Silverview: A Novel Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
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In his last completed novel, John le Carré turns his focus to the world that occupied his writing for the past sixty years—the secret world itself.
“[Le Carré] 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… [Silverview’s] sense of moral ambivalence remains exquisitely calibrated.” —The New York Times Book Review
Julian Lawndsley has renounced his high-flying job in the city for a simpler life running a bookshop in a small English seaside town. But only a couple of months into his new career, Julian’s evening is disrupted by a visitor. Edward, a Polish émigré living in Silverview, the big house on the edge of town, seems to know a lot about Julian’s family and is rather too interested in the inner workings of his modest new enterprise.
When a letter turns up at the door of a spy chief in London warning him of a dangerous leak, the investigations lead him to this quiet town by the sea . . .
Silverview is the mesmerizing story of an encounter between innocence and experience and between public duty and private morals. In his inimitable voice John le Carré, the greatest chronicler of our age, seeks to answer the question of what we truly owe to the people we love.
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|Listening Length||6 hours and 28 minutes|
|Author||John le Carré|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||October 12, 2021|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #11,990 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#93 in International Mystery & Crime (Audible Books & Originals)
#146 in Espionage Thrillers (Audible Books & Originals)
#1,269 in Suspense (Audible Books & Originals)
Reviewed in the United States on November 14, 2021
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A NOSTALGIC LOOK AT ESPIONAGE
That game—the spy game, or HUMINT—was the stuff on which John le Carré built a six-decade career as a novelist. His early works, such as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dealt with the world le Carré had himself experienced in MI6 only a few years earlier. The game was still actively underway in the first decades of his career. But in more recent years, much of his writing has looked back at yesterday’s intelligence wars through the eyes of aging or retired spies. The author’s posthumous last novel is a case in point.
A DYING SPY, A MYSTERIOUS MAN, AND A REFUGEE FROM THE CITY
Silverview opens as a young woman delivers a sealed letter from her mother to Stewart Proctor in London’s West End one rainy evening. Lily’s mother, we learn later, is Deborah Garton. Like Stewart, she is a senior officer in the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. But Deborah now lies dying at her palatial home by the sea in East Anglia.
Meanwhile, Julian Lawndsley greets a mysterious man who wanders into his bookshop. Lawndsley is 33, a former trader who grew wealthy in the City but tired of the compromises involved in making money. Three months ago, he moved to this small seaside town on the shore of the North Sea and bought the bookstore there. The visitor is an older man with the faint traces of a foreign accent. Though he buys nothing, he engages Julian in conversation. And this is merely the first of a long series of visits Edward Avon (“like the river”) will make to the store. The two eventually collaborate on a major project Edward dreams up: converting the store’s basement into a library of literary classics.
THE SPY GAME IS A FAMILY AFFAIR
Edward, we learn, is Deborah’s husband. He himself appears to be a spy. And as the story unfolds, Julian will become deeply involved with Edward, Deborah, and their daughter, Lily—and all four of them will find their lives upended by Stewart Proctor’s investigation into a leak of top-secret information that is turning up all over the Middle East.
Le Carré adroitly draws us ever more deeply into the lives of his principal characters, laying bare their deepest fears as well as their fondest hopes. They all live in a dark world, where black and white inevitably merge into gray and no one ever attains a full measure of satisfaction, much less happiness. This is the old master at his best, offering us a nostalgic look at espionage. As one old spy says to Stewart, “The thing is, old boy—between ourselves, don’t tell the trainees or you’ll lose your pension—we didn’t do much to alter the course of human history, did we? . . . As one old spy to another, I reckon I’d have been more use running a boys’ club. Don’t know what you feel.” And what Stewart feels appears to be little different.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David John Moore Cornwell, who is known to us as John le Carré, died in December 2020 at the age of 89. On his deathbed, he had extracted a promise from his youngest son, Nick Cornwell: “if he died with a story incomplete on his desk,” Nick would finish it. And he found the manuscript for Silverview on his father’s desk, “not incomplete, but withheld. Reworked, and reworked again.” And it was not “bad,” as he had feared, but “fearsomely good.” Nick cleaned up the bloopers, typos, technical slip-ups, and “a very occasional muddy paragraph.” Which is how the finished project saw the light of day a mere few months later. And just in case you’re wondering, Nick Cornwell is a writer with six novels and one book of nonfiction under his belt. He writes under the pen name Nick Harkaway.
Against those who talk about having figured it out or that it is not that hard to guess, the actual plot is beside the point. LE Carre espionage books are about spying about the same way that Anthony Trollope’s Parliamentary series, The Pallisers books are about politics. Espionage, for Le Carre is a back drop. A particular job that requires dissimulation, secrets and lies, but also fierce loyalty and the placement of country above all. Over time espionage is played out in a world of shifting values and uncertainty about the country and its real primacy over your most closely held beliefs.
For me there are two concurrent aspects in reading Silverview. The one that should not matter is my long-time love affair with books by Le Carre. In Silverview I can see the return to themes and personalities he had developed over time. George Smiley is not here, but the even older role of the in-house dog catcher, seeking out the leak is central. The aspect that should matter is, is this a good book? one its own, absent its connection to its nearly dead author? Had this been my first JlC, this would be a 3 star read and maybe that at a stretch. It is all here but the parts can fail. There is a love affair that springs from nothing and a deep friendship that also derives from, I do not know, instinct maybe.
Figured it out you say. An attentive reader, or a well-versed fan, knows very quickly what is the problem. They know who they want. The wanted know when they are on to them and they know when the wanted know they are on to them. In fact, an important part of good writing is that the reader is not surprised. Surprise if for pot boilers and who-done-its. Silverview mostly does not care who done it.
Always with John Le Carre are the questions are about blind loyalty. Loyalty to whom? With what limits? Is there a time for disloyalty? When you are going to take secrets to the grave, should those secrets be those you do not want to be caught dead, protecting? In all this how balances love of country with love of one’s wife? One’s children? What are the values above self? Family? Country? Just how starkly has the exception have to be thrust at you to make you blink?
If you still think you figured it out, you are very smart.
Top reviews from other countries
Not far short of a year has elapsed since John Le Carré passed away in December 2020. "Silverview" is billed as the last novel that he completed during his lifetime and its publication has been eagerly anticipated by many people who admired the work of the master craftsman that Le Carré so often showed himself to be. Sadly, this is unlikely to go down as one of his best or most memorable novels, and is actually somewhat disappointing.
There are glimpses of Le Carré at his best with some tantalising wordsmithery and eloquent prose. "Silverview" also contains a number of wonderfully drawn characters with genuine depth and appeal. However, in spite of those elements and despite the fact that this is described as his final completed novel something feels amiss. It isn't simply that the book is unusually short, but there is also the sense that certain sections still feel as though they are "work in progress". The bones of the structure are there, but there is the impression that Le Carré still intended to revisit certain passages and flesh them out more fully.
We will probably never know for sure whether that was actually the case, so perhaps John Le Carré has left his readers with one final mystery and conspiracy theory to ponder over, after all.
Obviously, reviewing a book like this involves not giving away plot details, keeping secrets, as any good agent gathering information is obliged to do. But a review is also designed to let people in on a few secrets so that a potential reader can decide if this is a book for them. Or you might have already read the book and are looking to see what someone else found in it. Tricky - the secrets you keep or give away in this intelligence report.
What I will say is that I enjoyed Silverview. To me it was a study in the contradictions of belief, the meaning that people find in being passionate about something - whether that’s related to religion, politics, nationality or fighting the good fight against extreme manifestations of whatever belief people latch onto. Agents who are passionate about the rightness of their mission are highly motivated. However, that passion remains an unpredictable energy, which can easily express itself in dangerous ways. Here we have the thoughts of a Secret Service staffer, who characterises life in the Service as the avoidance of passion:
“Absolute commitment of any sort constituted to his trained mind a grave security threat. The entire ethic of the Service was utterly – he would almost say absolutely – opposed to it, unless, that is, you were talking of manipulating the absolute commitment of an agent you were running.”
As a final note, with an admitted risk to security, I will share one thought with you, which might help provide a way into the central contradiction of Silverview. Perhaps Le Carré puts his main idea into the form of a little code. It would be a similar code to that found in the name of the lovely character, Liz Gold, in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. In that book it is hard to work out where exactly constitutes the Cold, when one side uses the same ruthless tactics as the other. This confusion might be characterised by Liz Gold’s name - gold sounding so close to cold. Silverview has a character who reminded me of Liz.. She has a “nun like” devotion, representing a capacity for passionate commitment, which has ambivalent outcomes. Her name is only one letter away from ‘mania’. I will leave you to find her and come to your own conclusions.
This book brings the spy story into an age where those national struggles the Service was built to support, have themselves become a threat. It’s a fascinating and timely addition to Le Carré’s collection of work.
Firstly, some simple facts many of the reviews do not make. This novel was initially written in the mid-2010s (apparently between "A Delicate Truth" (2013) and "The Pigeon Tunnel" (2016)) and discovered amongst Le Carre's belongings by his son after his death. While there is no indication that Le Carre considered it a finished work, the evidence is that it had been redrafted several times since. The result is I did not therefore read this as a final work by the author but one he had finalised and might revisit in polishing further before approving publication.
Many of the criticisms of the book are why I found it such a good read! The plot is not as labyrinthine and the early signposts may be a bit more obvious (the consequence of too many years of spy books?) plus the characters may seem to be older if not wiser versions of earlier "favourites" amongst Le Carre fans. No Smiley obviously but the environment of older persons who were involved in British intelligence work revisiting and facing up to their pasts and mistakes made plus evaluating whether they made any difference, shows this is a novel of honest and cynical retrospection. Based on when it was written in Le Carre's life and his personal hatred of the UK role in the Iraq War and later Brexit plus Le Carre taking of Irish citizenship before his death, the tone of the book makes sense to me.
I actually found the central character of the early retired investment banker/City trader who had made his "killing in the City" and retired rich but knew little about the deviousness of people outside his old workplace more real than some. On the much commented dialogue, given the characters this did not seem out of place - maybe my involvement more recently in film scripts and listening a lot more to how certain people actually speak has made me appreciate this aspect.
I readily admit I did not find this book to be up there with the Smiley novels in particular which I read avidly when published but nor did I find it to be the disaster that book critics and Le Carre devotees have claimed.
One small point which has bemused me is that I did not see any comments to date on the novel's ending. Maybe because I have read too many books on Philby (including a postscript by Le Carre on him) I found some interesting parallels between the end to his history and the one told here!
There is also an appropriateness about the subject matter of the story given the stage in John Le Carré’s writing career it was written. His novels have always reflected the geo-political environment of their time, and his characters have been shown practising their craft, mostly in mid-career. In “A Legacy of Spies” we saw a retrospective of past exploits from the viewpoint of retired service officers. In “Silverview” we are shown what happens in the life of a former agent once retired. “Silvervew” gives us a glimpse at the reality of the-happy-ever-after for an agent once they are no longer of use to the agency.
As always, Le Carré brings human motivation to the surface, and demonstrates the wilful blindness of organisations that can sometimes let errors of judgement slip through to cause cracks in what appears to be a totally watertight operation. He describes a situation where an organisation’s failure to care for its members’ wellbeing, and to take cognizance of an agent’s mental state, can lead to aberrant behaviour, a trait common to many organisations in every sector.
Never one to shy away from highlighting his views on the political leadership of the countries concerned, he describes the internal questioning of an intelligence agency that is serving a country ruled by a government with no coherent foreign policy, a government that is focused on its own internal political power rather than its relationship with the rest of the world.
This is an excellent read.