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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.

2016 in Books

The best of what I read this year, in order of reading. 13 by men, 8 by women, 1 non-fiction, 5 SF or fantasy, 12 Scottish:-

Ancient Light by John Banville
The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey
Clara by Janice Galloway
A Twelvemonth and a Day by Christopher Rush
Fergus Lamont by Robin Jenkins
In Another Light by Andrew Greig
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst
The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
This Census Taker by China Miéville
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky
Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Young Art and Old Hector by Neil M Gunn
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
Among Others by Jo Walton

Ancient Light by John Banville

Viking, 2012, 253 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Ancient Light cover

Ten years after the suicide of his daughter Cass, Alex Cleave is looking back over his life and especially at his first love – and first sexual partner – the twenty years senior to him mother of his childhood friend, Billy. Apart from one mention towards the book’s end the woman concerned, since Alex failed to discover (or else to remember) her name, is only ever described in the narrative as Mrs Gray. This tends to give the relationship, which is otherwise described in the most intimate terms, a certain distance, though it was intensively felt by the young Alex, and in the older’s remembrance. The worldliness of ageing, the weariness, is, however, reflected in the sentence, “what is a life but a gradual shipwreck?” but nevertheless, for Cleave, “Other people’s motives, their desiderata and anathemas, are a mystery to me. My own are too.”

As always Banville’s writing is exquisite and the unusual affair would certainly have been enough to sustain a novel on its own but things take an odd turn when Cleave, a retired stage actor, is offered the lead part in a film portraying the life of Axel Vander, whom readers of Banville’s earlier book Shroud will know was the man with whom Cass spent the last weeks before her suicide. This authorial knowingness is emphasised by the casual dropping of names of now all but forgotten writers or film stars – most of whom I had to look up (Walter Pater? Betty Hutton?) – in which context the thought, “If I were to believe that a certain confluence of events was a special and unique phenomenon outside the ordinary flow of happenstance I would have to accept – as I do not – that there is a transcendent process at work above, or behind, or within, commonplace reality,” a metafictional statement which lays bare the artificiality of what we are reading. Yet it all feels visceral, real. Banville’s interest in things scientific (early works of his focused on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton) is demonstrated by a chance encounter with a stranger in a hotel bar which leads to Cleave being told, “light…. takes time… to reach your eyes, and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past,” an endeavour in which our narrator is all too involved.

Yet the past is not all it seems. Mrs Gray’s motives for the affair, Cleave’s recollections of it – memories are, after all, constructions as much as anything – are seen in a new light when towards the novel’s end Cleave once more meets her daughter.

A puff on the book’s front cover says, “Did it even need to be as tremendous as this?” Well, no. It didn’t need to be. But it is.

Pedant’s corner:- ‘at first I could not make head or tail of it’ (head nor tail,) wiling away the empty hours (whiling,) glary? “I had never been thus close up” (this,) “every aurate woman” (an aurate is a salt of auric acid!! I presume Banville meant golden or “having an aura”.) “Why does anyone do anything.” (is missing a “?” at the sentence end,) “Cass’s presence in Liguria [- paragraph break -] Cass’s presence in Liguria was the first link…” (I merely note this cæsura,) “had no hat, or umbrella” (nor umbrella,) “I had to leap up, like a leaping salmon” (do we need that “leaping”?)

Shroud by John Banville

Picador, 2002, 416 p. (Borrowed from a threatened library.)

 Shroud cover

Axel Vander, an elderly academic on the east coast of the US, one-eyed and gammy-legged due to an unfortunate incident many years before, is contacted by a young woman who says she knows the secret of his past. They both travel to neutral ground, Turin, to meet. She is Catherine Cleave, called Cass. Somewhat precipitately, a sexual relationship begins between them. Though predominantly Vander’s story, even before their first encounter the narrative switches between their two viewpoints, his in first person, Cass’s in third.

His secret is that in the dark times of the early 1940s “Vander” (we never learn his “real” name) took on the identity of a childhood friend after that friend died and identity became something potentially dangerous. As a result, “Mendacity is second, no, is first nature to me. All my life I have lied …. to escape, to be loved, for placement and power. I lied to lie.”

Cass isn’t a simple blackmailer though quite why she seeks Vander out, or becomes his lover, remains obscure. And in the end it avails her nothing. She hears voices, as she suffers from Mandelbaum’s syndrome, a complex condition encompassing depression and delusion. She knows all about the Turin Shroud, which she wants them to visit together. (“He said he knew about fakes.”) Is there just a touch of the “too knowing” about this? Did Banville choose Turin for his setting only because of the Shroud – an obvious metaphor for the identity “Vander” has been wearing for most of a lifetime?

But Vander also compares himself to Harlequin, an inexplicable creature with no relationship with other human beings, and says, “I am an old leopard, my spots go all the way through.” His excuse for taking up with Cass is, “She was my last chance to be me,” asking rhetorically, “Is not love the mirror of burnished gold in which we contemplate our shining selves?” Then again, “There is not a sincere bone in the entire body of my text.”

When he professes to love Cass and tells Kristina Kovacs, his fellow academic and former one night stand, that he is willing to let her go, she replies, “Oh Axel, only someone incapable of love could love so selflessly.” A tale of contradictions, then, and of deceptions, revealed and unrevealed.

Be warned that Banville is fond of the obscure word or two. I hadn’t previously come across apocatastasis (restoration to the original or primordial condition) and pococurantish (demonstrating a tendency toward indifference.)

Pedant’s corner:- “the glass is clear” (The bottle banks have this wrong. Except when it is frosted, all glass is clear – even coloured glass: Banville meant colourless.)

The Sea by John Banville

Picador, 2005. 264 p.

The last two Banvilles I read – see here and here – had both been on my shelves for years and while never less than elegantly written were a touch distanced and unengaging but this one won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 so I thought that maybe he’d become a little more accessible.

The Sea can be summed up in one sentence. A man whose wife has died of cancer reminisces about his childhood and first loves and goes back to visit his old holiday haunts. There is of course more to it than this but that is the essence.

Banville has his narrative mouthpiece, Max Morden, adopt a meandering style, not quite stream of consciousness but with some sudden jumps in time and place. This all looks natural on the page, as if written effortlessly, but must have taken a high degree of crafting.

The typical Banville traits are all present, the literariness, the elegance, the beautifully constructed sentences flowing with sub-clauses, the use of unusual or high flown vocabulary (velutinous for velvety, for example) the revelation, very late, of a useful piece of information which helps to make the connection between the novel’s various strands. This last is something of a tease, however, (if not a cheat) and could be taken to exemplify a failure to provide sufficient foreshadowing.

The characters are all well rounded (and they can be irritating) but sometimes it seems as if they are being lined up one after another to have their little foibles exposed before the narrative flows elsewhere.

There is no plot as such but Banville’s prose carries the reader through. I do like him as a stylist. Overall, however, the effect is curiously flat and enervating. There can’t have been much competition for the Booker in 2005. Or was it just Banville’s turn?

Surprisingly for a writer who normally seems very meticulous there was one “lay of the land” (it wasn’t a song – see lay 10a ) and a “liquified.”

Athena by John Banville

Secker and Warburg, 1995. 233p

Athena cover

An ex-convict calling himself Morrow is asked to a house to give his opinion as to the authenticity of eight paintings of classical scenes belonging to a Mr Morden. In the course of one of his subsequent visits he meets a woman whom he only ever names as A, whose sexuality turns out to be complex and masochistic and to whom the narrative is addressed. However, on occasion “€œMorrow” seems to address, rather than A, the reader directly.

The novel mainly charts the progress of the couple’€™s strange relationship as well as the other complications in Morrow’€™s life; a distant cousin he calls Aunt Corky, a gang boss known as Mr Da, a police inspector named Hackett. All this is delivered in a series of long rambling sentences replete with sub-clauses and digressions and, for the first few chapters, very little dialogue. As well as this taste for prolixity the narrator also has an extensive vocabulary -€“ a typical Banville trait. In the background there is a series of murders by a killer dubbed “€œThe Vampire”€ which are referred to throughout the book but of which no more than that is made.

The nine (longish) chapters are interleaved with descriptions of what I presume are meant to be seven of the paintings. The individual artists concerned are given as Johann Livelb, L. van Hobelijn, Giovanni Belli, Job van Hellin, L.E.van Ohlbijn, J. van Hollbein and Jan Vibell. The eighth, mentioned in the fourth last page, is Birth of Athena by Jean Vaublin. A passing knowledge of Greek mythology might be a help in disentangling all of this. Curiously the (unattributed as far as I can see) cover picture of a man-like creature with strong upper arms and back but bearing a bull’€™s head – quite the most unprepossessing on my shelves I might say – does not seem to relate to any of these.

There is no sense throughout the book of linkages between the various strands until four pages from the end where some, if not all, is revealed and a measure of sympathy induced.

Athena is an extremely literary diversion. For those who want a bit of plot in their fiction it is somewhat lacking. As a portrait of a dysfunctional relationship and an exercise in unreliable narration it is, however, accomplished, but perhaps too over-elaborate and ultimately unengaging.

The Book Of Evidence by John Banville

Minerva, 1990

The Book Of Evidence cover

I bought this book years ago, put it in my to-be-read shelf, where it got hidden. When I rediscovered it recently I thought I’d better give it a go.

The point of view is certainly one I have never encountered before. The tale is narrated as if by a prisoner in the dock, addressing a judge (whom he variously calls m’lud, your honour, your lordship etc) and at times, the jury. This is an unusual literary conceit but otherwise the treatment is actually quite conventional, a first person apologia pro vita sua by the narrator Frederick Montgomery. (This name almost breaks Gene Wolfe’s iron law of writing – never call a character Fred.)

If not quite stream of consciousness the narration still rambles somewhat and jumps backward and forward in time from the events leading up to Montgomery’s incarceration to his present. It eventually transpires that he is on remand and composing his narrative at a table.

Montgomery is less than reliable, however, and the prose, while not leaden – Banville picks his words, especially his verbs, with care (dust sifts down, for example) – is somehow flat. Montgomery’s detachment is curious; he does not seek to deny his crime but, equally, shows little actual remorse for it – a, to my mind, startling lack of affect.

Banville, of course, speckles the text with relatively uncommon words – aboulia, ataraxic, balanic, gleet – but I wasn’t convinced that the Montgomery the book reveals would have employed any of these. He’s more of an imperturbable type than an ataraxic.

While Montgomery’s lack of engagement does have the effect Banville presumably intended, it is too distancing and as a result none of the characters really springs to life. They are merely the backdrop against which Montgomery tells his story.

The pun in the title is also rather arch – Montgomery’s telling of his story in the novel is the case against him, and his book (of evidence) will most likely be thrown at him.

Even more years ago I read Banville’s Dr Copernicus and Kepler. As I recall those, they were much more involving than I found this outing. But then their protagonists were grappling with the mysteries of the Universe. For all Banville’s fine writing, Montgomery isn’t.

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