Silverview by John le Carré review: a minor masterpiece

John le Carré, who died last December at the age of 89, did not really exist. His name was a “cover” for a former British Intelligence officer called David Cornwell, who monitored the trap-door disappearance of agents in Cold War Germany and ran agents in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. By his own admission, le Carré took a degree of pleasure in double-dealing and duplicity if not outright dissemblance. (Reportedly he enjoyed “playing” on his first wife’s suspicion that he was homosexual.) As an MI6 operative in Bonn in the early 1960s, alarmingly, he tapped phones and effected break-ins.

Le Carré’s superb new novel Silverview is set in a seaside town in East Anglia. It concerns the career of a “service misfit” who had used his marriage as a cover for espionage and other double-double games. It is le Carré’s 26th book and according to his children the only complete novel that was left unpublished on his death in 2020.

Julian Lawndsley, 33, a bachelor, has given up his well-paid job in the City for a quieter life as a bookseller in Norfolk. His late father, a rogue Anglican priest, was turfed out of his vicarage for sexual malpractice. He recalls le Carré’s own confidence trickster father Ronnie Cornwell, who was tangled in the Kray twins’ London underworld of fraudsters and protection racketeers. Understandably Lawndsley wants nothing to do with his father’s memory. In his trademark lucid prose, le Carré sets the scene for an atmospheric tale of betrayal, deceit and secret service malpractice.

At the novel’s heart is the mysterious Polish émigré Edward Arvon. In his Homburg hat and antiquated spoken English (“I shall give it my best endeavours”), Arvon is a regular at the bookshop but Julian is slow to twig that he is an old friend of his father’s. What does Arvon want? He lives with his ailing English wife Deborah in an Edwardian villa near the bookshop, called Silverview. It turns out that Arvon had been a convinced Bolshevik in Soviet-era Poland until British Intelligence picked him up and “ran him in the field”. In Bosnia during the Yugoslavian war he moved in circles where loyalties were seen to shift opportunely and traitors were never far away. His future wife Deborah was his spymaster. Could she trust him?

Arvon is investigated by a senior agent handler called Stewart Proctor. As Proctor sets out to fathom the nature of Arvon’s allegiances, he encounters agents from Poland’s communist past; in one superbly-rendered scene the Everyman Cinema in Belsize Park serves as hush-hush rendezvous. The tension ratchets up as revelation follows revelation.

Silverview forms a sort of trilogy with le Carré’s last two novels, A Legacy of Spies (2017) and Agent Running in the Field (2019), which descried the “sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit” and the dishonesties attendant on Russian oligarch investment in the City. Silverview is comparably brief and it too reflects on the threadbareness of post-imperial Britain and the “mirage” (as le Carré saw it) of the country’s importance on the world stage. Proctor, a morally weary spymaster in the vein of George Smiley (played by Alec Guinness in the legendary BBC adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People), despairs of “poor, toothless leaderless Britain tagging along behind because it still dreams of greatness.” (Like le Carré, he is probably a Remainer.)

Much of what passes these days for literary fiction is mere creative writing. Few contemporary novelists (with the exception, perhaps, of Graham Greene) fathomed with such intensity the delicate faultlines between statecraft and espionage. Le Carré’s first acclaimed novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), described a betrayal of Cold War loyalties amid East-West tensions and remains a disquieting parable of political conscience. In the great novels that followed – A Small Town in Germany (1968), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), A Perfect Spy (1974) – le Carré’s gift was to locate the moment of crisis when a character loses faith, political or otherwise, and life is exposed in all its drabness and disappointment. Fraught as it is with reflections on death and dying, Silverview is tinged with an autumnal sense of loss and the self-examination of an old man looking back on his extraordinary career. John le Carré, one of the great analysts of the contemporary scene, has left us a minor masterpiece of secrets and lies in spy land.

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