Biography by Adam Sisman

I’ve been reading and very much enjoying Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré. It’s excellent, highly readable and formidably long. It also has as subtle a piece of writing in the foreword as you could wish for about the difficulties of writing the  biography of someone who is still alive. He states there that he intends to update the book when le Carré has died so it’ll be interesting to see what gets added. Incidentally le Carré is due to publish The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life in September 2016 and presumably he must have held some things back from his biographer to put in his autobiography.

I particularly enjoyed reading about The Spy Who came in from the Cold one of my all time favourites, especially when feeling a bit disillusioned with life. So here are a few facts:

  • it was originally going to be titled The Carcass of the Lion but Victor Gollancz, the publisher, decided SWCIFTC would be better; it comes from a piece of dialogue in the beginning of the book between ‘C’ and Leamas depicted in the clip below
  • Gollancz had the idea of publishing the book under the name of Alec Leamas the name of the main character in the book who dies at the end. Le Carré sent a telegram stating RELUCTANT PUBLISH AUTOBIOGRAPHY DEAD SPY
  • the initial advance offered was £150, later increased to £175; the advance he got for his next book The Looking-Glass War was £145,000
  • the original suggestion for the actor to play Leamas in the film was Burt Lancaster; Richard Burton was eventually cast
  • the character of Leamas was based on a Peter Finch-like man le Carré  sat next to in a London airport bar who slammed down a handful of change from many different countries and ordered a large Scotch. He looked much travelled, exhausted and down on his luck. Le Carré and the barman sorted through the change to find the correct sum in the correct currency
  • the disillusionment in the novel comes partly from le Carré’s disillusionment with his own marriage. In fact he cut large parts of the original draft which were concerned with Leamas’s failed marriage
  • Le Carré was working for MI6 at the time in Germany but the book was OK’d by them partly because the FO knew that the book was not based on le Carré’s actual experience. Maybe they also didn’t believe that the public would think they behaved in such a cynical manner. Of course the opposite happened. Everyone thought this is exactly what had happened to the writer and how the secret services did behave. The book was lauded as being a believable spy thriller in comparison to the James Bond books
  • Le Carré was to describe the success of the book as like ‘being in a car crash’
  • He had written two books before – one (A Murder of Quality) featured the character Mundt who figures so prominently in SWCIFTC
  • There were problems with the casting of Claire Bloom as Leamas’s girlfriend because she and Burton had history. They had become lovers 15 years earlier acting opposite each other in The Lady’s not for Burning. A decade later their affair resumed during filming of Look Back in Anger. Burton was now married to Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor did not approve and turned up in Dublin where some of the film was shot with an entourage of 17 to keep an eye on them.
  • Other scenes depicting the area around the Berlin wall were filmed in London docklands, at that time an industrial wasteland
  • The name of the character Bloom played  had to be changed from Liz Gold (in the book) to Nan Perry in the film to spare Elizabeth Taylor’s sensibilities!

If you haven’t seen the film or read the book I highly recommend both of them, perfect for the end of January, especially if you’re feeling a little cynical about life. Richard Burton is at his best in the film. Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner are pretty good as well.

Here’s the clip of dialogue from which the title is taken. A nimble piece of acting by that wily old fox Cyril Cusack.

What do you think of book and film?


  1. I’m a big fan of the film, though never got around to the book. My favourite Le Carré is “A Perfect Spy”, which veers towards the autobiographical at times. There was a fine BBC adaptation of it with Peter Egan and Ray McAnally.

    But back to TSWCIFTC. The Dublin shoots were mainly of the Berlin scenes – in an area of the northside called Smithfield – and I stroll past the Checkpoint Charlie location almost every day, unhindered by border patrols and Alsatians most of the time. Some pics here:


    • I love the Checkpoint Charlie sign in the window! I agree about A Perfect Spy and that adaptation was fantastic. Ray McAnally was brilliant in it as was Peter Egan. One of the fascinating things about the biography is the riveting and terrible presence of his father. When le Carre was in New York for the launch of SWCIFTC there was his father Ronnie at the bar talking about ‘our’ book and suggesting he might like to pay him back for all the money he spent on his education. Many thanks for the pics. Nothing like some rain-washed cobbles for a grim and moody scene!


  2. I have love John Le Carre’s work ever since reading ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ when my father bought it shortly after publication. I also think the film is masterful and agree with Le Carre that as the author he had nothing to complain about. I loved the performances, the atmosphere and especially the music. I enjoyed the way points were made, such as the extremely heirarchical nature of an agency purporting to work for an egalitarian society – I shared Leamas’s amusement. I never miss an opportunity to watch the film again and, after reading your blog and seeing some of the interviews Le Carre gave about it, will probably read the book again.

    I also liked ‘The Perfect Spy’ and am enjoying reading the biography as much for that aspect – seeing photos of Rick / Ronnie -‘Oh, so that’s what he looked like!’ – is an interesting experience.

    My favourite Le Carre is ‘The Night Manager’ – it somehow spoke to me above all others – and I am looking forward to seeing it as a BBC Mini-Series in the near future. I always develop a picture of the characters and it will be odd to see characters I always pictured as a very young Herbert Lom and a 50-Something Charles Dance being portrayed by Tom Hiddleston and, for heaven’s sake, Hugh Laurie.

    Thanks, Vicky, for a very timely and stimulating blog. Keep them coming. Rather like Le Carre, you have developed a very clear ‘voice’ of your own and I always enjoy hearing it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much Phil. I love the film and the book and can watch the film endlessly, a bit like The Third Man. I’m glad you’re reading the biography and I am finding the bits about Ronnie, gruesomely gripping! I’m looking forward to The Night Manager as well but I agree about the casting! I daresay having Hugh Laurie will sell it to an American audience because of his success in House.


  3. The French title is « L’ESPION QUI VENAIT DU FROID ».
    Interestingly, it is wrong as a translation since it was construed as meaning literally « The spy who came from the cold » (i.e a cold country : Russia) and not as « retiring from espionage service » (in the novel) or “return to comfort/acclaim return from isolation” etc
    Yet, although incorrect as a translation, it works well in French as an evocative title.
    Similarly, in the following passage, the French translation is not only very approximate but totally wrong when translating “be out in the cold” as “be on the go all the time” and “one has to come in from the cold” as”come in out of the cold” with the puzzling addition of “on a parfois besoin de chaleur humaine “one sometimes has a need for human warmth”.
    “We have to live without sympathy, don’t we? That’s impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren’t like that really, I mean…one can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold…d’you see what I mean?”
    « Dans notre vie, il n’y a pas de place pour les sentiments, n’est-ce pas ? Évidemment, c’est impossible. On se joue tous la comédie de la dureté, mais on n’est pas vraiment comme ça, il me semble… On ne peut pas être sur la brèche [one can’t be out in the cold] tout le temps, Il faut se sortir du fois [One has to come in from the cold]on a parfois besoin de chaleur humaine … Vous voyez ce que je veux dire ? »
    Unfortunately, no French reader would refer to the English version and check how accurate the translation is. He/she will take it at face value. It makes you wonder ….
    However, on the whole, the translation holds together so to speak. That is not always the case. For instance the French translation of Stephen King’s FINDERS KEEPERS is very mediocre to put it mildly. This is a case when a poor translation will do a great disservice to the author and is only one example among many.


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