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Beginnings and Endings: A Review of John le Carré's Silverview from David Farr

Posted on 11th October 2021 by Mark Skinner

Playwright, screenwriter and author of the children's fantasy novel The Book of Stolen Dreams, David Farr was the man responsible for adapting John le Carré's bestselling The Night Manager for the small screen, as well as being a friend of the iconic master of espionage. As le Carré's final, posthumous novel Silverview is published, we get David's verdict on a compelling tale of intrigue, duplicity and bookselling.     

In Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré, he describes Oxford University student David Cornwell (le Carré’s real name) making a secret journey to the seaside town of Woodbridge in Suffolk. He was there to see his mother for the first time in over fifteen years. 

In 1936 Olive Cornwell had suddenly left her husband and young children, absconding with another man. Now she met her son at the station and took him to her house. Sisman observes that “conversation was polite but awkward”. He also remarks that this meeting was when the young David first learnt the true nature of his treacherous and promiscuous father. 

Now, seventy years later, John Le Carré returns to the same flat, desolate Suffolk landscape for his final novel of loss and abandonment - Silverview. Suffolk has for Le Carré long been a venue of betrayal and pain.

Silverview is a house, “in a small seaside town perched on the outer shores of East Anglia”, named after the house where Nietszche spent the last seven years of his life, and inhabited by a classic duplicitous Le Carré protagonist – Edward Avon. 

Like so many of Le Carré’s great characters, Avon is a man lost. He is lost between Britain and Europe. His house symbolically looks towards Europe from England’s most Eastern point. He is torn also between loyalty to the British intelligence organisation for whom he has worked for much of his life, and a growing sense that his life has been wasted serving the wrong masters.

Another Le Carré archetype – the innocent Englishman who gets involved over his head – is embodied this time by Julian Lawndsley, a semi-retired city boy who has opened a thoroughly unsuccessful bookshop in the same Suffolk town. Avon walks in one evening with a strange idea about opening a “Republic of Literature” in the basement of the bookshop. But what does he actually want?

And finally, there is perhaps the most famous Le Carré character of all – the quiet, determined, emotionally unreachable but morally incorruptible spy. The George Smiley, the Leonard Burr. This time he takes the form of Stewart Proctor who is tasked with discovering who the hell Edward Avon really is.

The pleasures of Silverview are manifold and the book is in many ways a classic “late work”. It is melancholic, almost bitter, but still gripping, sharp and funny, and with that latent romanticism that is laced through so many of Le Carré’s novels. 

Where does this romanticism come from?

On one level it is utterly English. The novel tells of pastoral landscapes, gardens and garden parties, unmowed croquet lawns, spartan outdoor swimming (“Proctors don’t heat their pools”), and potential young love (Julian becomes tentatively involved with Avon’s troubled daughter).

But there is also a more profound and troubled European Romanticism at play. This romanticism is steeped in political idealism, a desire for revolution, for a true “Republic” of literature and ideas. Edward Avon has a passion for the victims of life, for the underdog, a deep desire for justice. Avon may in one sense be the villain of the book, but in another he is its true master’s voice.

This more idealistic fervour in le Carré stems, it seems to me, from his years studying German literature in philosophy in Bern and then at Oxford. Like so many of his protagonists (most tellingly Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy), le Carré is deeply attracted to European idealism. But his beloved British spies are often tasked with identifying and betraying it.  

Silverview takes this to its logical but tragic extension, as Proctor slowly and inexorably tracks down his man. But somewhere along the way, in this sad and lonely book, Proctor’s sense of mission stalls, the Suffolk landscape becalms him, the urgency is diluted by a wistful sense of loss. It feels like the great elegiac German writer W.G. Sebald, much referenced in le Carré’s novel, and who lived and worked in East Anglia, begins to haunt the master of conspiracy Le Carré and to question the worth of it all.

Silverview is a slim volume but contained within it is the very kernel of le Carré’s philosophy. It is in a sense a disappointed philosophy – that European Romanticism, for all its glory, created only fascism and totalitarian communism. That both those terrors were threats that needed fighting. But that English romanticism is a fading rose, that the decent Englishman is no longer to be relied upon, and that when push comes to shove, le Carré will always vote with the idealist. For this reason Silverview is a true testament to its author, the greatest espionage writer of the last century.

I knew John le Carré when he was alive and adapted his novel The Night Manager for the BBC television series. It’s strange that in the same month when my first book - The Book of Stolen Dreams - is published, so is his last. I will miss him.

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