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When productive authors die, they often leave a lot of paper behind - aborted books, prospective plots, half-developed outlines and, occasionally, completed novels that the author was unable to see through editing to release. News of the latter legacy may often be greeted with mixed feelings. Perhaps there was reason the book never appeared? Was it a failure in its author's view? And worse yet, should it be left to moulder quietly away to leave the author's reputation intact? When we are dealing with a writer of the importance of Le Carré, there's no chance of that happening, so it is with a certain trepidation that I started SILVERVIEW, described as his last completed work. I really had little to worry about. It may not be the very best book he ever wrote and it is probably the shortest, but it is pure Le Carré and an appropriate cap to a long and distinguished career.
Julian Lawndsley is thirty-three. He has had a fairly brief if clearly successful career in the City, but now is in the process of radically changing his entire life. He has abandoned heady financial trading in order to buy an independent bookstore in a small town on the Suffolk coast. It seems an odd choice. Julian is not university-educated and he has to admit that he lacks the literary experience to be successful as a serious bookseller. So when Edward (Ted, Teddy, and other names) Avon makes his entrance into Julian's shop, brimming with ideas about what to read and what to stock, Julian is charmed and perhaps a bit relieved.
Both these characters share a similar history - their fathers were embarrassments. Julian's dad, a vicar, lost his faith and then his church and embarked on a wild course of sexual and alcoholic excess that led to his early death. But Edward claims to have known him at school before he went off the rails and still loves him. Much later we learn that Edward's father was far more sinister. Perhaps this factor explains the quickness with which Julian falls under Edward's influence, as he doesn't display the wariness we might expect of a successful stock trader.
Stewart Proctor comes from a far more sober background. A career spook, he presents as an unremarkable member of the Establishment (a position he would deny), owner of "a large, sensible, secluded house and grounds." His is a family that is "liberal, southern English, progressive, devoted to endeavour and white." His career is winding down and he now investigates and tries to repair breaches of security. He is married to Ellen, a former Service operative. There are in fact three such Service marriages - Avon is married to Deborah, who is still a current agent although she is dying of cancer, and a third couple, Phil and Joan, who occupy just one chapter. It is, however, an extraordinary chapter in which Proctor interrogates the pair - complex both in the information it provides and in the interplay among the three characters.
All of these as well as several others who make briefer appearances are brilliantly present on the page. Indeed, almost everyone, right down to a cameo performance by a postman, is vivid, sharp, and strains the limited space afforded them in a 200 page novel. And it is the female characters as well as the males who attract and hold our attention, something that was not necessarily true of Le Carré's previous work.
The plot unfolds elliptically, but the underlying themes are clear. This book is a retrospective look at where the agency has been from the breakup of Yugoslavia to pretty much the present. It is a history that some spies of Proctor's generation view with sad resignation. As one Phil says to Proctor on parting: "The thing is, old boy - between ourselves, don't tell the trainees or you'll lose your pension - we didn't do much to alter the course of human history, did we? As one old spy to another, I reckon I'd have been more use running a boys' club. Don't know what you think." At that point, Proctor doesn't quite know either .
In an Afterword, Nick Cornwell (aka Nick Harkaway), Le Carré's youngest son and himself a novelist, attempts to account for why SILVERVIEW, though essentially complete, did not appear while its author was still alive. He suggests that his father, reluctant in his lifetime to express this sort of doubt, confined it to a book that he would not publish in his lifetime but knew his son would see to after he was gone. I am not altogether convinced, even though this book is a few yards closer to Mick Herron's secret service than to George Smiley's. And, of course, it is impossible to say what he more he might have said had he lived long enough to observe the retreat from Afghanistan.
SILVERVIEW seems like the solid superstructure of a longer work that the author did not perhaps find the energy or time to complete. Readers would be happy to see every one of the characters once more, to have the back story of some of them enlarged, to have firmer evidence about whether Edward Avon was a fraud from the beginning or indeed the disillusioned idealist Proctor, among others, believed him to be. But of course, readers would be happy to see yet another novel from Le Carré's pen. If SILVERVIEW is not quite the towering masterpiece we might foolishly have hoped he left behind, it is still a marvellous read and a fitting coda to an extraordinary life's work.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2021
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