Adam Sisman, the biographer of John le Carré, shared that the author desired for him to develop affection towards him.
In 2015, Dam Sisman released a definitive biography of John le Carré, also known as David Cornwell. The book was created with the author’s cooperation and access to his personal archive, but there were some parts of his life that le Carré did not want to discuss, specifically his numerous extramarital affairs. He suggested to Sisman that these “worst and maddest” aspects of his behavior be saved for a second volume. Nearly three years after the deaths of both le Carré and his second wife, Jane, Sisman, who is also an award-winning author of biographies about historians AJP Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, has written The Secret Life of John le Carré.
Did you ever envision this material turning into a second book?
At first, I considered creating an updated edition of the initial book. However, I am now content with making it a distinct book. This decision has allowed me to explore ideas that I would not have been able to otherwise. This new book covers topics that I was unable to include when David was alive. Additionally, it delves into the process of negotiating and our dynamic while writing the book.
How effortless was it to uncover these hidden truths?
Initially, I did not view these acts of disloyalty as significant. However, I consistently encountered them in various places. I recall having lunch with friends who mentioned knowing Verity Mosley and her discussion of her affair with David. At a party, a stranger I was speaking to brought up my book and shared that their friend’s mother had also been involved in an affair with him. These occurrences continued to arise, and even two more have emerged since I completed my book.
Do you believe he would have given his approval for all of this information being revealed?
The task of answering this question is proving to be challenging for me. When he was alive, he expressed indifference towards my writing. Perhaps I should believe him. However, I have learned from David not to trust such statements.
His letters to you and his letters to his lovers have a similar complex and flirtatious tone, making them intriguing to read. Receiving such letters must have been quite remarkable.
According to Nicholas Shakespeare, a close friend of the writer, the latter had a habit of trying to charm anyone he came across, regardless of their gender or species. It seemed as though he desired my affection, not in a sexual way, but it was his natural inclination. When he was in his element, he was the most delightful companion I had ever encountered. However, I couldn’t help but remind myself that we were not truly friends, as I was certain he would speak ill of me as soon as my back was turned. One of his less appealing traits was his tendency to belittle everyone around him, including his agent, editor, friends, and even his own children.
He had a desire for the project to give his children insight into him, as he never fully comprehended his own father, Ronnie [a notorious swindler and philanderer who was incarcerated for fraudulent activities].
Yes, in his semi-autobiographical book A Perfect Spy, the main character Magnus Pym reflects on his father’s destructive behavior and how it affected others. Pym then speaks to his own son, stating, “I am the obstacle you must overcome to achieve a content and fulfilling life.”
At the conclusion, you express hope that the information disclosed about his life will not harm his work. Were there any aspects of his conduct that could be considered predatory?
I didn’t view him as predatory. He didn’t speak of women in a derogatory manner. I believe he often fantasized about being in love, but once that love was returned, he would quickly reject it. He struggled with showing affection. He certainly mistreated many of his partners and was not kind to his wives.
Did you find his reasoning convincing, that he required such intricacy to foster creativity, with a unique muse for each book?
He seemed to have a strong interest in jeopardy and taking risks. He enjoyed being on the edge, but he would have been upset if he had been fully exposed.
In the book, writer ethics are briefly touched upon and Janet Malcolm is mentioned. Her well-known quote about journalists being aware of the moral indefensibility of their actions often comes to mind. Is it possible that writing a biography also requires making similar compromises?
I disagree with her. In my opinion, ethical journalism is crucial. When it comes to biographies, there are always ethical concerns. For instance, I had a very uncomfortable interview with David’s wife, Jane, which he arranged for us to discuss his infidelity. I felt like we were being manipulated by this man who had left us alone to take a walk on Hampstead Heath.
Have there been any books that have inspired you and helped answer these questions?
I regularly peruse recent biographies and literature on the subject of writing them. This morning, I delved into Robert Caro’s work, Working, which can be considered a partial autobiography and is filled with captivating information. The book that had the greatest impact on me was Richard Holmes’s Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, which helped me break away from mundane concepts I had for a potential book about Boswell and prompted me to approach the art of biography in a fresh perspective.
Do you have a list of potential topics for the future?
Sure, but I’m not going to disclose who is included.
What books are currently on your bedside table?
Currently, the two books I am most engaged in reading are South from Granada by Gerald Brenan and The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes. Recently, In Our Time featured a segment on the latter, prompting me to prioritize reading it.