Review: An Intimate Exploration of John le Carré’s Craft and Character

The Secret Heart: John le Carré: An Intimate Memoir by Suleika Dawson is a very deceptive book, as any book on John le Carre should be.

It is deceptive because initially it appears as the typical kiss-and-tell exposé peppered predictably by references to insatiable and ecstatic sex. There is a proliferation of the f word in the text – le Carré was very fond of using the word and he was profligate in the deed. But as the narrative progresses, the writer provides insights into le Carré’s craft and his character and persona. She also presents an interpretation of some of his novels especially how they were – to recall a phrase immortalised by le Carré in The Little Drummer Girl – the theatre of the real, an intertwining of reality and fiction, of life and art. This is thus – like le Carré’s novels – a memoir with many layers.

Suleika Dawson
The Secret Heart: John le Carré: An Intimate Memoir
Mudlark, 2022

At one level, it is a love story and a poignant one. At another, it is about David Cornwell the human being, and occasionally about his nom de plume John le Carré. Dawson can do this because, according to her, “David did take me very deep into his world, into his thoughts and hopes, his memories, his besetting concerns and fears, into his carefully guarded private reality.”

At another level it is an exercise in interpretation of the works of one of the greatest writers in the English language in the second half of the 20th century. There are parts of the book where the nuanced elegance of the prose would have made le Carré proud of “our Sue’,’ as he lovingly called the author.

For David Cornwell and Sue Dawson, it was not love at first sight but at second sight. And they were in bed the third time they met. It began as a torrid love affair but evolved into a deeply emotional, if anguished, relationship. “It was,” the author writes, “unquestionably…the most significant relationships of my life. Of his too, I like to think.” He showered her with expensive gifts, fed her caviar and foie gras, downed by endless bottles of champagne and vodka, and whisked her away to foreign trips and stayed in the most luxurious and exotic locations. She was happy to be the mistress of the “Great Man” – the secret life of the chronicler of the secret world. But Cornwell yearned for a deeper and more permanent commitment. He was, he said, imprisoned in a meaningless and sexless marriage (“slammer”, in Cornwell’s argot) from which he desperately wanted to escape. Dawson was his real love and occasionally his muse as well. “No one will ever love you as I do. That’s my vanity,” he once told her “solemnly” while in post-coital triste. The irony and the paradox of it was that in spite of making innumerable promises to Sue, he never quite succeeded in breaking free. This led to the first breakdown of the relationship.

They did not meet or communicate with each other for 14 years (1985-1999). But Dawson couldn’t get Cornwell out of her mind and body, neither it transpired could Cornwell. When they met again after 14 years through a set of fortuitous circumstances, and the relationship began again with the same fervent passion. This time round there were no promises but Dawson noted Cornwell’s almost uncontrollable need for cover. It was as if he was an agent runner with Dawson as his Joe. Round two inevitably ended in a break up, with no comebacks.

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The experience of the relationship and her close observation of Cornwell leads to the interpretative parts of the book which are interspersed with the telling of the love story. Dawson sees le Carré’s oeuvre in terms of four intertwined themes – imprisonment, escape, cover and paradox. And over all these looms the dark shadow of Kim Philby. But before we get to all this, it is worth noting a kind of double helix. Sue Dawson under the nom de plume Suleika Dawson is writing about David Cornwell who was famous as the writer John le Carré. Just as Suleika Dawson finds it impossible at times to distinguish between the lives of David and John, the reader of this book is often at odds with the voices of Sue and Suleika – the former passionate, angst-ridden and obsessed, the latter detached, almost cynical, literary critic.

Philby, Dawson avers, together with David’s father Ronnie, was central to John le Carré’s life and creativity. Philby was “the most despised figure in David’s life, but the most beloved idol also, I would argue, before his Fall, and the sine qua non of the very best of the le Carré canon.” David could never forget that moment when, as duty officer, he received the encrypted telegram that revealed Philby was the third man. John le Carré recreated this revelatory moment – Dawson fails to note this – in a chapter in The Secret Pilgrim where Ned, the narrator, recalls precisely when he heard that Haydon had been unmasked as the mole. Cornwell tells Dawson in one of their early meetings (before they had become lovers) that “It had to be Kim.” This Dawson again fails to note is exactly what Smiley had felt about Haydon: “He had always known it was Bill. Just as Control had known…Just as Connie and Jim had known’.’

More importantly, Philby’s defection had exposed Cornwell’s cover as a spy. The Soviets knew from Philby that there was a British spy called David Cornwell, as they knew about all the other intelligence operators. Philby had turned the British spook establishment inside out for the Russians. This is what made Cornwell, according to Dawson, so nervy about cover and secrecy. And this haunted their relationship to its very end.

Cornwell was deeply conscious of this ambiguous aspect of his life and of how thoroughly it affected his life and his loves. Once during an especially blissful holiday in Zurich, Dawson woke up “at the cusp of first light” to find Cornwell beside her, “unmoving..staring at the ceiling”, and in a “flat and empty voice”, he declared, “You have to go back. I can’t be this happy.” This was one of those recurring “never-anticipated moments” which left Dawson in a state of “absolute despair”. Readers will remember the unforgettable first chapter (‘A Brief History of George Smiley’) of the debut novel, Call for the Dead, where le Carre says, Smiley “hated and feared the falseness of his life”. Happiness and falsity make uneasy bedfellows.

Cornwell-le Carré was acutely conscious of his own imprisonment. He was trapped in what he himself called “the pigeon tunnel”. This referred to something he had observed in his adolescent years in Monte Carlo where there was a sporting club with a shooting range underneath which were parallel tunnels leading to the sea. Into these tunnels were inserted live pigeons that had been hatched and trapped in the nearby casino roof. The pigeons fluttered through the tunnel to fly into the sky above the sea and become targets for the shooters. Those that survived came back to the casino roof to the same traps. Cornwell had opportunities to escape and desired escape, but something always brought him back to the “slammer”. No wonder, le Carré wrote, “There is scarcely a book of mine that didn’t have The Pigeon Tunnel at some time or another as its working title.”

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Love in life and in fiction for Cornwell-le Carré was perpetually elusive, imbued with loss, yearning and waiting. In life, he failed to stay with Dawson, leaving her life as suddenly as he had entered it. In fiction, witness the enigmatic relationship between Smiley and Ann; Barley Blair in The Russia House waiting for his beloved Katya to come in from Lenningrad; Joseph and Charlie at the end of The Little Drummer Girl walking hand-in-hand in a strange town, their future unknown. Karla had told Haydon that Smiley ‘’had this one price, Ann. The last illusion of the illusionless man.” Was that also le Carre’s definition of love? Reading this book, one is reminded of the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy where Ann comes to receive Smiley at Grimsby railway station but is staring the wrong way and that point le Carré described her thus: “tall and puckish, extraordinarily beautiful, essentially another man’s woman”. The reminder comes because Cornwell had once come to receive Dawson in Cornwall and was at the wrong platform. One could add describing Cornwell by inverting le Carré: tall, handsome, exquisitely charming, essentially no woman’s man.

One parting provocation. After unmasking Haydon, Smiley thought to himself, “it was the treason, not the man, that belonged to the public domain”. It is the writer John le Carré who belongs to the public domain, not David Cornwell, the lover who felt safe with his Sue. If there was a call for the dead, would le Carré rise and say that this book is an act of betrayal as great as Phliby’s or Haydon’s?

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is chancellor and professor of History at Ashoka University.

This article was first published on The Wire.