Silverview—the verdict on Le Carré’s final novel

All the le Carré themes are present but Silverview should have stayed in the drawer

October 12, 2021
John le Carré in Hamburg in 2012. Credit: Anton Corbijn /Penguin-Viking
John le Carré in Hamburg in 2012. Credit: Anton Corbijn /Penguin-Viking
John le Carré
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John le Carré died in December last year and Silverview is his final novel. If it weren’t for the fact that le Carré was one of the greatest novelists of the last 60 years, not to mention one of the most bankable, chances are this book would have stayed locked in the desk drawer. And yet here it is, a slim volume of little over 200 pages, written in the closing period of his life. His son, the novelist Nick Harkaway, made the final touches to the manuscript.

The subject matter is pure le Carré. Julian has left the London rat-race to set up a bookshop in a small, rather dismal, town on the East Anglian coast. He’s befriended by a beguiling older man named Edward, an antique-seller and friend of his late father, who urges him to set up a new operation dedicated to the literary classics. Not only that, Edward persuades Julian to let him run this new enterprise and to give him a basement room in which to work, along with his own computer. But Edward is not what he seems. He is married to a senior member of the Secret Intelligence Service—and it’s not just antiques he’s been selling. It turns out he’s been stealing secrets from his wife. The secret service’s spy-hunters are on to him.

The themes are familiar: betrayal; the loner scooped up by a genial father figure; a sense of Britain in decline—“poor toothless, leaderless Britain, tagging along behind, because it still dreams of greatness and doesn’t know what else to dream about.” All of this is filtered through the lens of the secret services.

Le Carré’s greatest books are made from this stuff, and when he’s at his best he turns out his stories with subtlety and precision. But in this book that sense of precision has gone awry and the result is a kind of vagueness, a loss of tension. In the end, the thing just falls flat.

Some of it is down to the editing. The very first words of this novel are: “At ten o’clock of a rainswept morning in London’s West End…” No editor should have let that “of” stay in place. It should be “on.” It’s a small thing. But then there are quite a few of these small things and together they begin to suggest editorial hesitancy in preparing this book for the press. This suspicion is given weight by frankly impenetrable sentences such as: “A place where a fellow who has recently declared himself a bookseller, and only afterward realised that such a vocation has its own queer skills and knowledge, might blamelessly and invisibly acquire them, while appearing all the while to provide them from his own stock to a grateful public.” What does that mean?

Then there are the slabs of artless, expositional dialogue: “Where my father fell into the hands of a bunch of American-financed born-again evangelical mind-benders with short hair and smart ties who carted him off to a Swiss mountaintop and turned him into a fire-breathing Christian. Is that what you wanted to say?” Characters talk about going to the “disco,” or checking the “local telephone listings”—both of which have been extinct for decades. Edward’s backstory includes a father who was a “blazing Fascist,” who “thought the Nazis were the best thing going. Kissed their arses, helped them with their deportations.” But having a father who was active during the Second World War would make Edward much older than the character as we see him.

Despite it all there are flashes of the old le Carré fire, fuelled by the writer’s tragic past. John le Carré was born David Cornwell and his father, Ronnie, was a notorious conman. Coming to terms with an absent father figure has been the engine of le Carré’s work. When Julian wonders what has become of Edward, who seems to have vanished, he thinks to himself that “he has met two irreconcilable versions of the man. He wonders how many more there are to come.” And in case there were any doubt about who le Carré is really talking about, the author writes: “Falling asleep at last, he speculates whether he has discovered in himself a secret need for another father figure. He decides that one has been quite enough, thank you.” It’s Ronnie, all over again.

Le Carré was always willing to talk about his father’s criminality and how the shame of it forced the young David Cornwell into a life of deception. At public school he adopted the characteristics of the upper-middle classes to obscure his background. A natural deceiver, le Carré was soon picked up by British intelligence and his earliest duties included spying on his fellow university students, in some cases even searching their rooms. Perhaps it is the memory of these sordid acts that underpins the moral ambiguity of his greatest books, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The tautness of the writing and the emotional penetration of the characters turned that ambiguity into a towering, challenging and unsettling question that confronted the complacency of his time: how do we tell who is good and who is bad?

Le Carré was able to capture something about 20th-century Britain that remained beyond the grasp of many other novelists: that good and bad are equally distributed across all people and societies, no matter their politics. In le Carré’s telling, the old black and white morality of the Cold War became a much more troubling grey.

It was a subversive message, but one delivered in a mostly unsubversive style. Apart from, perhaps, A Perfect Spy, he completely ignored the experimental advances of the modern novel. He never won the Booker and certainly was never mooted for the Nobel. And yet the brilliance of his writing combined with its deep emotional sensitivity gives le Carré a strong chance of outlasting many of his more garlanded contemporaries.

Silverview, however, is not his best work. The ending comes too suddenly and the whole book feels half-formed. You can see the le Carré novel in there, but it remains submerged. Only one person could have brought it to completion but he, alas, is now gone.

Excerpts from the book have run in newspapers. The Today programme covered its publication, as if it were a cultural moment of national, perhaps even global, significance. But it is neither. At his best, le Carré was a writer of genius. This final novel is not worthy of him. It should not have been published.