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.I like the idea of the book promoting le Carré as ‘one of the most important novelists alive today’. All too often, when talking about le Carré, you hear that he’s a wonderful spy novelist, very likely the best of his kind and the man who spun literature from the Cold War conflict, but that the quality of his books has suffered in the Brave New post-Wall World. Stuff and nonsense, of course. As much as I love the Cold War novels, they were set during a period that to a large extent (and understandably so) characterised by a black-and-white, us-vs-them perspective. The latter work is far more fascinating, I think, ‘rooted’ as they are in the fertile but shifting sands of fluid conflicts, unlikely alliances and moral relativism.
As for the idea that le Carré is a great spy novelist: he is, of course, but leaving at that is equivalent to saying that James Joyce was a dab hand at writing about Dublin, or METAMORPHOSIS is the finest possible example of a novel about bugs.
As it happens, I’ve been on a bit of a le Carré binge this January: so far I’ve read OUR GAME, CALL FOR THE DEAD and SINGLE AND SINGLE. CALL FOR THE DEAD (1961) is a little out of place, of course, given that proceeds as far more a traditional investigation than le Carré would offer in later years (poignant to realise that the first character ever introduced in a le Carré novel, even before George Smiley puts in an appearance, is the perennially elusive Lady Ann Sercomb), but OUR GAME (1995) and SINGLE AND SINGLE (1999) both offer characters who are singularly and even self-destructively obsessed with achieving one good thing in a breathtakingly bleak and cynical world, despite their own awareness of how Pyrrhic their achievement might be. If fiction has more or better to offer than that particular kind of story, I really don’t know what it is. It helps, of course, that when it comes to the idea that character is mystery (to paraphrase John Connolly), le Carré delivers more value per line than any other writer I know.
Here endeth my two cents. JOHN LE CARRE: THE BIOGRAPHY by Adam Sisman is published on October 22nd.