Posthumous novels are rarely a good idea. A great writer’s literary executors find a discarded, unfinished manuscript in the bottom drawer, polish it up a bit and send it out into the world hoping to make some money before anybody notices that the book isn’t any good. Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream springs to mind. Many of us are still recovering from Robert Ludlum’s The Janson Directive.
John le Carré, the pre-eminent spy novelist of the last century, died in December. For five decades he had dominated the bestseller lists, leaving behind at least half a dozen novels which will be read 100 years from now. In his pomp – a period spanning more than 25 years from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) to The Russia House (1989) – le Carré was one of the finest writers in the English language: a stylist of lavish gifts; a chronicler of social realism to set alongside Dickens and Conrad; and a suspense novelist without peer.
Things started to go off the boil in the early 1990s. Though The Master was still capable of greatness – The Constant Gardener is a wonderful novel – too often his output had a rather arch, supercilious tone and a baggy long-windedness.
The great man started putting social stereotypes on the page instead of characters. All novelists eventually end up writing versions of the same book; this became particularly true of John le Carré.
In a typical set-up, a posh, unhappy, rather listless Englishman in late middle-age would find himself drawn into the secret world, encountering a cabal of corrupt, pompous politicians, industrialists and secret servants. Simultaneously he might fall for a saintly – and highly attractive – younger woman, usually a human rights lawyer or activist, and by the end of the story find his soul saved by her decency and love, usually at the unfortunate woman’s expense.
Alas some of these tropes are evident in Silverview, which is being published on the anniversary of what would have been le Carré’s 90th birthday. Julian Lawndsley is a former banker who has forsworn Mammon not for God, but to run a bookshop in a quiet town on the English coast. His late father, a disgraced Protestant vicar, was friends with one ‘Edward’, a mysterious Polish-born émigré who befriends Julian for reasons which are not immediately clear. Despite the fact that the novel is set in the present day, Edward wears a Homburg hat and carries a furled-up umbrella as though he were living in the 1950s. Furthermore, in common with many characters in le Carré’s late fiction, he speaks in verbose, florid sentences completely unrecognisable to the contemporary ear.
“Would you mind frightfully if, with all due diffidence, one made an absolutely footling recommendation regarding your extremely impressive new stock?” he asks Julian in an early exchange.
Other characters have caught the same disease. “Spiffing, old man,” says the young, attractive single mother with whom Julian (inevitably) falls in love, a phrase that no British woman has uttered since the Boer War. “Stewart, old boy!” exclaims another. “Bloody good to see you. Still in harness, then? Lucky chap!” It’s like listening to Brian Blessed and Miriam Margolyes exchanging quips in a Noel Coward play.
And yet Silverview is not by any stretch of the imagination a bad novel; if readers are prepared to overlook the anachronisms in dialogue and characterisation, there is much to enjoy. The story is intriguing and the writing astonishingly fluent and energetic for a novelist who was in his late eighties when he died.
In many ways le Carre’s final novel is a greatest hits album which draws on elements in his finest fiction. There are flashes of A Perfect Spy in one character who has turned his back on Queen and country; of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the exposure of a mole inside MI6. One intelligence officer’s sympathy for the so-called League of Arab States recalls The Little Drummer Girl, even if such ideological fervour feels forced, perhaps nonsensical in the age of ISIS and Bashir Assad.
Le Carré is rightly held in such high esteem that this final novel will doubtless be lauded as a “late masterpiece”. It is not. Important plot strands are left hanging and the abrupt ending suggests that a longer book was planned. Yet Silverview doesn’t feel like a discarded, bottom-drawer manuscript which should never have seen the light of day.
It is a clever, sophisticated thriller which will delight his loyal readers, safe in the knowledge that The Master’s immense legacy remains intact.
Charles Cumming is a writer of spy fiction. His new book, Judas 62, is out now and is published by HarperCollins.
This article first appeared in the October issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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