial or an attack piece by an author with any of several axes to grind. In writing John Le Carre’, Adam Sisman had the full access to the living John Cornwall, pen If one asks the question: Who is the audience for a writer’s biography? The easiest answer is: Fans of that writer. If the author is important enough there may be sales to academics, but this is not for whom the biographer toils. Following this question, a potential reader might want to know of this is a fawning, family sponsored memorial or an attack piece by an author with any of several axes to grind. In writing John Le Carre’, Adam Sisman had the full access to the living John Cornwall, pen name John Le Carre’ as well as his friends and papers, but the writing evidences a critical eye as well as a fan’s infatuation. The result is a very good biography. Something about it keeps me from calling it the definitive biography. The easy reason is that man is still living and still writing but it is possible that Sisman got too close to his subject. Against the complaint that Sisman can be repetitious, it is true. But there are repetitions in Cornwall’s life and in Le Carre’s writing. John’s father was a criminal con man on a very high level. This fact highly colors the son’s experience of the world and relations with people from his mother to his women and across through his publishers and friends. The John Le Carre` books that made of him more than an author of popular popular fiction are those about espionage, the cold war and later the competing demands of take all capitalism and the protection of human dignity. The subtext for all of these books are the limits of the demands of duty and the duty owed to love. Citing from the books that made me a Le Carre` fan, the Quest for Karla Trilogy. The movies’ James Bond with his super gadgetry was certainly the stuff of fantasy. All of us have had the pleasure of pretending we had machine guns mounted in our car just in time to nail that ruder driver. The reality based, poorly dressed, bookish and decidedly un-cool George Smiley digging through files and working the bureaucracy is much closes to who many of us are. Going deeper, the question is not just who is Karla’s mole? But what is their motive. How far can governments go in protecting their respective interests? This questions tends to be easy to answer at the grand scale, but are the answers the same when decisions are made at face to face range? The Man Who Came in from the Cold, the first of the great le Carre’ books is entirely about this question. We are cautioned that spies, more correctly secret agents are people. Often sordid people with motives remote from King and country and just as often seedy and marginal. What then is a spy if not one of their countries heroes? And so this same question, usually in the same tired, disenchanted voice echoes across a very large portion of John Le Carre’s oeuvre. Sisman grasps the subtext of these books and as they are repetitious so he repeats. More than this he critically reviews both the novels and the later movies. Something about the movie coverage seems less serious. These portions can get somewhat gossipy. It is clear that Cornwell/Le Carre’ takes his movie adaptations seriously but somehow the history of the movie making cannot help but be tinged with the Hollywood reporter. Many of his books have made the jump to both the wide and small screen and have consistently been good box office. A reasonable speculation is that this additional vote of public interest is part of why Le Carre’ has not benefited from more of the staid but prestigious awards from within the literary community. Not clear to me, or to Sisman is why Cornwall has a history of resisting British government recognition for so many decades of contributing to England’s culture, and so ready to accept similar and lessor recognition from other countries. I am a long time John Le Carre’ fan. Sisman has reminded me of titles I had missed and deepened my appreciation for the author. He has not made me feel that this is the only book I need to best appreciate one of my favorite authors.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Randy

    John LeCarre, one of my favorite authors, turns out to be something of a prick and not all that interesting. Maybe that’s to be expected of a writer, who with seeming effortlessness, had a hit with his first book and then twenty-two more bringing him untold riches and acclaim. On paper his life appears to be pretty easy. Maybe it wasn’t. He had that father, of course. Ronnie Cornwell the con man who is, by leaps and bounds, the most interesting character in the story, one whose 600 page biograph John LeCarre, one of my favorite authors, turns out to be something of a prick and not all that interesting. Maybe that’s to be expected of a writer, who with seeming effortlessness, had a hit with his first book and then twenty-two more bringing him untold riches and acclaim. On paper his life appears to be pretty easy. Maybe it wasn’t. He had that father, of course. Ronnie Cornwell the con man who is, by leaps and bounds, the most interesting character in the story, one whose 600 page biography, if there were one, would be fascinating reading. Ronnie was a difficult father to have but he allowed LeCarre (David Cornwell) to lead an upper middle class English life, go to fine schools and have connections to job opportunities. He had that mother who abandoned him because Ronnie was driving her nuts and she couldn’t take it anymore. He had that wife who he married young (and kids) who he divorced upon losing interest. He had that manage a trois with that other writer and his attractive wife. He had that life as a spy. Or, was he a spy in the truest sense of the word? He did spy on his fellow students at Oxford. But that’s more like being a narc. His actually work history with MI-5 and 6 is vague and mostly unknown. He had that second wife and another kid and that marriage seemed to work well. And, he had all those books, movies and TV shows and the accompanying friendships and acquaintanceships with famous people. He can rail about his childhood—no mom and a crook for a dad. Fair enough. But, things came pretty easy to David Cornwell. He was smart, terribly good looking (Colin Firth would have to play him in the film version), had an aptitude for languages, was a great skier, noted raconteur and mimic and a terrific and prolific writer. His books are really good. And, his timing was great as he documented and illuminated the Cold War with his tales of spies and counterspies. However, we can read all six hundred pages and not be sure why he was so good at his craft. One wonders why he comes off as so testy and unattractive personally in this bio. One wonders why there isn’t more about his life with his children. We have to blame most of this on the biographer who doesn’t have the chops of, say, a John LeCarre. At a point the biography becomes a rehash of each book, one after another: who liked it; who didn’t. This is, perhaps, the result of LeCarre the very private person not cooperating fully with his biographer. It may because LeCarre is overprotective of his public image, quick to take offense and do battle via a letter to the editor or guest editorial. The early years and papa Ronnie are the most interesting. They are well-researched and documented. The last half of the book, the rehash of best seller after best seller is interesting only because of the research LeCarre (Cornwell) did, traveling to his chosen locale, trying to find his characters. His writing process is only hinted at beyond the research. He rewrites a lot. I think LeCarre made a mistake in letting this author take on the task. I’m hoping David Cornwell is more interesting than Adam Sisman made him out to be. I hope someone writes a book about Ronnie. His son has tried but not successfully. Ronnie was a con man all his life operating at a very high level and good enough to keep it up until his death, with only a short stint in jail early on. He swindled people out of their life savings and they still liked him. He was as good a swindler as LeCarre turned out to be as a writer. When you think about it, a good con man and successful novelist have a lot in common. They both have to convince people that their pitch or story has value. Enough value to convert the transaction to cash. In this, David Cornwell was much more financially successful than Ronnie Cornwell. That said, it doesn’t make him more interesting than his dad.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ian Lambert

    I had had quite enough of looking out for the latest James Bond book in my teens when I discovered Le Carre. His books were four-course meals with wine compared with the flashy fast food of Ian Fleming. I read everything I could find for a while. Since then I've occasionally dipped into Le Carre's books again without quite the same frisson of excitement. Now I'm thinking about rereading some of them. Sisman's biography explains why Le Carre is so interesting in great detail, 600 pages of it. He I had had quite enough of looking out for the latest James Bond book in my teens when I discovered Le Carre. His books were four-course meals with wine compared with the flashy fast food of Ian Fleming. I read everything I could find for a while. Since then I've occasionally dipped into Le Carre's books again without quite the same frisson of excitement. Now I'm thinking about rereading some of them. Sisman's biography explains why Le Carre is so interesting in great detail, 600 pages of it. He spent four years on this doorstop and his approach clearly reflects a portion of very respectable literary opinion that thinks it justified. For myself, I found the first half fascinating and enlightening but the next 300 large pages were less rewarding. On the other hand, there were moments in the second half when my eyelids started to droop and I considered giving up when I was startled by a conversation or a person or an odd detail or an account of a trip that David Cornwell (Le Carre) took at an advanced age in search of background material and I'd keep going with renewed interest. In places it's clear that Cornwell is quite thin-skinned about criticism of his work and has become much spikier as he has aged and that he can't have been easy to deal with at times. The early part of the book is critical to everything that follows as is the character of Cornwell's father, a very dodgy but superlatively charming con man. The apple has clearly fallen fairly close to the tree in some respects and much of Cornwell's work has an often clear subtext of trying to understand himself and his father. Cornwell's books have fairly unsatisfactory female characters and the reasons for this are clear from the shape Cornwell's early life - "15 hug-free years". He seems not to have explored his own sexuality with much honesty and the book gives few clues beyond the profound but privileged alienation of his early life. At several points I was reminded of the homosexual themes running through much of British literature written for boys that my generation was subjected to without any guidance. The settings were all-male public schools aimed at producing worthy sons of the empire. It certainly confused me and Cornwell seems not to have come close to understanding his teenage experiences. I would have liked to have known more about his relationships with his sons as in at least one respect he seems to have repeated his father's appalling decisions - understandable in English wealthy classes but much less forgiveable contemporarily in our own country. The endless literary squabbles and changes in publishers and agents packing out most of the second half of the book are largely uninteresting to a general reader and had they been more ruthlessly summarised I'd give this book four stars. Since it is primarily a book of record that's not possible.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tony Nielsen

    As a long time fan of John Lee Carre ' s writing I was very interested in his life story. Autobiographies can be a minefield, a hit and miss affair but Adam Sigman has done a very thorough job of depicting Le Carre 's story. Helped significantly by having access to the man himself and his archives. David Cornwall ' s life was shaped by his troubled upbringing. His mother left when he and his older brother Tony were very young. His father Ronnie Cornwall was basically a crook, Silver tongued, gli As a long time fan of John Lee Carre ' s writing I was very interested in his life story. Autobiographies can be a minefield, a hit and miss affair but Adam Sigman has done a very thorough job of depicting Le Carre 's story. Helped significantly by having access to the man himself and his archives. David Cornwall ' s life was shaped by his troubled upbringing. His mother left when he and his older brother Tony were very young. His father Ronnie Cornwall was basically a crook, Silver tongued, glib and at the ready to do a deal at anyone's expense, including friends and family members. The embarrassment this caused his sons haunted them most of their lives. David was public schooled at Saint Andrews Prep in Berkshire and then at Sherbourne. He has often reflected through his life on his unhappiness through these years. He completed his education after what was an unofficial gap year in Bern, Switzerland, and ski trips in Saint Moritz, and his two years of compulsory military training. In Switzerland he became a fluent German speaker and became passionate about the country itself. After two years in Cambridge he bailed to study creative writing, and during the early '50s also was co-opt ed into some low level intelligence work in Europe. His next destination was Oxford as a master alongside which he was also romancing Ann, who was to become in first wife. He was very popular, not only for his intelligence but also for his special gift at telling stories and mimicary. It wasn't long before M 15 came knocking and her entered what was a stuffy and disorganized secret service. It was while he was in the service that he started writing. His first to novels garnered some interest but he hit pay dirt with the third, The Spy who came in from the Cold. From then forward under his chosen pseudonym John Lee Carre, David Cornwell was on his way to becoming the success story we all know about. Sisman portrays David Cornwell as a private, intense and highly focused individual. This portrayal is interesting and a worthy read without being exceptional.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lorna

    John le Carre: The Biography was an extremely well researched authoritative biography of British spy and novelist David Cornwell, better known as John le Carre. The biographer Sisman presented the facts as found in his research and noted instances where it differed with Cornwell's remembrances. It was interesting to see the parallels in John le Carre's life to the themes explored in his books. The epigraph at the beginning of book was perfect, a quotation by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Writers aren't John le Carre: The Biography was an extremely well researched authoritative biography of British spy and novelist David Cornwell, better known as John le Carre. The biographer Sisman presented the facts as found in his research and noted instances where it differed with Cornwell's remembrances. It was interesting to see the parallels in John le Carre's life to the themes explored in his books. The epigraph at the beginning of book was perfect, a quotation by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Writers aren't people exactly. Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person." It was a very interesting and enjoyable book.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Hermien

    My husband and I listened to an abbreviated version on the radio during one of our holidays and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am glad I have now also listened to the unabridged audiobook. It has given me a much greater appreciation of John le Carre's work of which I have not read much yet (but intend to remedy that soon). I also learned a lot about the difficulties writers face to get their work published.

  23. 4 out of 5

    George Harris

    A fairly straightforward recounting of the life of the best-selling author. When it is interesting it is interesting because of the life of the subject, who, let's not forget, worked for MI5 and MI6 and wrote many best-selling books.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Brucus Scriptus

    Adam Sisman (2017?) John LeCarre: The Biography. London/NY: Bloomsbury, 652pp. 5/5 ***** Sisman's biography has so much 'grey' detail, I'm surprised he had so much cooperations from the subject. I finished the book outside at breakfast 1th July 2018. It helped me understand not only enigmatic author David Cornwell/John LeCarre, but also elucidates many of his plots – in books I’ve read since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 55ish years ago, Cornwelll’s loving-but-bullying con-man father sent hi Adam Sisman (2017?) John LeCarre: The Biography. London/NY: Bloomsbury, 652pp. 5/5 ***** Sisman's biography has so much 'grey' detail, I'm surprised he had so much cooperations from the subject. I finished the book outside at breakfast 1th July 2018. It helped me understand not only enigmatic author David Cornwell/John LeCarre, but also elucidates many of his plots – in books I’ve read since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 55ish years ago, Cornwelll’s loving-but-bullying con-man father sent his mother scampering with another man in his & brother Tim’s youth. Brother Tim (?) vowed to be his mother…. But David/John LeCarre’s quest seems to be an eternal search for the archetypal mother and/or father. David/LeCarre was sent to private school (Swinborne?)… recruited by MI5 near end of WW II, to spy on mostly leftist classmates and friends. He was eventually admitted full-time., and soon posted in Bonn (venue for A Small Town in Germany). Later claimed he married 1st wife Anne partly as cover for his initially denied cloak-and-dagger career. Adept at slinging drinks at his father’s posh parties, he was also a good mimick, a trait remarked on by friends who liked his wit and humour. He always felt he would do great things, and outselling Ian Flemming with less glamourous stories about tubby Smiley and Toby Esterhouse – instead of Bond, James Bond – matched the Jeremiah in his soul. One trait that grates is LeCarre’s over-sensitivity to bad reviews. Ian McEwan called him ‘perhaps the most significant novelists of the late 20th century’. Others said he lost his moxie when the Cold War ended – this adding to views that he was a ‘genre writer, just a spy novelist. I agree with McEwan. But there were times, even in The Constant Gardener, about contemporary Big Pharma’s abuse in Africa, when the book could have lost a few pages. When Muslims put a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children, or The Satanic Verses, le Carre urges him to forestall publishing a paperback version , in order to stop violent demonstrations, in which, somehow, a young girl has died. Many thought le Carre had slighted Rushdie, as well as the principle of a free press. Years later le Carre told an interviewer he might have been wrong in the feud with Rushdie ‘but for the right reasons’, and if he met him, he would shake his hand as a fellow writer. Spy chiefs in London had assured Rushdie that David Cornwell was low level. Dissembling? Cornwell/le Carre responded that those exalted intelligence professionals must have known that he ran one of the top agents in the Cold War for about 2 years, without serious errors – but would not divulge identity of that agent. Le Carre was for decades excoriated by former MI5 colleagues, like John Bingham, for painting Britain’s secret services as not just manipulative, but often stupid. Much was forgiven in the 1980s (?) when LeCarre was invited to the new MI6 premises on the Thames (seen in recent James Bond films). I loved this book, laud the author for a fantastic 5/5***** job, and would read any biography by him.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Beck Frost

    When I first came to Goodreads, I made a decision that I was going to mark all the John le Carre books as "To Read" instead of "Read." I have read his books, but many were years ago and I wanted to take this moment to read them all fresh. (Still haven't as so many other books on my shelf would be first time reads and I give those priority.) This book gives such a great journey to how those books were written giving insight into what order they were written and which characters were pulled from w When I first came to Goodreads, I made a decision that I was going to mark all the John le Carre books as "To Read" instead of "Read." I have read his books, but many were years ago and I wanted to take this moment to read them all fresh. (Still haven't as so many other books on my shelf would be first time reads and I give those priority.) This book gives such a great journey to how those books were written giving insight into what order they were written and which characters were pulled from where. The composites from real life and those moments when he pulled a minor character from a previous book to be a major character in his next book. The last book I read was The Constant Gardener, so all the books after that point are unknown to me. The biography speeds up rather quickly to just deliver their order in rapid succession after taking so much time with all the books up to The Constant Gardener. So, I don't think that this book gives me much information to go on after TCG. This book is for those that wonder about his writing process and I feel like I know David Cornwell/John le Carre a bit better now. I felt the end was moving very quickly and I had no idea how it was going to end. However, I like that John le Carre was given the last word and I really appreciate that this is the last line of the book, "To have had my life and be ungrateful for it would have been a sin."

  26. 4 out of 5

    J.

    " Spying is waiting. " - The Russia House, 1989 Adam Sisman's large, official biography of 'coldwar laureate' John le Carré, is a fairly exhaustive account of the family background and business dealings of the famous writer. Occasionally it is able to glance beneath the surface, though it operates under the cover of Authorized Bio and feels like le Carré had veto privilege. Long before this volume it had been established that le Carré worked for the Secret Service in some capacity after the war; " Spying is waiting. " - The Russia House, 1989 Adam Sisman's large, official biography of 'coldwar laureate' John le Carré, is a fairly exhaustive account of the family background and business dealings of the famous writer. Occasionally it is able to glance beneath the surface, though it operates under the cover of Authorized Bio and feels like le Carré had veto privilege. Long before this volume it had been established that le Carré worked for the Secret Service in some capacity after the war; generally this bio goes no further than what is already known, and does not much to strip the secrecy away from the murky past. Mr. le Carré is established as a mercurial, conflicted young man, both stirred and shaken by the exploits of his unreliable, criminal con-man father. That he was sent to private schools put him within range of the Secret Services, who actively recruited in those quarters. It appears that Oxford and Cambridge both supplied footsoldiers in the Intelligence wars, and were necessarily fertile grounds for plotting and Red hunting amongst the dreaming spires. Nothing happens to le Carré in a vacuum, however, and his early years coincided with the Suez Crisis, the Profumo affair, the Berlin Wall and the Airlift, Kim Philby, Cuban Missile Crisis. Keeping track fairly vicariously, author Sisman is able to convey the effect or what may have influenced the beginner spymaster along the way; it is left to the reader to draw the inevitable lines from the events to the books like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. By mid-life le Carré is married and a philanderer; the facts are firm but understandably neither author, Sisman or le Carré-- is very forthcoming on what drove the events. In a bio where the subject is participating, it would seem that infidelity is one of the red lines that gets drawn early in the proceedings. After his escape from academia, le Carré would always travel widely, appearing and disappearing where he pleased, often without notice; while it's tempting to ascribe some of this mysterioso to a longterm service engagement in MI6, it is just as explainable as youthful hedonism, stepping out on the wife and kids whilst maintaining an alternative aura to suit the new job. After a couple of books, le Carré was no beginner spymaster in an underling capacity; in graduating on paper to Narrative Spymaster, he was now running the show, and on both sides of the geopolitical table. To his credit, Sisman does find room to equate tensions, deceptions and dualities in the extramarital realm with the content and mood of the written work, concerned as it is with double agents and misdirection. Let's have an interesting example! Here we must introduce the Binghams. John Bingham was the young le Carré's manager for awhile in MI6. He was also an accomplished author of intrigue/ suspense novels, but less in the realm of 'spycraft', and more in the Hitchcockian 'wrong man' or innocent-enmeshed-in-evil school. It was understood amongst the secret services that anything done for print or media would always be forbidden unless buried beneath layers and layers of narrative analogy-- and Bingham's books preserved that agreement; le Carré's books did not, quite so much, edging close to the legality line, and to the limits of the Official Secrets Act, which both men had signed long before. The interesting part emerges when the case is made that 1) John Bingham was a fair percentage of what comprised le Carré's fictional 'George Smiley' character, and that 2) Smiley's wife in the le Carré books, named Ann*, was unfaithful to him and subjected him to understated mockery in the service. It transpires that the real wife of John Bingham, named Madeleine, participated in, and is often dismissed, in the present bio, as unreliable or uncooperative. It also transpires that Mrs Bingham, Madeleine, found this Smiley=Bingham equation distasteful, and also to imply that Ann Smiley=Mrs Bingham. With the infidelity element included, she was not at all pleased, by any of it. The reader does get the sense that le Carré took lightly any sense of harming real-world people, and in fact may have found some amusement in the double game. Overall, the biography here doesn't satisfactorily discuss the work, the literary world, of John le Carré and the inhabitants he invented. It is easy enough to run thru the regularly reported themes, the inversion of the glittering James Bond world of casinos and fantastic villains to the banal and frowsy world of le Carré. Which was austerity Britain, with its little men who spy on each other. But Sisman isn't able to make the bigger case, of what the tragedy of the little official liars meant to a once-great Empire, or the domestic tragedy, that of learning and teaching deception, what it may mean to humanity. An example of which, quoted near the end of the book but not discussed: "To categorize le Carré as a spy novelist is to do him a disservice; he uses the world of cloak-and-dagger much as Conrad used the sea--to explore the dark places in human nature."** Exactly so. Although there are a few good tricky bits here, the general scope of this bio comes to outlining le Carré repeating the cycle : idea and research, often with travel, obstacles to completion solved by rewrite and general endurance, dealmaking, publishing, then the reviews, profits, screenplay and movie. Which might interest publishing insiders, but quickly goes pretty dry for the average reader. As le Carré himself put it (in describing the translation to the screen): You sit there and watch this great cow you've designed-- reduced to a bouillon cube. Sisman's bio is that, a series of connected bouillon cubes, all leading up to but never revealing the secretive and dissembling cow-of-origin. Or something. _________________________ * Mr le Carré for some reason used the name of his own wife, the mother of his children, "Ann" --for the snippy and unfaithful --fictional-- Mrs Smiley. And to recap, that would be during the period that he was gaining international renown while also cheating on her all over Europe. ** Washington Post review of le Carré's Mission Song, Phillip Caputo, 2oo6.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Straker

    Extremely thorough but frequently tedious biography of the English spy novelist. The narrative is quite engrossing until it reaches about 1970 or so, when Cornwell divorces his first wife and marries his second. After that it becomes a predictable litany of "...and then he wrote..." episodes as each successive novel is recapped along with critical reception, sales figures, etc. Occasional digressions into film and television adaptations and trivia about the publishing world serve to break up the Extremely thorough but frequently tedious biography of the English spy novelist. The narrative is quite engrossing until it reaches about 1970 or so, when Cornwell divorces his first wife and marries his second. After that it becomes a predictable litany of "...and then he wrote..." episodes as each successive novel is recapped along with critical reception, sales figures, etc. Occasional digressions into film and television adaptations and trivia about the publishing world serve to break up the pattern somewhat but mostly you're just moving inexorably from book to book. I will admit to being startled by Cornwell's nearly complete lack of loyalty towards agents and other professionals, as well as his penchant for getting into petty disputes with critics, fellow authors, and even old friends. His descent into increasingly childish political views, chronicled in considerable detail, is sadly nothing new. There are however curious omissions: there's practically nothing about his second wife or his children and a strong subtext of repressed homosexuality in Cornwell's personal relations is touched on only very lightly. Perhaps such compromises were the price of the subject's cooperation.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jane Scadding

    This is an exhaustively thorough biography of John Cornwell/John le Carre, and a valiant attempt by the author, Adam Sisman, to pin down the elusive and enigmatic subject, who had his own many versions of his dramatic and fascinating life story. Cornwell clearly (and frequently) leant on his biographer, as can be detected from the regular cryptic and euphamistic editorial notes/corrections on certain details. These are drolly referred to as "false memories" and other such ironic terms. It is fort This is an exhaustively thorough biography of John Cornwell/John le Carre, and a valiant attempt by the author, Adam Sisman, to pin down the elusive and enigmatic subject, who had his own many versions of his dramatic and fascinating life story. Cornwell clearly (and frequently) leant on his biographer, as can be detected from the regular cryptic and euphamistic editorial notes/corrections on certain details. These are drolly referred to as "false memories" and other such ironic terms. It is fortunate for us that Sisman persevered so bravely. Though famously charming, erudite and entertaining - for secret agents after all, must know how to attract their prey, Cornwell is clearly the archetypal ruthless and perfidious spy who was first recruited whilst at Oxford, to inform on the various affiliations of his supposed friends. From his appalling childhood and schooldays, deserted by his mother and under the control of an unpredictable and often cruel father, a notoriously corrupt swindler and jailbird, he progressed through damaged adulthood and humiliating poverty, to find himself a successful writer who rapidly became rich beyond belief. Absolutely first rate and riveting!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mark Sohn

    So why review a book you haven't finished - indeed are less than halfway through?. Sisman had a Biographer's dream-come-true with this one - Le Carre aka David Cornwell allowed him unimaginable access to his home, his lives and his letters. Lives?; yes - Cornwell has lived - and is still living a double life. The reasons for this become tragically clear the more you read, but he is basically the product of his schooling and his Father. Let's get something straight, shall we?; I have waited for a So why review a book you haven't finished - indeed are less than halfway through?. Sisman had a Biographer's dream-come-true with this one - Le Carre aka David Cornwell allowed him unimaginable access to his home, his lives and his letters. Lives?; yes - Cornwell has lived - and is still living a double life. The reasons for this become tragically clear the more you read, but he is basically the product of his schooling and his Father. Let's get something straight, shall we?; I have waited for a decent Bio of Cornwell for decades. I buy every book of his I can afford as I find them (Usually in Charity shops) and treasure them all. He is the greatest example of frustration in a writer I have ever encountered. Eh?; allow me - he has this extraordinary double life of Toff schoolboy and subterfuge thrust on him by Ronnie Cornwell, his Father (A fiddler in all, but the musical sense, it would seem) who was basically a gigantic fraudster living the life of an Emperor whilst dodging his creditors. Think Arthur Daley without the comedy and on a grander scale. Always on the fringe of respectable society, always elbowed out by the 'quality' - he's even relegated to the background in a photo with HRH Prince Philip - Cornwell Senior sends his sons to the same Prep School as the Middleton sisters later endured, to give them the 'quality'. I say 'endured' as I am a Prep-School boy myself and recognise every word of every book Le Carre wrote on the subject. To say this duality of prep school life with it's late-Empire sense of virtuous living and moral rectitude clashed with the often-chaotic 'leg it from the creditors' lifestyle of the Cornwell household was damaging is an understatement. No wonder Cornwell jnr was ideal for the Secret Intelligence Service - his whole life was an act at the time. As a result, Cornwell's portrayal of his own life - 'The Pigeon Tunnel' is ultimately unsatisfying (Though of course a 'must read' - contradiction is the theme here, after all). Sisman's book is the real McCoy and for once the flawless Le Carre is let down by his human creator - but of course I am one of the faithful and to find flaws in the armour of a hero is to love him the more for it. And this, remember is from someone not even halfway through the book. Lesser writers than Le Carre would have been trapped by the curse of 'Genre' (Trust me, I know of which I speak; I'm a lesser writer and in the vallée du genre myself) - yet Le Carre, Cornwell, vaulted the fence many years ago. To see his works as books on spying is like seeing 'Guernica' as a painting of a bull. Update; I've finished the book and it was magnificent front to finish. Towards the end of the book, we see the elderly Le Carre as a man increasingly angered by the injustice prevalent in today's Whirled (I like the spelling, it fits...) and speaking out using his novels. The Cold War has gone, and with it Le Carre's wonderful thrillers - but his newer ones speak to today's audience and on today's issues, with a keen eye. The man we meet through Sisman's book is slightly acerbic, often reacting to criticism in a childish fashion - yet, naturally, ou can't help, but love the man all the more - John Cornwell, that is. John Le Carre and Cornwell are clearly delineated throughout and just as well, because Cornwell the man is fascinating stuff. A first class mind writing Spy Thrillers that escaped the restrictions of genre to write THE British novel.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Milo

    For one of his greatest fans, (I can listen to any version of "Tinker Tailor etc" in radio, tv, or movie form almost as a familiar and comforting lullaby of gloom) this biography was good but not great. That's not Sisman's fault, certainly. I think he worked with what he had and presented his subject in the most accurate way he knew how. Perhaps the problem is that the reader-fan looks forward to meeting Smiley and instead of find himself with Smiley's own fan—a man who wishes he were Smile but For one of his greatest fans, (I can listen to any version of "Tinker Tailor etc" in radio, tv, or movie form almost as a familiar and comforting lullaby of gloom) this biography was good but not great. That's not Sisman's fault, certainly. I think he worked with what he had and presented his subject in the most accurate way he knew how. Perhaps the problem is that the reader-fan looks forward to meeting Smiley and instead of find himself with Smiley's own fan—a man who wishes he were Smile but is not and is unapologetic about his complicated relationships with his flamboyant flaneur con-man father Ronny, his various betrayals of women (lightly touched on,) and his enviable ability to adapt the people he encounters in real life to his own creative uses. (I've personally come into contact with at least two of his identified sources and literally watched this author leeching onto what he will use or discard over a club table.) Still le Carre fascinates... and almost despite myself, I'll now move on to read his rejoinder to this bio, "The Pigeon Tunnel."

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