With "Silverview," John le Carré Ends His Career At the Height of His Powers

It's a fitting conclusion to the career of one of the finest novelists of our time.

There is no such thing as a generic posthumously published novel—the circumstances that lead to posthumous publication are so wildly varied—but there is a generic anxiety felt by readers and reviewers when they are about to start such a book. Will it disappoint? Will it tarnish, even if only slightly, the novelist’s reputation? Will it show signs of meddling by an inept editorial hand? Was its publication simply an excuse to cash in on well-deserved fame? Will it be an absolute disaster, leaving a very bad taste? And so on.

I am happy to report that for John le Carré’s Silverview, the answer to all those questions is a resounding no. On the contrary, it is le Carré’s best novel since the underrated Our Game (1995), with which it has some deep affinities, and the only regret it prompts is that he wasn’t given a few more years in which to write another book or two. Still, for a novelist to finish at the height of his powers isn’t the worst of fates.

In an afterword, le Carré’s son, Nick Cornwell (who writes fiction himself as Nick Harkaway), explains that, some while before his father died, he “asked for a commitment, and I gave it: if he died with a story incomplete, would I finish it?” The son told his father yes, a promise he recalled after le Carré died near the end of 2020.

“I hadn’t read it,” the son says of the manuscript, begun after the publication of A Delicate Truth (2013), “but I knew that it was there. Not incomplete, but withheld. Reworked, and reworked again.” When he actually read it, Nick Cornwell tells us, he found that there was very little work to be done beyond the minimal tidying up: “It is by any reasonable measure pure le Carré, though you should feel free to blame anything infelicitous on me.” Do read the full afterword, but not until you’ve finished the novel yourself, so you’ll be better able to assess the son’s theory as to why his father held this one back.

The protagonist of Silverview, Julian Lawndsley (as usual with le Carré, the names are delicious), is a 33-year-old refugee from “the City,” where he has made a great deal of money while losing his soul. Improbably—but deliberately so, on the novelist’s part—he has left that life behind to open a bookstore (!) “in a small seaside town perched on the outer shores of East Anglia.” Within a handful of pages, Julian will meet the novel’s central character, as opposed to its central consciousness, a much older man who goes by “Edward” (among other names) and who introduces Julian to W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn.

Just before Julian comes onstage, there is a meeting in London between an edgy young woman, Lily (with her two-year-old son in a “pushcart”), and an enigmatic figure, Stewart Proctor, who evidently represents one of Britain intelligence services; Lily is serving reluctantly as a go-between, to convey a message from Proctor to her mother. Put this opening scene together with Julian’s encounter with Edward and you have the critical elements of le Carré’s infinitely devious plot in place.

I will not spoil their unfolding for you, but it’s only fair to give you a sense of one of the novel’s animating preoccupations: a loathing for what Britain has become (not least as embodied by the intelligence services in which le Carré himself once served) and for the grotesquely false moralism of the US (as le Carré sees it), which serves to justify all manner of evils visited internationally upon people unfortunate enough to get in the way: an idealistic Bosnian Muslim husband and wife, for instance, whose fate turns out to be central to the whole story.

Suppose that, while ready to acknowledge some truth in this indictment, you think it is grotesquely one-sided. You notice, for instance, that in this novel’s reckoning, concern for the fate of Israel turns out to be but one stratagem of the Great Satan, not to mention the “American-financed born-again evangelical mind-benders with short hair and smart ties”—the horror!—who “carted” Julian’s father “off to a Swiss mountaintop and turned him into a fire-breathing Christian.” Does this mean you shouldn’t read Silverview?

Certainly not. To suppose so (as a matter of principle and not of taste) would be to succumb to the very narrowness that mars but does not at all disable this superb book, a fitting conclusion to the career of one of the finest novelists of our time.

You can buy a copy of Silverview through our Bookshop.org here.

A guest post by
John Wilson edited Books & Culture (1995-2016). He writes regularly for First Things and a range of other magazines. He is a contributing editor at the Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at Marginalia Review of Books.