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John le Carré Pays Homage to Sebald

The main character in John le Carré’s posthumously published novel Silverview (Viking, 2021) is Julian Lawndsley, a man who had impetuously fled the rat-race in London for East Anglia, where, with no previous experience whatsoever, he has somewhat naively opened Lawndsley’s Better Books. As Silverview opens, Julian is confronted by a repeat visitor to his bookshop, one who has yet to buy a book but nevertheless has a suggestion for his inventory.

“It is my considered view that no local interest shelf in this magnificent county, or in any other county for that matter, should regard itself as complete without Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. But I see you are not familiar with Sebald.”

See from what, Julian wonders, even as he concedes that the name is indeed new to him, and all the more so since Edward Avon has used the German pronunciation, Zaybult.

Rings of Saturn, I must warn you in advance, is not a guidebook as you and I might understand the term. I’m being pompous. Will you forgive me?’

He will.

Rings of Saturn is a literary sleight of hand of the first water. Rings of Saturn is a spiritual journey that takes off from the marches of East Anglia and embraces the entire cultural heritage of Europe, even unto death. Sebald, W. G.”–this time using the English pronunciation and waiting while Julian writes it down. “Formerly Professor of European Literature at our University of East Anglia, a depressive like the best of us, now, alas, dead. Weep for Sebald.”

Not long thereafter, a dozen copies of The Rings of Saturn duly arrive at Lawndsley’s Better Books. But le Carré is not finished using Sebald in his final novel of twenty-first century spies. Edward Avon now asks Julian if he wouldn’t mind performing “a small errand” on his behalf the next time he is in London.

“And if the errand I am asking were to involve taking a confidential message to [a certain lady without my wife’s knowledge], might I count on your absolute and permanent discretion in all circumstances?” asks Avon. Julian is instructed to sit outside a certain theater holding a copy of The Rings of Saturn “for purposes of identification.”

Needless to say, since this is a novel by John le Carré, the mission that Edward sends the poor, innocent bookseller on is not between two lovers, and before long Julian is caught up in an international cat-and-mouse game between spies that is way above his pay grade.

Later, when Edward needs to say a mysterious farewell to Julian, he arranges for them to meet one more time and the location he picks is Orford Ness, a location of special interest to Sebald. Lawndsley “had battled his way through Rings of Saturn. He knew what to expect of the godforsaken loneliness of that outpost in the middle of nowhere. He knew that even fishermen supposedly found it unbearable.” Sebald’s own visit to Orford Ness, the abandoned secret research station of England’s Ministry of Defence, which he described in The Rings of Saturn, left him feeling as if he had found himself “amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.”

le Carré’s playful homage to Sebald takes a little poke at Sebald’s reputation for a being a melancholy, “depressive” personality, but seems to bear a genuine message of appreciation for The Rings of Saturn. Silverview is an entertaining novel, but ultimately nowhere near le Carré’s high point.

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