Norman Mailer stabbed his wife, Orwell treated his as a lackey and John le Carré was


The Secret Life of John Le Carre

by Adam Sisman (Profile £16.99, 208 pp)

When Adam Sisman approached David Cornwell, aka John Le Carré, as his possible biographer in 2010, Le Carré cited ‘my messy private life’ as one of the things that made him extremely nervous about the idea. But he said yes, and Sisman’s biography duly came out in 2015, when Le Carré and his second wife Jane were still alive.

The Secret Life of John Le Carre by Adam Sisman (Profile £16.99, 208 pp)

The Secret Life of John Le Carre by Adam Sisman (Profile £16.99, 208 pp)

On Le Carré’s insistence, and to Sisman’s frustration, it was a sanitised account which left most of the ‘messy private life’ out. Le Carré’s son suggested to Sisman that he should keep a ‘secret annexe’ for publication after David and Jane were dead.

Now they are both dead, and this book is that ‘secret annexe’: the seamy, steamy supplement to the biography, recounting the string of extra-marital affairs Le Carré conducted all through both marriages.

He was a serial philanderer, having at least 11 passionate affairs in the first 30 years of marriage, and probably plenty more besides. ‘I’m a liar,’ he once admitted. ‘Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living [he worked for MI5 and MI6], practised in it as a novelist.’ He thrived on the subterfuge. Women said he was ‘running’ them like agents.

Sisman suggests that ‘far from being a distraction, his clandestine affairs became perhaps essential to his writing’. A new lover gave him the energy and frenzy to write his novels, and he was far too selfish to worry about how he was messing up the women’s lives.

When Adam Sisman approached David Cornwell, aka John Le Carré (pictured), as his possible biographer in 2010, Le Carré cited 'my messy private life' as one of the things that made him extremely nervous about the idea

When Adam Sisman approached David Cornwell, aka John Le Carré (pictured), as his possible biographer in 2010, Le Carré cited ‘my messy private life’ as one of the things that made him extremely nervous about the idea

On Le Carré's insistence, and to Sisman's frustration, it was a sanitised account which left most of the 'messy private life' out

On Le Carré’s insistence, and to Sisman’s frustration, it was a sanitised account which left most of the ‘messy private life’ out

Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer

by Richard Bradford (Bloomsbury Caravel £20, 304 pp)

Divorced, stabbed, divorced, divorced, divorced, survived. Those are the Six Wives of the American author Norman Mailer, who comes across in Richard Bradford’s biography as a loathsome, egotistical, macho, alcoholic, and terrifyingly violent serial fornicator.

The ‘stabbed’ one was Adele Morales, to whom he once wrote the compliment that compared to her ‘there’s not a decent piece of ass’ to be found.

He was drinking a bottle of bourbon per night, if not two, when he and Adele lived in Manhattan in the late 1950s, and where he once beat up a passing sailor who’d described his dog as ‘queer’.

Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer by Richard Bradford (Bloomsbury Caravel £20, 304 pp)

Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer by Richard Bradford (Bloomsbury Caravel £20, 304 pp)

While campaigning to be New York mayor in 1960, he held a party at home and stabbed Adele twice in the kitchen, narrowly missing her heart. He pleaded guilty, and got off with a suspended sentence. Adele didn’t press charges. Astonishingly, she said that being stabbed was a reasonable price to pay for being married to a genius.

But was Mailer a genius? Bradford doesn’t let him off lightly. His World War II novel The Naked and the Dead was excellent, and made him extremely rich, but from then on he wrote a stream of inferior books.

His suspicious sixth wife Barbara Norris, 26 years his junior, set a private detective on him, who discovered that he was still philandering away in his 70s.

Orwell: The New Life

by D. J. Taylor (Constable £30, 608 pp)

D. J. Taylor was already the acknowledged expert on George Orwell, thanks to his award-winning 2003 biography.

Since then, he has unearthed lost letters written by Orwell and his first wife Eileen, hinting at previously unknown interludes, such as Orwell’s possible extra-marital love affairs with his old flame Brenda Salkeld, of whom he continued to write passionately long after his marriage, and with the novelist Inez Holden.

Hence this updated ‘new life’ of the chain-smoking, bronchitis-suffering Old Etonian genius with sickly-sweet breath, who never shook off his public-school snobbery, despite immersing himself in the low life of Paris and Wigan.

This is a tour de force of documentary evidence combined with unforgettably evocative atmosphere. Taylor is brilliant at describing the freezing, damp world of the Orwells’ cottages, first in Hertfordshire and then on Jura in the Inner Hebrides, where Orwell bashed out Nineteen Eighty-Four on a typewriter in bed, a few months before he died.

The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life

by Clare Carlisle (Allen Lane £25, 400 pp)

When Marian Evans slipped out of her house in Kensington at dawn in 1854 and boarded a ship for the Continent with the love of her life, George Lewes, she knew she was abandoning all propriety and risking being a social outcast. Lewes was still married to his estranged wife.

From that moment on, she brazenly referred to Lewes as ‘my husband’. On their return to London, the couple were shunned by polite society. Blissfully ‘living in sin’, they seemed not to mind one bit. But did Marian care more than she let on?

In this illuminating, empathetic biography, Clare Carlisle tells how she became a workaholic, determined to restore her reputation through her novels, under the pseudonym George Eliot.

And she did. Her worshipping visitors would include Charles Dickens, Henry James, Wagner, Longfellow and Turgenev. Even prudish Queen Victoria became an avowed addict.

Carlisle paints a memorable portrait of a remarkably ‘modern’ couple cohabiting as intellectual equals. Behind the scenes, the relationship was decidedly Victorian. There was no question of Eliot keeping hold of her earnings. They went straight into Lewes’s bank account, and he became addicted to her money, which he needed to support his wife who was heavily in debt.

From this eccentric domestic situation, some of the greatest novels in the English language were brought to birth.

Masquerade: The Lives of Noel Coward

by Oliver Soden (W&N £30, 656 pp)

A ‘puritan hedonist’, a man of ‘serious frivolity’, a ‘louche disciplinarian’, who combined ‘gaiety and mournfulness, sentimentality and cynicism…’ such are the paradoxes of the ever-elusive figure of Noel Coward, whose life and character are superbly conveyed by Oliver Soden in his sparkling and astute new biography.

Cosseted by his mother, prone to tantrums and pilfering, fastidious young Noel loathed school and hated the discomfort of his spell in the Army during World War I, when he managed to be in hospital so much he was never even near the Front.

‘What do you want to be?’ his friends asked in 1918. ‘A success!’ he replied. And he was: adulated as a playwright on both sides of the Atlantic by the age of 24. The whole world was (to quote a Coward song), ‘mad about the boy’.

Masquerade: The Lives of Noel Coward by Oliver Soden (W&N £30, 656 pp)

Masquerade: The Lives of Noel Coward by Oliver Soden (W&N £30, 656 pp)

To redeem the guilt of World War I evasion, he made it his business to do his bit for Britain in World War II, working for Intelligence, travelling the globe entertaining troops, and co-directing the patriotic film In Which We Serve.

Soden’s gimmick of beginning his chapters with pastiches in italics of the opening acts in Coward plays (‘London. A warm evening in the second week of June 1925…’) works well, and helps this highly readable book rattle along.

Soden also gives us the most satisfying appraisal of the film Brief Encounter (based on Coward’s play Still Life) I’ve ever read. It was Coward himself who insisted on the Rachmaninoff score as the soundtrack. Inspired.

Shakespeare: The Man who Pays the Rent

by Judi Dench with Brendan O’Hea (Michael Joseph £25, 400 pp)

‘Those lines that Shakespeare wrote,’ says Judi Dench in this wonderfully inspiring collection of conversations with her, ‘they have to be good for your brain, don’t they? I don’t even have to be on stage saying them — just whispering them quietly to myself can give me an endorphin rush.’

For any of us who watched Dench recite a Shakespeare sonnet off the cuff on the Graham Norton show in October, so beautifully and flawlessly that it brought the whole country out in goosepimples, this book is the perfect follow-on.

It consists of a series of recorded chats between Judi Dench and her friend, the actor and theatre director Brendan O’Hea.

Shakespeare: The Man who Pays the Rent by Judi Dench with Brendan O'Hea (Michael Joseph £25, 400 pp)

Shakespeare: The Man who Pays the Rent by Judi Dench with Brendan O’Hea (Michael Joseph £25, 400 pp)

Dench, who has lived and breathed Shakespeare ever since her first visit to the Old Vic as a child, talks less about herself than about what’s going on inside the hearts and minds of Viola, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Gertrude, and all the other roles she’s played over the years, all of which continue to fascinate her.

She’s marvellously down to earth. ‘You adore the play [Macbeth], don’t you?’ O’Hea asks. ‘Love it,’ she replies. ‘Beautifully constructed, terrific story, great part, short, no interval, pub. Heaven.’

This is a riveting refresher course in the sublimity of Shakespeare’s language and his profound understanding of humanity, as well as a delightful spell in the company of one of our greatest and most thoughtful actresses.

Capote’s Women

by Laurence Leamer (Hodder £25, 368 pp)

They were known as Truman Capote’s ‘Swans’: the group of tall, thin, elegant, beautiful, extremely rich women with whom the bestselling author of In Cold Blood loved to hang out.

In this Gatsby-esque chronicle that oozes wealth, superficiality and hidden marital unhappiness, Laurence Leamer evokes the world of mid-20th-century America in which the most beautiful women married the richest men mainly for money.

He tells the glossy but often poignant stories of the Swans: Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith, Pamela Harriman, C. Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli, all of whom loved and trusted Capote.

Gay, cherubic, unthreatening, charming, he seemed the perfect confidant. But, all the while, he was collecting material for his forthcoming novel — and the Swans, it turned out, were that material.

Little did Capote guess what the fallout would be when Esquire magazine published a preview extract from the novel in 1975. It was a blatant, cruel pastiche of the Swans.

Some of them never spoke to him again. And it wasn’t even very good. The novel was never published in full, and Capote would die lonely and unhappy aged 59, an alcoholic and drug-addict.

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life

by Anna Funder (Viking £20, 464 pp)

‘Patriarchy,’ writes Anna Funder in her quite angry meditation on the ‘invisible’ life of Eileen Orwell, ‘is a planetary ponzi scheme by which the time, work and lives of women are plundered and robbed’.

Reading the six biographies of Orwell, all of them by men, Funder was amazed to discover just how little Eileen Orwell was credited with his success.

Orwell himself, when examined through this prism, comes across as a selfish husband who took his wife totally for granted, expecting her to do all the housework, including unblocking the lavatories, in the succession of comfortless cottages and flats in which they lived.

When they met, she’d been a lively, confident student at UCL doing a Masters degree in psychology, which she gave up on marriage, to become a skivvy and typist for her husband.

When he went out to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Eileen followed him there and worked at the headquarters of the Independent Labour Party in Barcelona, risking just as much, if not more, danger from the Stalinist terror than Orwell.

It was thanks to her bravely going from place to place to get their passports stamped that they managed to escape Spain and avoid arrest. Orwell glosses over all this in Homage To Catalonia.

Reading letters to her friends, we see Eileen’s self-esteem sinking, till her shocking death on the operating table aged 39 (Orwell was abroad at the time). Funder mingles her account with semi-fictional reconstructions of key moments in Eileen’s life, plus glimpses of her own marriage, so this is part-biography, part-novel, and part-polemic.

The Knowledge Book of Notes & Quotes

by Jon Connell (Connell Publishing £12.99, 132 pp)

Addicts of the magazine The Week, and of daily online news bulletin The Knowledge, both founded by visionary journalist Jon Connell, are familiar with their marvellous ‘Wit and Wisdom’ quotations — a whole section of them in The Week, and one pithy quotation per day in The Knowledge. They are unfailingly spot-on in their summing up of some small and often unpalatable truth about human nature.

In this superbly readable collection of ‘wit and wisdom’ quotations, Connell has collected some of his favourites. Each makes you stop and think.

They range from cheerful and inspiring (‘The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up’ — Mark Twain) via waspish (‘Hear no evil, speak no evil, and you won’t be invited to cocktail parties’ — Oscar Wilde) to instructive about human capability (‘Talent sets the floor, character sets the ceiling’ — Bill Belichick, American football coach) to embarrassingly true (‘A secret is something that is only repeated to one person at a time’ — Robert McCrum; ‘We only confess our little faults to persuade people that we have no large ones’ — François de la Rochefoucauld).

Divided into themes such as The Secret Of Happiness, Other People, Love, Money, Politics, and Books, and enhanced by Maddy Fletcher’s sweet illustrations, this book will be devoured on Christmas afternoon. And the reader will agree with Churchill (quoted here): ‘Everything looks better after lunch.’



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