Adam Sisman, biographer of John le Carré
----EXCLUSIVE---- to Marlborough News Online
No doubt it was the perfect spot to discuss the perfect spy, a pub tucked away from prying eyes at Manton, just down the road from Marlborough.
And with a name like the Outside Chance, it might well have appeared in the pages of John le Carré’s novels of espionage and betrayal, deception and deadly deeds that have enthralled millions of dedicated readers.
For Manton was where the acclaimed biographer Adam Sisman met up for lunch with political journalist turned successful novelist Robert Harris, and gently plotted about which of them was to write the biography of David John Moore Cornwell.
That is the real name of John le Carré, smash hit author of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and a succession of admired novels, 21 so far, that have become celebrated films and TV adaptations.
Now snowy-haired and approaching 80 in October, he has invited Adam Sisman, now a citizen of Bath after once living on the other side of Hampstead Heath, where le Carré has his London home, to delve into his fascinating secret past.
The aim – to write the definitive, independent and unmolested biography – that Sisman proposed calling A Life Unmasked.
“David suggested another title – Cover Story,” Adam recalls amusingly of one of their first assignations with le Carré in a Hampstead pub.
And he ruefully adds: “I am aware that a biography of le Carré presents particular problems because so much of his life has been spent concealing himself, both as a spy and a ‘fabulator’. But I am nonetheless confident of uncovering the man behind the disguises.”
He is well experienced in the long haul – Bloomsbury plan to publish on the 50th anniversary of the Spy Who Come in from the Cold in 2014 – having produced a highly praised biography last summer of the controversial historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. He is also the author of earlier works on AJP Taylor, Boswell and the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge.
But he had rivals in the field when it came to le Carré.
Some 20 years ago, the political journalist and novelist Robert Harris, who lives at Kintbury, signed a contract for an unauthorised biography of le Carré, who asked for it to appear after his death.
Harris’ researches led him to interview le Carré’s now late first wife, they gave him access to previously unseen correspondence, and he wrote some 30,000 words in note form.
Then another writer, Graham Lord, proposed his own expose version on the former British intelligence officer – he served as a member of the diplomatic corps in our embassies in Bonn and Hamburg -- whose inside knowledge of espionage has given his novels such vivid authenticity.
Lord, now living in the Caribbean, backed down when le Carré challenged him. Meanwhile, Harris took off on another track, developing his own very successful career as the author of Fatherland, Pompeii and The Ghost Writer, declaring that his le Carré was more or less on permanent hold.
And, supreme surprise, when Sisman came to lunch with Harris at the Outside Chance, in Manton, it was Harris himself who suggested to Sisman that he should try to lift the lid on the Berlin Wall spy and creator of Smiley’s People and The Perfect Spy.
“Robert and I are friends, not rivals,” 57-year-old Adam now reveals. “I am a huge admirer of his work, and he has written very kind reviews of two of my books. We often talk to each other about what we’re doing.
“I had been contemplating a life of le Carré for years and we have discussed it together several times. About a year ago, after I finished my biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, I had lunch with Robert, and it was he who encouraged me to approach David Cornwell.
“So I wrote to him.”
It was a pivotal moment for Adam, who joined the horde of le Carré fans after reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold when only 12 or 13, seeing Richard Burton and Claire Bloom in the movie version, and reading his novels, often more than once, Tinker, Tailor at least a dozen times.
“One of his secrets is a superbly accurate ear for the way people speak – as good as that of any other English writer in my opinion,” he insists, describing Tinker Tailor as “a superbly constructed novel, rich and satisfying, peopled by wonderfully vivid characters.”
On his part, le Carré admired his Trevor-Roper biography. “And he decided – and importantly his wife Jane too -- that I would be an appropriate person to write his life,” says Adam with evident satisfaction.
“He has given me exclusive access to his archive, to himself, and to the important people in his life – ‘the keys to the kingdom’, as his agent put it. Nevertheless, we agreed that we both wanted to have an arms’ length arrangement, so that I will have a free hand and David will not have control over what I write.”
That means trips to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where le Carré has deposited his manuscripts – he handwrites every word, corrects it and then his wife, Jane, types it up – and also to Cornwall, where le Carré’s extensive personal papers are stored.
He plans to visit Sherborne, the public school in Dorset from which le Carré’s ran away during a fraught, unhappy childhood, and will go to Eton, where le Carré taught for two years after coming down from Oxford with a first class degree with honours in modern languages.
There is a list too of interviewees that grows in number virtually daily.
“And I shall have to go round the world, to America, to Russia, to Germany and Switzerland,” he adds, almost with glee at the prospect of spying on the once master spywriter whose fiction has fascinated millions, all the settings of them in actual places he has visited.
There are also le Carré’s four sons, three from his first marriage, to meet as well.
“When David told them that I was writing this biography, his son said: ‘Oh good! -- we shall all be able to find out from it what you’re really like,’” Adam subversively reveals.
He is indeed the beneficiary of an outside chance.