Ronald Kidd - October 23, 2021

John le Carré’s Last Book

I just finished John le Carré’s final novel, Silverview, published posthumously. The book is terrific. Surprisingly, one of the best parts is the Afterword.

For years I’ve struggled with le Carré’s work. As a fan of spy novels, I desperately wanted to like his early books, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but found the arcane, complex plots nearly impossible to follow. However, I was drawn to one of the characters, George Smiley, so I kept trying.

A few years ago, something changed. Maybe le Carré adopted a simpler approach, or maybe, miraculously, I got smarter. Whatever happened, I began to follow and understand his plots, and I enjoyed them.

Le Carré died last year, but earlier this month his estate published one last novel, Silverview. I ordered it from the library and was surprised to find it short—just over 200 pages—with a relatively straightforward plot. I won’t divulge the details, but the story is simple and satisfying.

Now, about that Afterword. It was written by his son, writer Nick Cornwell. (John le Carré was a pseudonym of David Cornwell.) Years earlier, Nick had promised to finish and publish any remaining manuscripts when his father died, and he found Silverview among his papers.

In the Afterword, Nick delivers the surprising news that Silverview wasn’t some half-finished final effort but had been completed several years earlier and was “fearsomely good.” The mystery was why le Carré had held it back from publication.

We’ll probably never know le Carré’s answer, but Nick ponders his own. It has to do with his father’s complicated relationship with the British intelligence service, which in turn helped to foster the complexity of the novels. Reading the Afterword gave me a new appreciation for le Carré’s art and made me glad I had kept reading his books.

This new novel is itself a kind of Afterword to the career of a gifted writer.

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