Every writer is a kind of spy, ghosting through life in the service of an alien power. He lurks, he snoops, he eavesdrops, he jots his jottings, he thinks his treacherous thoughts. But not every spy is a writer. Kim Philby, for example, the Soviet double agent who spent a perfidiously productive decade in the highest echelons of Cold War British intelligence, was also responsible for some appalling prose. “Her political views are Socialistic, but like the majority of the wealthy class, she has an almost ineradicable tendency towards a definite form of philistinism.” This is Philby, secret totalitarian, summarizing for his Moscow controllers the ideological impurities of his (at this point) unsuspecting wife, Aileen. “She believes in upbringing, the British navy, personal freedom, democracy, the constitutional system, honor, etc.” The single literary touch here is an accident: that supremely horrible and languid etc., following the word honor and trailing off into an abyss of contempt.
Philby is one of the two enormous, duplicitous presences—or anti-presences—hanging over Adam Sisman’s new John le Carré: The Biography. The other is its subject’s father, Ronnie. Philby was a snake, whereas with Ronnie you reach for adjectives like Falstaffian or Rabelaisian, his monstrous vitality seeming to emanate from some artistic over-realm. But both men were double-sided, truth-inverting, charismatic, untainted by empathy, profoundly destructive, and finally incomprehensible. Between them, they form the reason you will find le Carré’s novels in the mystery section of your local bookstore.
John le Carré, one of England’s greatest novelists, author of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and creator of the character George Smiley, was born David Cornwell in 1931 in Poole, England. He was 2 when his father—who was always either booming or busting, expanding and contracting to the rhythm of his own dodginess—got 15 months for fraud and other charges. “He could put a hand on your shoulder and the other in your pocket and both gestures would be equally sincere,” David’s brother Tony once said. He also molested his own children. “When he came home sozzled,” we read in John le Carré, “Ronnie would sometimes climb on to David’s bed, pawing and fondling him, while David feigned sleep.” (Sisman, perhaps taking his cue from le Carré himself, passes swiftly on from this fact, which might have been the cornerstone of another kind of biography.)