“I still think he’s the definitive novelist of the Cold War, and a major novelist in trying to understand Britain’s post-imperial struggle/sleepwalk.”
With The Secret Life of John le Carré (Harper), Adam Sisman reveals the secrets he couldn’t publish in 2015’s John le Carré: The Biography, and explores how serial deception & betrayals — through the multiple affairs le Carré (a.k.a. David Cornwell) conducted during both of his marriages — can provide a key to understanding the late, great spy novelist. We get into how Adam became a combo detective-psychoanalyst-confessor during his work on the biography, how he learned of le Carré’s messy private life, why he decided to wait until after the author and his wife had died before publishing this new book, and why these new revelations ought not to diminish le Carré’s literary stature. We talk about le Carré’s monumental achievements chronicling the Cold War and Britain’s decline (& his top 3 le Carré novels), the man’s undeniable charm & his self-mythologizing, the times when he thought the biography might not happen, how he felt when le Carré published a memoir after Adam’s biography came out, and the ways in which le Carré’s upbringing — abandoned by his mother, reared by a con man father he struggled to escape from — may have contributed to his devotion to duplicity & seduction. We also discuss the moment Adam realized that biography is a human process, his thoughts on the new Errol Morris documentary with le Carré, the limits of interviews in general (NO!), what it means to put le Carré behind him with this new book, and plenty more. Give it a listen! And go read The Secret Life of John le Carré!
“David [John le Carré] just had to seduce everybody, if not literally then at least emotionally. When he turned on the charm, I don’t think I ever met anyone who was such intoxicating company.”
“I know it’s a cliché, but I think when the Cold War ended, David did lose his subject, and he never really found it again.”
“I’m a skeptic about the truth of interviews. I think that people are always massaging the past and manipulating it to fit the present. I’m a much greater believer in written records from the time.”
SPOTIFY PLAYER TK
About our Guest
Adam Sisman is the author of Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, and the biographer of John le Carré, A. J. P. Taylor, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. Among his other works are two volumes of letters by Patrick Leigh Fermor (I & II). He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an honorary fellow of the University of St. Andrews. His new book is The Secret Life of John le Carré.
Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Zoom PodTrak P4. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Adam by … someone else. It’s on my instagram.