John le Carré (real name David Cornwell) was guarded in the extreme when it came to his personal life. Hardly surprising, we should suppose, for someone who once worked in the UK’s intelligence services, and who used legal action to sink a planned warts-and-all biography in the 1990s.
He eventually relented though, agreeing to a comprehensive biography released in 2015 by Adam Sisman, and shortly afterwards produced his memoirs, The Pigeon Tunnel.
Le Carré is the focus of A Private Spy: the Letters and The Secret Heart and since he died two years ago next month, there is obviously little he can do about either.
A pity, in a way, as one is left wondering what the potentially delicious – and squirming – response might be to the tell-all memoir by the pseudonymous Suleika Dawson; especially after reading some of the acerbic and unguarded letters, in an enjoyable-on-the-whole collection edited by le Carré’s son Tim, who died suddenly earlier this year.
When Sisman told le Carré he had spoken to Dawson while researching the biography, the writer’s response was: “Oh, God.”
The books offer plenty of juice on le Carré, depending on how you like your meat cooked, although both should be taken with healthy pinches of salt.
A collection edited by family is bound to be diplomatic no matter what one declares, and A Private Spy gives away its hand too easily from the outset, saying: “it contains only a smattering of letters to his lovers, of whom there were quite a few.” The introduction also concedes that Sisman’s book on le Carré got the punch in first by extracting the letters.
The Secret Heart therefore fills in a large chunk of that absent aspect: namely, le Carré as lover and leading man. It is the more forthcoming, too, as Dawson names the infidelities by the author, whereas the letters lightly step around them, except for the long established affair le Carré had with Susan Kennaway.
A Private Spy is much more satisfying and provides a looking glass into le Carré’s professional and personal life, whereas Dawson strips the man bare, spinning him around in such gaudy lighting that it leaves the reader wondering if it’s a love story or hatchet job.
In the letters, we have much that we already know: le Carré’s political anger at Brexit, the war in Iraq, his hatred of Blair, Bush, Trump, and Johnson, the Irish passport.
But there’s plenty to pique even his most fervent followers. The gushing letters to Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes, Stephen Fry, Alec Guinness; the practical and punctilious missives to the arts and publishing world; intriguing, sometimes affectionate, sometimes regretful, writings to those from his spying days.
The letters are best when dealing with family. The haunted relationship with his father, the distant one with his mother, the loving tones with wives, siblings, and children . It shows how remarkable his wives were, Jane especially, to his continued success.
Le Carré’s thoughts on his craft, his conscientiousness and hard graft with the work are enlightening, too. The letters reveal how he never lost a sense of insecurity in his writing, despite his early blooming both financially and critically.
Often he reached out to aid workers, journalists, criminologists and the like when exploring a new subject; always unsure of creativity’s crutch, or maybe just helping his fiction stand on factual realism.
The offbeat letters are fun: to fans and admirers, aspiring writers, the mischievous and miscellaneous. Le Carré, with faults and flaws we all possess, remains good company to the end. A Private Spy is a rich palette for a further portrait of the artist as a young and old man.
George Orwell said autobiography or memoir can only be trusted if it reveals something truly disgusting. In which case, Dawson has knocked it out of the park. Much has been made about the sex but I could have done without knowing that le Carré’s scrotum stayed firm under “interrogation” by Dawson’s ice-cubed hand.
Or when the two of them consummated their affair, he chose his teenage son’s bedroom. Then how about this ‘couched confession’: “(He) drove himself into me like a ploughshare.” And so it goes, often.
Fine. But the reader is also anticipating that the ‘intimate’ will give a stew of lip-smacking stories on the great and good to sustain one through all the bonking. A few nuggets on le Carré’s post-fatwa feud with Salman Rushdie perhaps, or bon mots on his friend Stanley Kubrick maybe?
This feels like wading through a tempestuous, fragile relationship
The letters, Sisman, and le Carré’s own memoirs, are a better source. This feels like wading through a tempestuous, fragile relationship, and it reads as exploitative at times: a rich, famous old man getting just what he wants from a young woman while giving little of himself. Dawson, who is no intellectual slouch, continually denies this idea, however.
Le Carré is either groaning about his home life and work to the put-upon Dawson, and then there are the moans from the copious amounts of badly-written sex she gleefully documents.
When you begin to feel sorry for Dawson she reverts to naff jokes or double entendres that Roger Moore’s eyebrow could not rescue, or jumps onwards to more jet-set exoticism, and the litany of wining-and-dining.
The Secret Heart flags this as a “unique and enduring love affair”, yet it was brief: 1983-85, and a fleeting resumption in 1999 before an abrupt final ending. “Sex was the only constant,” notes Dawson, “the only point of true contact”, which is perhaps the best summation of the relationship and book. It feels less like a meeting of minds, than a locking of libidos.
‘A Private Spy: The Letters of John Le Carré’, edited by Tim Cornwell, Penguin, €22.99
‘The Secret Heart’ by Suleika Dawson, Mudlark, €21.99