Silverview: A Parting Gift from John le Carré

I’ve always been skeptical of books released after an author’s death. Too often they turn out to be written by another writer working from an outline or a brief start by the better author, frequently at the greedy pushing of heirs or a publisher. In a few cases, it’s been a novel that the author felt was inferior and not up to his or her standards and therefore unworthy of publication.

So it was with more than a bit of trepidation that I picked up Silverview, the novel published last month under the name of John le Carré ten months after his death.

I was persuaded by several factors. One is that I’ve been a fan of le Carré for almost five decades. Plus I knew that Silverview was completed, if that’s the right word, by his son, Nick Cornwell, a writer himself who included an afterward explaining the circumstances. It turns out his father specifically asked him to see the book through to publication, it was virtually complete and it had been revised by the author over several years. It wasn’t so much that le Carré didn’t finish it, it was that he intentionally held it back until after his death.
So I read it and I am so, so glad I did. There’s no doubt who wrote it and no doubt that it lives up to the expectations of le Carré’s fans.

Over the course of his distinguished career, le Carré mined the British secret service he once worked for to build the espionage novel into the highest form of literature, creating well-meaning characters devoted to country and service even when they doubted the morality and utility of what they were doing. In Silverview, he is back on his old stomping ground, focusing on a secret service that has truly lost its way and knows it.

The novel begins with a “civilian”—33-year-old Julian Lawndsley who’s made a quick fortune in the city and now has given up the rat race to buy a small bookstore in a small village. Soon, he is visited by the much older and very mysterious Edward Avon, a Polish émigré and (we soon learn) a former spy who has gone off the rails. Avon takes quick advantage of Julian to make him an unwitting accomplice.

The other main thread of the plot involves Stewart Proctor, head of domestic security for the service, who is on the trail of a traitor. As in most le Carré novels, the plot is complicated and a reader will have trouble following every twist and turn, but the plot is only there to illuminate the characters, their moral fiber, their devotion to country and service, and the doubts about whether any of it is worth it. And as always, there are marital infidelities, ignored or mistreated children, and secrets galore—all seen as the price of working for a service that requires complete loyalty, complete secrecy, and always the suborning of one’s personal life to professional need.

But to say Silverview is another great novel from le Carré is to tell only half the story. It is more than that. In its brevity (only 215 pages), it cuts close to the bone and the doubts of the characters doing her majesty’s bidding are exposed in sharper relief than ever before. In one wonderful scene, Proctor visits a married couple, both retired from the service, who had served as Avon’s handlers. After recounting years of espionage during the Cold War and in Bosnia, shedding light on so much of what it was like, they acknowledge that it was probably all in vain. “We didn’t do much to alter the course of human history, did we?” the husband asks Proctor. “As one old spy to another, I reckon I’d have been more use running a boys’ club.”

In his afterward, Nick Cornwall suggests—and he admits this is only his speculation—that his father held back the novel out of loyalty to his former colleagues because it does something that no other le Carré novel has done. “It shows a service fragmented: filled with its own political factions, not always kind to those it should cherish, not always very effective or alert, and ultimately not sure, any more, that it can justify itself. In Silverview, the spies of Britain have, like many of us, lost their certainty about what the country means, and who we are to ourselves.”

I don’t know whether Cornwall is right. It seems to me that many of le Carré’s earlier novels did that as well. The difference, perhaps, is that we readers, in our understanding of the world we now live in, have finally caught up to le Carré’s understanding and doubt. I tend to believe that’s what makes this novel strike a chord with enduring effect.

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Mark Willen