The Untouchable by John Banville

Picador, 1997, 412p.

The Untouchable cover

The novel is the memoir of Victor Maskell, scion of the estate of Carrickdrum in Northern Ireland, an Art Historian, expert on Poussin; and a spy for the USSR since his time at Cambridge in the 1930s. His journal is written down as if for Miss Serena Vandeleur, a journalist who comes to him after his exposure to the press long, long after the Security Services had become aware of his treacherous activities. He thus bears a more than superficial resemblance to Anthony Blunt but doubtless the parallels are not entirely exact.

The attention here is incidental but Banville has previously had painting and painters as a subject – as in The Sea, Athena, The Book of Evidence and Ghosts. The focus here (obviously drawn from Blunt’s non-espionage career) is Poussin, specifically Maskell’s prized possession, The Death of Seneca, but, in keeping with the book’s theme of duplicity and subterfuge, there is a suggestion that the work is not genuine, or at least not by Poussin.

The novel is wonderfully written. Each sentence is in perfect balance; a work of art in itself, the text studded with unusual observations, “The silence that fell, or rather rose – for silence rises, surely?” or comments, “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist,” and the occasional barb, “Trying for the common touch .. and failing ridiculously.” The literary allusions include a reference to Odysseus’s men drinking sea-dark wine.

There are subtle inferences to the insights of a spy, “He made the mistake of thinking that the way to be convincing is to put on a false front,” and the regrets of the trade, “It is odd, how the small dishonesties are the ones that snag in the silk of the mind,” and later, “It is the minor treacheries that weigh most heavily on the heart.” On encountering a tramp with a dog inside his coat Maskell tells us, “(I was) ashamed that I felt more sorrow for the dog than I did for the man. What a thing it is, the human heart.”

Maskell claims almost from the outset to have been disenchanted with the USSR, a feeling to which his visit there in the 30s only contributed, and that his controllers consistently misunderstood England (as he puts it.) “Much of my time and energy .. was spent trying to teach Moscow to distinguish between form and content in English life.” Despite his betrayals he says, “I was nothing less than an old-fashioned patriot.” In mitigation he asks, “who could have remained inactive in this ferocious century?” and avers, “We should have had no mercy, no qualms. We would have brought down the whole world.”

He receives the Order of the Red Banner (his medal glimpsed only once by him before being hidden away by his handler) for contributing to the Soviet victory at Kursk by transferring details, relayed from Bletchley, of a new German tank design. How much such information really affected that battle is of course debatable.

Some of the dialogue is representative of the times in which the book is set, “Mind if I turn off this nigger racket?” and “‘What’s the matter with the dago, sir?'” being cases in point.

One of Maskell’s defining features is his homosexuality (though he came to it late, after marriage to one of his University friends.) Of a lover of his he tells us, “Patrick had all the best qualities of a wife, and was blessedly lacking in two of the worst: he was neither female, nor fertile,” and further comments “(I ask myself….. if women fully realise how deeply, viscerally, sorrowfully, men hate them.)” He is of the opinion that in the fifties “to be queer was very bliss…. the last great age of queerdom.” The “young hotheads” of the narrator’s present day, “do not seem to appreciate, or at least seem to wish to deny, the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear.”

Part of his early protection from wider exposure was that he was sent by the King to Bavaria after the war to retrieve some potentially compromising papers. A distant relation, he refers sardonically to the Queen as Mrs W.

He has a jaundiced view of humanity and at one point he describes the American system as “itself, so demanding, so merciless, undeluded as to the fundamental murderousness and venality of humankind and at the same time grimly, unflaggingly optimistic.”

His observation about his work on Poussin, that he was trying “to pull together into a unity all the disparate strands of character and inspiration and achievement that make up this singular being,” might be a description of the novel itself. In The Untouchable Banville has laid out for us a life in just such terms.

It is all a fascinating examination of the existence of a spy. As he ponders who it was who unmasked him – possibly twice – Maskell begins to question everything about his life but asides such as, “My memory is not as good as it’s supposed to be. I may have misrecalled everything, got all the details wrong,” and, “As to this – what? this memoir? this fictional memoir?” point to the unreliability of his account.

Brilliant stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval, on first mention we have Petersburg but when Maskell travelled there, in the thirties – and indeed till the nineties – it was called Leningrad, as it is denoted a few pages late, an ambulance siren (in 1939? I’m pretty sure British ambulances had bells at that time,) a missing full stop at the end of a paragraph, “Not the kind of thing you expect to hear from a Harley Street consultant, is it.” (That’s a question so requires a question mark,) “men and women, girls, youths,” (so youths means males only?) Prince’s Street (Princes Street,) “what the Americans delightfully call the pinkie” (I think, my Irish friend, you’ll find they got that word from us Scots,) hoofs (in my youth it was always hooves,) a paragraph starting “Those were the,” and then stopping, the three words repeating at the beginning of the next paragraph – but the nrarrator had just stated his mind was wandering so this may have been intended to indicate that circumstance, for Maskell to be watching a Jean Harlow film in a cinema in the 1950s seems a bit unlikely as she died in 1937, some Highland lough (it’s loch, my Irish friend,) “She made me sit me down” (made me sit down,) slippers turn to sandals then back to slippers within two pages.

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