John le Carré’s Last Spy Novel Crowns a Career Attuned to Moral Ambivalence

From a New York Times book review by Joseph Finder headlined “John le Carré’s Last Completed Spy Novel Crowns a Career Attuned to Moral Ambivalence”:

Sixty years ago, David John Moore Cornwell, a young officer in the British secret services, published his first novel. Because his employers wouldn’t let him publish under his own name, he chose the French-sounding surname le Carré, for “a bit of swank.”

Two books later, his career took flight with the best-selling “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” a draft of which he wrote in only five weeks. It remade the spy novel. A John le Carré novel invariably features a tone of knowingness, a labyrinthine plot that demands close attention and is paid out meticulously, and an intricate gambit of ultimate futility. There’s typically a disgraced father (his own father was a con man), frequently an unfaithful wife. It is written with elegance and often pungency, the pitch-perfect dialogue ranging from the waggishly epigrammatic to the bluntly outraged. Le Carré, who died last year, also developed his own colorful glossary of spy terms — pavement artists, babysitters, lamplighters and, most famously, moles.

Had he retired 40 years ago, after his Karla trilogy (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People”) was completed in 1979, he would have been regarded as one of our greatest spy novelists. After “A Perfect Spy” (1986), he was often considered one of the finest novelists, period, since World War II. It’s not that he “transcended the genre,” as the tired saying goes; it’s that he elevated the level of play. The great Graham Greene didn’t quite take his own spy novels seriously, labeling them “entertainments,” but le Carré revamped the genre to fit his considerable ambitions. “Out of the secret world I once knew,” he wrote, “I have tried to make a theater for the larger worlds we inhabit.”

In “Silverview,” his 26th and apparently last completed novel, we meet Julian Lawndsley, who at 33 has dropped out of the financial rat race in London to open a bookstore in a small seaside town in East Anglia. “I have forsaken the glitter of gold for the scent of old paper,” he declares — and his Porsche for a Land Cruiser.

Soon after Julian opens his shop, a stranger comes in, not to buy books but to banter. He’s a peculiar man in a Homburg hat, carrying a furled umbrella. “I am a British mongrel,” he announces in his posh-sounding voice, “retired, a former academic of no merit and one of life’s odd-job men.” He urges Julian to open a section of the store to be called “the Republic of Literature,” which would offer only the classics, the thoughts of all the great thinkers and authors. W. G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn” is especially close to his heart….

This stranger is Edward Avon, a Polish émigré who is soon revealed to be a retired agent for MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. Edward claims to have known at school Julian’s father, who had a prolific sex life, ran up debts and offered accounts of himself that “did not always stand the test of accuracy.” Would Edward’s?

At home, Edward wears a maroon smoking jacket and matching evening slippers with gold braid. “Julian, my dear fellow!” he exclaims. “How perfectly delightful.” Like any good agent, he’s adept at shape-shifting. Edward is “a lot of people,” Julian reflects. Julian is fascinated by Edward’s different identities and “couldn’t help wondering how much was performance, how much the real man.” Le Carré favors the close third person, but every point of view has just enough opacity that readers can never be sure they’ve seen everything.

Meanwhile, Edward is being investigated by the service’s head of domestic security, Stewart Proctor, “our chief sniffer-dog,” who suspects his own wife of being unfaithful. The Proctors are an upper-class family, who “knew from birth that the spiritual sanctum of Britain’s ruling classes was its secret services.” Stewart is suspicious of anyone like Edward who harbors a “consuming passion”; anyone who demonstrates an absolute commitment to anything is a grave security threat. Soon Proctor is on a collision course with Edward, with Julian caught up in the machinations of two clever spymasters.

In le Carré’s world of cunning stratagems, the question is not only whether they will work but whether they will be worth it. At one point, Proctor pays a visit to Edward’s former handlers, Joan and Philip, now retired and enfeebled but once the golden couple of MI6. The old spies are portrayed as decent people who, at the end of their lives, realize their life’s work has accomplished nothing. “We didn’t do much to alter the course of human history, did we?” Philip tells Stewart ruefully. “As one old spy to another, I reckon I’d have been more use running a boys’ club.” This notion that a small step separates a futile life from an effectual one is another le Carré preoccupation.

Typically, le Carré’s narrative warheads are lodged in his endings. The novels patiently build up to a final explosion, leaving readers with a greater sense of dismay than of triumph. Endings, for le Carré, were reckonings. This slender volume (just over 200 pages) does conclude, rather abruptly, but it lacks what le Carré has taught us to expect of an ending. You can wonder, indeed, whether he had quite got around to finishing the book. He started writing it about a decade ago, then put it aside to write his memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel.” And although “Silverview” is said to be his last completed novel, it’s evidently not the last one he was working on. In an afterword, the author’s son Nick Cornwell (who usually writes as Nick Harkaway) speculates that his father balked at publishing “Silverview” because it “does something that no other le Carré novel ever has. It shows a service fragmented: filled with its own political factions, not always kind to those it should cherish … and ultimately not sure, any more, that it can justify itself.”

In fact, le Carré’s greatest character, George Smiley, had his agency rivals — factionalism is nothing new — and the moral equivalence not of causes but of methods was a central theme in le Carré’s oeuvre. The protagonist of “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” Alec Leamas, is a burnout case who sees spies, whether allies or adversaries, as just “a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too.” Give a con man convictions and a bureaucracy, le Carré seemed to suggest, and you’d get the intelligence establishment, with every human relationship gauged as either an asset or a vulnerability.

That’s why le Carré’s greatest interrogation scenes are always of self-interrogation. And if “Silverview” feels less than fully executed, its sense of moral ambivalence remains exquisitely calibrated. Besides, novelists of le Carré’s stature are not diminished by their lesser efforts; Henry James closed his career not with his masterly “The Golden Bowl” but the wanly schematic “The Outcry.” The Republic of Literature has room for both.

Also see the Wall Street Journal review by Katherine A. Powers headlined “Le Carre’s People, One Last Time.” The deck: “The master of spy fiction left a posthumous surprise for his readers; an elegant final novel, written with characteristic grace.”

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