Jhe books don’t stop: after the death of John le Carré in 2020 came his 26th novel, Silverviewreleased last year, and now another treasure is coming from the vault in the form of A private spya 750-page selection of Le Carré’s letters over the course of his long life, taking us from wartime school years to locked-up old age, as he laments the ‘unholy mess’ of a ravaged Britain by a pandemic approaching a hard Brexit.
Yes, the editorial introduction more or less admits that Adam Sisman has already picked the juiciest bits for his 2015 biography. John the Square. Yet it is still a companion volume, rich in local interest from star-studded correspondents (Margaret Thatcher, Stephen Fry, Tom Stoppard – who hears that Le Carré “wasn’t convinced, wasn’t moved” by Silverviewthat he “dumped” in 2014), as well as pleasant exchanges with the fans: when a high-ranking Avis writes with delight that one of the characters of Le Carré uses his firm, Le Carré jokes that he will be sure to make his villains use Hertz in the future.
He’s angry and warm, haranguing editor Clive James for a bad review and ticking off an American cartoonist for a gag over his obsolescence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Both hit on sore spots. The idea that he was a genre novelist always angered and probably fueled his notoriously contradictory post-fatwa response to Salman Rushdie (“Would the same people have come to the defense of a Ludlum or an Archer?”) . The letters also show how he strove with increasing energy to keep his books topical once the Cold War slipped away from the headlines. “I am trying to stage a novel about the fortune of a young Chechen Muslim who ends up in Hamburg,” he wrote to a German human rights lawyer while working on A much wanted man (2008). “I would like the opportunity of a briefing from you regarding the Muslim community in Bremen and Hamburg.”
The law scrambles with an unexpected lack of courage: Le Carré’s letters show how, for example, setting up an appointment with a yacht broker in Miami, or asking a friend’s Spanish-speaking nephew to ferry him to across Panama, came to supplant the imagination. in terms of plot construction. Or was it just consciousness? We see Le Carré buying a “sensitivity reading” before the letter of an Israeli journalist while working on 1983 The little thresher girlabout Israel-Palestine: “I will have written things that are inaccurate/unintentionally offensive/unfair, etc.
A private spy is edited by one of Le Carré’s sons, Tim Cornwell, who died this summer after preparing the book for publication. His introduction notes an “obvious omission”: the author’s many lovers during his lifetime as a twice-married father of four. In 1993 (as shown in a letter here), le Carré sued a so-called biographer seeking to expose his private life and had the book canceled; in 2010, he accepted Sisman’s approach on the condition that he could draw heavy red lines, except for what he called “disloyalties” and “fickleness of mind and behavior” towards his second wife, Jane Cornwell, who died last year.
Here to fill in some blanks – and how – is a new memoir the secret heart, by one such lover, Suleika Dawson, who first met Le Carré in 1982 as a “tall blond city girl who hasn’t been out of college for a long time and is usually up for anything.” “. She abridged novels for a pioneering audiobook company; when the Square arrives to read Smiley People, his “do-me-gently” voice sounds like “a fabulous seduction in the back of a luxuriously padded high-end engine”. They meet again a year later, when Le Carré, recording The little thresher girl, confides that he will never write another novel again because he mourns his beloved Janet Lee Stevens, a journalist based in the Middle East whose local knowledge contributed to the book. (She died in a bombing of an embassy in Beirut on her way to pick him up – according to Dawson, quoting Le Carré – possibly while she was pregnant with his child; A private spy prints le Carré’s letter of condolence to his parents but omits the unspoken context.)
Dawson restarts the Carré pen, and the rest, as they fall into a rhythm of stealthy nights at home and abroad. Rising early to write, he lets her bathe and “draw [his] fluids”, the abundance of which astonishes her (“It’s so different with you, my darling”). TMI? We have barely started. If you’ve ever wanted to know Le Carré’s lines (“Would a girl like a quick fuck?”) or what turns her on in bed (a mirror, muted porn, lots of talk; the day “he went German…everything was off even his previous charts”), so here’s the book for you. Sex is “the tenderest and truest…we’ve ever known” (it “s’ is sunk in me like a ploughshare”, etc; at a given moment, she and the Carré make visible steam). He sends flowers to fill “all the vases I had” (“I had to cross the road to Habitat to buy more”), but in 1985 Dawson felt like “one of those unlucky addresses that gets robbed…I couldn’t go on”.
“Oh my God.” Such, apparently, were Le Carré’s words to Sisman when the biographer told him he had spoken to Dawson while digging for his 2015 book and no wonder. The real revelation here is not what was between the sheets, or between Le Carré’s legs (although we have a passage on his Speedos), but what was between his ears: at a point, he corners Dawson by the throat, his teeth bared, hissing accusing him of deliberately clicking his heels while he was on the phone to Jane. His theatrical need for secrecy, which ultimately caused the case’s eventual failure after a relapse in 1999, is not easy to reconcile with Dawson’s abundant testimony of drinking and dining out on the town – meeting Pinter one night , Frederick Forsyth the next day – or with how Le Carré sold his writing apartment to author William Shawcross with his poster-sized nude photo still hanging in the bedroom.
Cleverly, Dawson puts the analysis of the situation in the mouth of her boss, who tells her – between the points on center court at Wimbledon, naturally – that she is “a rich man’s mistress now… it’s the tension he enjoys – creative or not – dodging and diving between all the moving parts”. For Dawson, as well as the reader, le Carré’s MO sometimes feels like a methodical writing experiment that has spun out of control, no doubt fueled by the psychic legacy of a difficult upbringing by his con man father, Ronnie Cornwell.
Rejuvenated by Dawson’s attentions, Le Carré wrote 1986’s A perfect spy – the “best English novel since the war” for Philip Roth, who could have been even more enthusiastic if he had known the circumstances of its composition. Dawson’s revealer never once claims to be a victim, but alludes to the cost; while much of the material lends itself to chuckles, of course, it’s unmistakably sad at the end. Filling the gaps in her lover’s story seems to involve silence on Dawson’s own history: the episodes involving late care for her widowed father (during which her radio silence caused Le Carré to worry) only underscore the bravado behind her stubborn presentation of herself as a good-time girl in Burberry and heels. There’s a bigger book here – she doesn’t need to play second fiddle in her own life too.
A private spy: the letters of John le Carré, edited by Tim Cornwell, is published by Viking (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply