Feb 20, 2016

Reading a John le Carré biography

Literary biography should be a guilty pleasure. A good reader can guess the origins of beautifully written novels, but a good reader inevitably wants to know the person who wrote such powerful work.

What we repeatedly find out is that the great artist performs a kind of alchemy, turning an often shitty life into deeply absorbing and moving art.

The literary biographer's task can be tricky. How do you examine the artistic process when the writer is not necessarily the thing of dreams while his work clearly is? It takes great subtlety and a powerful sense of scope.

There are some excellent examples of such biographers. Frances Donaldson's P. G. Wodehouse: A Biography. Joseph Blotner's Faulkner: A Biography. Ron Chernow is one of my favorite biographers and approaches his subjects as lively and interesting people who must be approached with intelligence.

Adam Sisman's John le Carré: The Biography is not one of those sympathetic biographies. After reading the first third of the book, I started to wonder if Sisman liked his subject at all. In the Introduction, Sisman records that le Carré said, "I know it's supposed to be warts and all, but so far as I can gather it's going to be all warts and no all."

Le Carré has repeatedly said that writers are liars, but Sisman seems to have taken him at his word. Extremely at his word.

It's a mistake to publish a biography of a living subject. It's even more a mistake to get so close to your subject that you cannot see the magic of misery. I sometimes read Sisman's book as a reference and have many of my working assumptions about le Carré confirmed, but it is not a biography that I can read all the way through. It's just too brutal.

Add this to my le Carré wishlist. One day someone will work on a biography about the symbols and archetypes that steer him in his work, adding as carefully as le Carré the details that hook you into his stories. Another wish is that le Carré himself would go back to his pre- Naive and Sentimental Lover mindset and find a rebirth in pure literary fiction. He's been using the espionage cover for his literary self for a very long time.