Saturday, January 29, 2022

Silverview, by John le Carre

Julian Lawnsdsley has set up a bookshop in a small town, escaping from the evils of the City. One potential customer is a peculiar old man who claims to have been a friend of Julian's father - though Julian's father was meticulous in keeping records and there's no reference to this man. The old man, Edward, has a modest proposal for Julian: to establish in the basement of the shop a club, a society, a Republic of Literature. Oh, and there are maybe some errands that perhaps Julian could help with...

As always, le Carre quickly ensnares us in his world of secrets, conflicted loyalties and keenly observed detail. How deceptively easily he makes it look. There's wry humour and that awful sense of loss - this is all familiar territory, comfortingly unsettling. However, this, le Carre's last novel and published posthumously, is also noticeably slight: 207 pages in relatively large type. Perhaps Julian volunteers a little too easily to help Edward. Perhaps there's something overly convenient, too, in the way he's so quickly taken in by Edward's family - tested by Edward's wife, bedded by Edward's daughter. Perhaps it doesn't add up to a whole huge amount that we've not seen before.

But perhaps none of that really matters one jot. It's good; it's arresting; it's a last taste of this world. Towards the end, when things close in on Edward, it all gets suitably tense. There's the constant sense of horror under the surface. And it's full of haunting moments: an interview with a married couple where they know it's more that just an idle chat; posh dinner with a dying woman; a meeting amid bird life and the ghosts of Cold War at Orford: 

"'We are famous for our bird life here, actually, Julian,' he announced, with proprietorial pride. 'We have lapwing, curlew, bittern, meadow pipit, avocets, not to mention duck,' he declared, like a headwaiter reciting the day's specials. 'Look now, please. You hear that curlew calling to her mate? Follow my arm.'

Julian made a show of doing so, but for some minutes he had been able to follow only the horizon: the remains of our own civilisation after its destruction in some future catastrophe. And there they stood: distant forests of abandoned aerials rising out of the mist, abandoned hangars, barracks, accommodation blocks and control rooms, pagodas on elephantine legs for stress-testing atom bombs, with curved roofs but no walls in case the worst happens. And, at his feet, a warning to him to stick to marked paths or reckon with unexploded ordnance." (p. 159)

In fact, it's all about ghosts: the legacies of old wars, old trauma, old connections and betrayals. There's also the ghost of the author, of course - or authors plural. Le Carre's son Nick Harkaway gave a moving interview last year about completing the book in the absence of his late parents. And there's another ghost for me; this is the first le Carre in a long time that I've bought for myself, not borrowed from my father. The loss is keenly felt, but communing with these spirits one last time I am more than anything grateful.

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