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.