Having been caught by the world-weary spymaster George Smiley, Bill Haydon, the Soviet double agent in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), presents a long apologia for his betrayal. “He spoke not of the decline of the West, but of its death by greed and constipation. He hated America very deeply, he said, and Smiley supposed he did. Haydon also took it for granted that secret services were the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious… Smiley might in other circumstances have agreed.”
His creator certainly did. Starting with Call for the Dead (1961), his first novel, Le Carré found his literary vocation in the failures of a nation. The moral price for deference to the United States paid by Britain – with its corrupt and blundering intelligence services a metonym for the country – are the commanding motifs in his work. This is hardly surprising. Englishmen of Le Carré’s generation possessed a latent anti Americanism. This was partly a legacy of US involvement in the Second World War, and the mass presence in Britain by all those GIs who were, as the expression went, “over-paid, over-sexed, and over here”. But it was also because the US’s rise came at the expense of Britain’s own bearing on the world. The vintage Le Carré, from Call for the Dead to A Perfect Spy (1986), is a study in national bathos – the embittering descent from imperial majesty to middling power. The characters that populate his Cold War novels – privately educated men who grew up with tyrannical fathers and promises of greatness – suffer from the shift of historical gravity across the Atlantic, which left Britain with nothing to do but geopolitical cosplay.
The experience of loss, and the disorientation that comes from a world upended, was something that Le Carré, who died last year at the age of 89, shared with his cast of disenchanted romantics. He was recruited as an intelligence officer in 1958 and left the Service in 1964. From his experiences, Le Carré thrillingly depicted the slow, undramatic life of his anti-Bonds, reducing Cold War Europe to leaden scenes of empty backstreets, damp safe houses, sputtering cars and rasping cabinets of old documents. Readers may doubt the sincerity of his characters – after all, they deal in subterfuge and betrayal – but never their credibility. Haunted by memories of personal and professional failure, they nonetheless detest the life that awaits them outside the intelligence services. “I hate the real world, George,” Connie Sachs, one of Smiley’s retired colleagues, cries in Tinker, Tailor. “I like the Circus and all my lovely boys.”
When the Cold War ended, the real world was all that Le Carré was left with, too. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 deprived him of the backdrop against which his plots unfolded. “What are you going to write now?” his friends asked him. Le Carré himself recognised that throughout the 1960s and 1970s he was “chronicling my time, from a position of knowledge and sympathy”. Suddenly, he was writing as a spectator of events, not as a participant observing them from within. “When the Cold War ended,” he remarked in a speech last year, “and the Western world was still congratulating itself, Smiley felt betrayed, and so did I.”
His later obsessions – the fate of subject nations, the war on terror, state-corporate collusion, shadow banking, the privatisation of war – led to political fictions of what Lev Grossman called “fist-shaking, Orwellian outrage”. Richard Roper, the villain of The Night Manager (1993), is an English businessman and arms dealer, propped up by officials in the British and US security services. The Constant Gardener (2002) depicted a pharmaceutical conglomerate that experiments on African tribal women in clinical trials. Our Kind of Traitor (2010) dealt with the collusion between Russian money launderers, British bankers, and politicians. And A Delicate Truth (2013) focused on the outsourcing of war to private defence contractors.
These were old corruptions in new suits. But the novels themselves became disappointingly cinematic: the grey zones of ambiguity, “an ever fluid landscape where fact and illusion merge”, as CIA counterintelligence legend James Jesus Angleton put it, became highfalutin pulpits of moral didacticism. Le Carré’s rage was a surrogate for sophisticated storytelling. As critics have noted, after 1989 he had to rely on research rather than his own experiences for his narratives. The upshot was that his novels acquired the virtues of journalism – a fast story and an honourable sense of mission – but also all of its vices: cliché, tedious diatribe, and an inferior development of characters’ inner lives.
This is true of Silverview, the only complete novel left unpublished when Le Carré died. But it also has none of the dark intrigue of the Cold War novels nor any of the visceral rage that propelled his post-1989 works. It is arguably Le Carré’s greatest misfire since The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), the first time he wrote outside the spy genre. One reviewer called that book “a disastrous failure”, another pointed to its “fundamental indecisiveness”, while another found it “the product of self-indulgence and intellectual laziness”. The same might be said for Silverview.
Set in a small seaside town on the shores of East Anglia, the story follows Julian Lawndsley, a 33-year-old City trader turned amateur bookseller who is befriended by a Polish émigré called Edward Avon, the overly inquisitive occupant of the big house – Silverview – on the edge of town. A major intelligence breach has been detected at the heart of the Service and Stewart Proctor, its head of domestic security – or “Witchfinder-in-Chief” – is tasked with discovering the source of the leak, which leads him to Silverview and into the affairs of Lawndsley and Avon.
The underlying theme is stock Le Carré: the fallen state of Britain, its meaninglessness as a power and “giddy late-life romp through the wold woods of colonial fantasy”, as Proctor thinks to himself. “Poor, toothless, leaderless Britain,” he says, “tagging along behind [the US] because it still dreams of greatness and doesn’t know what else to dream about.” The sentiment is plainly reinforced by Le Carré’s own grievances about Brexit Britain, accusing Boris Johnson in 2020 of being one of the most “accomplished liars of our time” and denouncing the “student-level Marxism-Leninism” of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. For Le Carré, on the eve of his death, this was a time of incompetence without redemption, as the UK became a place, as Proctor puts it, with “a sense of a ship abandoned, slowly sinking. A stench of decay, age and oil.” No wonder Le Carré became an Irish citizen at the end of his life.
Alas, Silverview reads like the start of an incomplete work rather than the finished thing; an aimless evanescence as opposed to the timeless masterpieces of half a century ago. It represents the nadir of a once formidable literary power that found himself out of joint with the times after the Wall fell. Reading the novel, one cannot help but be reminded of Smiley’s words to a class of graduating spies in The Secret Pilgrim (1990): “It’s over, and so am I… Time you rang down the curtain on yesterday’s cold warrior.”
[See also: The lying life of John le Carré]
John le Carré
Viking, 224pp, £20
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This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm