The extraordinary secret life of a great novelist, which his biographer could not publish while le Carré was alive.

Secrecy came naturally to John le Carré, and there were some secrets that he fought fiercely to keep. Adam Sisman's definitive biography, published in 2015, provided a revealing portrait of this fascinating man; yet some aspects of his subject remained hidden.

Nowhere was this more so than in his private life. Apparently content in his marriage, the novelist conducted a string of love affairs over five decades. To these relationships he brought much of the tradecraft that he had learned as a spy - cover stories, cut-outs and dead letter boxes. These clandestine operations brought an element of danger to his life, but they also meant deceiving those closest to him. Small wonder that betrayal became a running theme in his work.

In trying to manage his biography, the novelist engaged in a succession of skirmishes with his biographer. While he could control what Sisman wrote about him in his lifetime, he accepted that the truth would eventually become known. Following his death in 2020, what had been withheld can now be revealed.

The Secret Life of John le Carré reveals a hitherto-hidden perspective on the life and work of the spy-turned-author and a fascinating meditation on the complex relationship between biographer and subject. “Now that he is dead,” Sisman writes, “we can know him better.”

About the author(s)

Adam Sisman is the author of Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, and the biographer of John le Carré, A. J. P. Taylor, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. Among his other works are two volumes of letters by Patrick Leigh Fermor. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an honorary fellow of the Universy of St. Andrews.


"Page-turning . . . . Adam Sisman completes the task of showing us who [John le Carré] was—a minor spy who became a major novelist, whose most important agents in the field were the women he needed to love and then betray. For le Carré, tradecraft was lovecraft. Much more than What Was Left Out, The Secret Life of John le Carré is not merely the conclusive homage to a compulsively fascinating character, but an insightful study into the biographical process itself. Even David Cornwell, the man who actually was John le Carré, would have saluted him." — Nicholas Shakespeare

"A more rounded and less appealing picture of Cornwell—complex, vain, emotionally manipulative—emerges from this . . . book than before. But it does not diminish the literary and moral seriousness of le Carré’s greatest novels about the secret world." — The Economist

“While there is plenty of tabloid-worthy material between its covers, the book is nonetheless complex and consequential . . . [it] is also a fascinating examination of the biographer’s art that casts le Carre’s life and writing in a fresh light.” — The Washington Post

"Revealing . . . . Future accounts of le Carré’s life will have to wrestle with the bombshells dropped here." — Publishers Weekly

"A deeply entertaining book . . . . A determined and at times forensic attempt to set the record straight, detailing the full extent of what was kept from him, going to town on le Carré’s obstructiveness and reality-softening, undermining various aspects of the le Carré legend and exposing the decades-long exercise in stage management that lay at its unexpectedly chilly heart." — The Spectator

"A one-of-a-kind revisiting of a wondrously productive life lived at the expense of two wives and many lovers." — Kirkus Reviews

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