Essay | John le Carré: A Biographer’s Struggle

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Italian cover of The Russia House (1989)

Jeffrey Meyers


John le Carré: A Biographer’s Struggle


Eager to write le Carré’s biography, unwilling to proceed without his permission and naively hoping for his help, I wrote a brief letter on September 3, 1989 and sent it to him through his agent.  I introduced myself, mentioned my five previous biographies, offered to send him copies, gave two references from prominent English authors, asked if he would authorize a life to make sure it would be done by a capable and responsible writer, and suggested a meeting the next time I was in London. 

I was quite astonished—considering his reputation as a difficult, secretive, elusive and intensely private man—to receive on September 12, only nine days later, a two-page handwritten letter giving his home address in Hampstead, north London.  Proposing the same ‘neither help nor hinder’ formula that Samuel Beckett had given Deirdre Bair, le Carré said he could obviously not object to my biography and would not obstruct my researches.  But he did not want to involve himself in my project or to authorize a biography.  Since he obviously could object to my biography and certainly could obstruct my research if he wished to do so, I interpreted this to mean that he had given his tacit permission to proceed.

A great many people earn enormous sums by representing le Carré and become extremely nervous about anything that might upset him.  They are feasting off him and desperately want to bathe in his golden shower.  A month later, on October 20, I received a rather sharp letter from his literary agent, David Higham Ltd., who had heard about my book proposal and wished, on their master’s instructions, to put a spoke in my wheel.  Le Carré, they stated, acknowledged that I could write what I wished.  But he had not given permission, wanted nothing to do with the book and would not cooperate in any way.

The agent’s letters were followed by a phone call to my editor at John Murray in London contradicting the ‘neither help nor hinder’ formula.  He said that le Carré was coming down rather heavily on the hindrance side and was now disposed to prevent me from writing the book.  So much for his initial statement  that ‘he could obviously not object to my biography.’  Before I had even thought about how I’d spend the money from my book, the project began to crumble.  I therefore wrote to le Carré on November 7 asking him to clarify the apparent contradiction in his attitude and let me know if he intended to impede me or allow me to proceed.

Le Carré wrote me a second letter on November 8.  Though sent Express by Swiftair, it took eight days to reach America and crossed with my last query of November 7.  He also sent copies to his anxious agents in London, Zurich and New York.  One of them rather frantically phoned me to find out exactly what he had originally written.  Le Carré was now alarmed at the prospect of my biography.  Annoyed by the numerous letters and phone calls from editors eager to acquire my book and from trembling dependents on both sides of the Atlantic, he realized that he was getting involved and became intensely irritated.

This letter began, reasonably enough (he had, after all, been a diplomat as well as a spy), by conceding that no one could forbid a biographer from exploring the life of a living writer if he seeks and writes the truth.  But he was angry that I had conveyed the impression that he had agreed to the biography (which he had, in a certain sense, done) and found it necessary to harden his position.  He would not help in any way and would discourage his friends from cooperating with me.  His English agents followed this up by thanking me for sending him my book Disease and the Novel (1985), which contained chapters on two major German authors, Thomas Mann and Robert Musil, and strongly suggesting that I abandon the project.  Realizing the formidable opposition and the difficulty, nay impossibility, of proceeding against his wishes, I decided—with a certain relief—to give it up.

But I was also irritated.  Le Carré had mistakenly suggested that I’d deliberately misrepresented the situation to publishers to extract a huge advance.  On November 19 I told him:

Since you were not opposed to my book, and allowed me to go ahead with it when you could have stopped me, I took this to mean that you tacitly gave your permission or consent.  There was no point in trying to deceive the publishers since they obviously would—and did—check my story.  When John Murray offered me a contract to write your biography, I read them your letter and then sent them a copy.  They agreed with my interpretation of the letter, and did not in any way feel misled or deceived.

You might ask what could you possibly hope to get out of my book to make it worthwhile?  I believe you would get (apart from preempting a hack from writing it) the only thing you don’t have and can’t buy: a serious literary reputation.

This episode reveals the difficulties and dangers of attempting to write the life of a living subject.  Le Carré had the power to prevent me from writing a serious biography.  With my limited—as opposed to his inexhaustible—resources, I was not prepared to challenge him.

 Considering our acrimonious correspondence and his crushing replies, I was surprised and pleased when he sent me five more letters and even praised my work.  He either forgot or forgave our quarrel.  I may have caught him in a generous mood or he may have felt he’d treated me rather roughly.  Eight years after our blow-up, I came in from the cold and again raised the possibility of writing his life story.  On August 5, 1997 he wrote more temperately that he’d agreed to give Robert Harris, the bestselling spy novelist, the name of relations, friends and enemies so he could write the biography.  Since Harris seemed to have gone quite a long way, le Carré could not provide me with the same assistance.

Nothing daunted, I asked him what George Orwell meant to him as a writer and included his perceptive response in my biography, published in 2000.  On September 27, 1998, he observed that Orwell’s life and works fused into a noble ideal:

Orwell meant and means a great deal to me. . . . Burmese Days still stands as a splendid cameo of colonial corruption.  Orwell’s commitment to the hard life is a lesson to all of us.  I taught at Eton.  It always amused me that Blair-Orwell, who had been to Eton, took great pains to disown the place, while Evelyn Waugh, who hadn’t been to Eton, took similar pains to pretend he had.  Orwell’s hatred of greed, cant and the ‘me’ society is as much needed today as it was in his own time—probably more so.  He remains an ideal for me—of clarity, anger and perfectly aimed irony.

Emboldened by his letter about Orwell, I persistently raised the question of his biography.  It was clear to me that Robert Harris would much rather concentrate on his own profitable books instead of undertaking laborious and expensive biographical research.  Harris was merely a dodge and a decoy to discourage other aspirants.  But the ever elusive le Carré still insisted, in a letter of March 8, 2000, that the first volume of Harris’ book, on the life up to 1972, would be coming out next year—though it never appeared.  He sweetened the pill by adding that he had read Disease and the Novel and was much rewarded by it.

Since he seemed responsive I asked him, for my next biography, about Somerset Maugham’s career as a spy in Russia during World War I.  On his own, with no knowledge of Russian and only $21,000, Maugham’s mission was to support the Kerensky government, prevent the Bolsheviks from taking power and keep Russia out of the war.  His dire predictions about Kerensky’s fate were extremely accurate.  In his letter to me of November 1, 2001 le Carré got the facts completely wrong.  He gave Maugham no credit for his exceptional bravery and insight, and merely recycled malignant gossip: ‘I know that he was held to have made a complete hash of it, and behaved with a marked absence of courage.’  He was also rather severe about Maugham’s spy stories: ‘I used to have a high regard for the Ashenden series, but as with so much stuff one once admired, it does not bear re-reading.’ 

In January 2018 I sent le Carré my article in The London Magazine (February 2018) on his public clash with Graham Greene about the character and career of the spy Kim Philby.  I wrote that ‘Greene admired Philby’s secret sacrifice, le Carré thought it was pathologically evil.  Greene’s reasoning was perverse, his tone cool; le Carré’s arguments were logical and incandescent with anger.’  Replying promptly as always on February 12, ‘to Jeffrey Meyers and with kind regards,’ he thanked me for sending the article and said he found it a fine piece.  Le Carré’s contradictory and puzzling responses revealed his ambivalence about his own past and suggested how difficult it would have been to write his life.

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Jeffrey Meyers has recently published Robert Lowell in Love (2016) and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy (2018).


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