In 2003 I took the sleeper train from London down to Cornwall to interview David Cornwell, better known as the novelist John le Carré, for this magazine. Having never taken a sleeper train before, I mistakenly thought it was possible to sleep on one. I showed up at his magnificent cliff-top home exhausted and very much the worse for wear. But I realize now that I would have been no match for him even on the best day of my life.
Le Carré–as we’ll call him–is the most demonically charming and articulate writer I’ve ever met. It’s ironic that the man who demystified James Bond, substituting in his place the sweating, gray-faced, raincoated spymasters of the Smiley novels, is himself as smooth and charismatic as a real-life 007 and twice as inscrutable. As such he makes elusive quarry for Adam Sisman in John le Carré: The Biography–but Sisman is an implacable hunter, and the pursuit is well worth following.
Le Carré was educated at Eton and Oxford, but his childhood was no patrician idyll. His father Ronnie was an irredeemable con man who did time for fraud. “He could put a hand on your shoulder and the other in your pocket,” le Carré’s brother Tony says, “and both gestures would be equally sincere.” Le Carré inherited from him good looks, great verbal and social facility and a powerful gift for invention. For a boy raised on deception, the professions of spy and novelist seem overdetermined: MI5 recruited him as an undergraduate, and he spent six years there and at MI6. His disillusionment–with espionage, war, politics, humankind–ultimately boiled over into The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the book that made his name, a magnificent thriller and a devastating account of the appalling compromises and human consequences of the shadow war.
This much is clear. Other facts are harder to pin down–we all confabulate our identities, but in le Carré’s case it can seem like a compulsion, and he has his father’s gift for making it all utterly plausible. “Everything he says,” Sisman writes, “needs to be examined skeptically.” Even his oddly francophone pseudonym has multiple origin stories. For le Carré, his gift for fiction seems to have been both a blessing and a curse, a means of expressing deep, urgent truths about the world around him but also of glossing over difficult truths about his own life. It makes him a maddening biographical subject but also an endlessly intriguing one. The truth behind the fictions may be that if you were born out in the cold, as le Carré was, you can never quite come all the way back in.
This appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of TIME.