Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies
John le Carré, eh? Can’t do credible working-class dialogue, draws sympathetic female characters but rather abstractly, plots convoluted and full of holes, rather colourless writing style along with hugely sensational content, pretty humourless, sells by the million to those who gobble up spy stuff, and what’s more the blighter’s unpatriotic, harrumph.
What else is there to say, except that his oeuvre stands head and shoulders above most other British fiction of this century and the last in challenging the grotesque imperial hangover of British power and its deluded national mythologies? It is centred on the most anti-democratic institution in the political structure of a parliamentary democracy, the secret service. Britain is renowned abroad for its soapy, self-serving hypocrisy; le Carré’s novels have a heat-seeking accuracy in exposing the putrid swamp of bad faith and mystification underlying UK pretensions – and policy.
I had a father-in-law in East Berlin in the early sixties, a true party man from the Weimar days, so I was probably keener than most to read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold when it appeared in 1963. It blew my socks off. It had a pulsing narrative drive, and the plot twist was a shock, managed with great acuity; more than that, it was the special kind of shock that confirms deep suspicions, in this instance about the West’s proclaimed moral superiority in the Cold War. Mick Herron’s judgment of ‘groundbreaking’ on the earlier novel in his Guardian review of Silverview is spot on. Forty years later the UK, under a Labour government, joined a US war of aggression against Iraq on a lie sponsored by the security services. During those years I had been a constant reader of Le Carré, a dedicated writer of political novels using a model of of espionage fiction more sophisticated and disturbing than Ian Fleming’s and Len Deighton’s output. Also an angry author, with much to be angry about.
Though the posthumously published Silverview has no equivalent force to the ‘Circus’ books, its pleasures are familiar ones – vintage le Carré, you might say. Conspiracy, mendacity, deceit, betrayal, false identities are core ingredients, together with that staunch paradigm of his, a dodgy father. The latter is given to a foreground character, Julian Lawndsley. Having made his killing in the financial sector, Julian has deserted the City in his thirties for the quixotic role of a bookseller in a small East Anglian town. His ideal is a cultural intervention, a ‘Republic of Letters’, starting from scratch.
Some hope, you think. However, there is some supportive collaboration at hand for him in his new career. He is befriended by Edward Avon, an agreeable older man more up to speed on literature than Julian but also a man of mystery, self-described as ‘one of life’s odd-job men’ (Bond joke?), who dresses in a bygone style and has ‘a heavy aroma of alcoholic fumes on his… breath’. Edwards also turns out to have been acquainted with Julian’s barmy father. This encounter leads to a curious mission, which Julian passively agrees to perform: taking a sealed letter to London to hand over to a woman at the Everyman cinema in Belsize Park. It’s soon apparent that there are wheels within wheels and that the ostensibly benign figure of Edward has a history interlocked with the security services dating back to the ethnic-cleansing massacres in the horrific 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia.
As is usual in le Carré, the unfolding of the plot soon becomes complex and accelerated, drawing the reader into a maelstrom of conflicts, motives liaisons and histories that attracts the attention of Proctor – significant name – a senior spook from a posh, liberal- minded family all of whom ‘knew from birth that the spiritual sanctum of Britain’s ruling classes was its secret service’. Proctor functions as a kind of Smiley-surrogate out to investigate data leaks and supervise damage limitation, the cold professional as opposed to the naïve enthusiast Julian. The hunt eventually centres on a mansion – the ‘Silverview’ of the title – where Edward lives with his dying wife Deborah. Deborah’s former employment as a major espionage honcho and Middle East expert thickens the brew. Her funeral is essentially a tribal reunion of veteran ‘Circus’ operatives. Switches of time, tense, location and narrative perspective suitably structure the tale of paranoid suspicion and clandestine enquiry, and in the dénouement, which clarifies the mysterious opening chapter, Julian for his pains is granted the benefit of a nascent affair with Deborah’s daughter Lily, a character rather faintly sketched. Romantic attachments are not le Carré’s long suit, as The Naïve and Sentimental Lover proved, but overall Silverview shows the hand of the master.
It is sad to lose John le Carré, but I have little doubt that his work will survive well into the inevitable dystopian future. It stands comparison with George Orwell (each, in different senses, a rogue Etonian). Besides, without le Carré no Mick Herron, whose ‘Slough House’ novels concerning the misfits and fuckups of the security services under the direction of the gross, insanitary Jackson Lamb constitute a breezy entry in the annals of British satirical and farcical fiction. Le Carré has stirred writers as well as readers. RIP.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
John le Carré, Silverview (Viking, 2021). 978-0241550061, 208pp., hardback.
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