The Untouchable, by John Banville
by Robert A. Parker
This 1997 novel is the first Banville I have read, and I now understand why he is so admired. He is a beautiful stylist, with an admirable ability to explore the sensibility of his characters. What is striking also is that he has written here a penetrating novel about a spy, the repercussions of being a spy, with no details about his actual spying.
Banville was clearly inspired by the treachery of Burgess and McLean, and the later exposure of Anthony Blunt, the art historian, as the ”fourth man.” His main character is Victor Maskell, the Blunt character, who narrates this story in his old age, knowing that he has been exposed and that he is soon to die of cancer. His story, this novel, recaptures the complicated gamesmanship of those years as a Russian spy. And he himself is literally untouchable, for not only he does not like to be touched, but on a deeper level he perceives himself to have been untouched by British authorities. And on a still deeper level, he is a stoic, one who remains emotionally aloof from his fellow men. His only commitment is to an ideal, a sense of justice that he has identified with Moscow since his student days at Cambridge.
Victor moves among other men who share either his ideals or the sexual and drunken carousing of the late 1930s. Seemingly on a whim, he enters a pro forma marriage and sires two children, only to be seduced and discover that he is gay. Which ironically deepens his character, as he balances his two hidden lives, that of a spy and that of a homosexual. Except, the novel probes his new sexual life more than his life as a spy. His character is further enriched by a Bluntian dedication to art, for his life ambition has been to head an institution that will collect and train others in understanding art. It is another example, indeed, of his commitment to an ideal that is based on an abstraction of life rather then an emotional commitment to life itself.
It is Banville’s portrayal of the escapades of his friends that sustains the reader’s interest across nearly 400 pages. But interest is further piqued by Victor’s brief adventures. He discovers a painting by Pousin that he values more than his family, since it represents the death of the stoic Seneca. He enjoys a junket to Moscow, where he is disillusioned by the life there—even though he retains his Marxist ideology. He is sent to Boulogne by the British army in 1940, and then escapes at Dunkirk. He retrieves a cache of scandalous photographs from a German castle after World War II to save the royal family from blackmail. He drives his two friends, Boy Bannister and Philip MacLeish (stand-ins for Burgess and Maclean), to the ship that will start their flight to Moscow. And all the while, he parties with Waugh-like friends and searches for gay sex in dark bathrooms.
As the novel opens, we know Victor has been exposed as a spy, and the rest of the book is his explanation of how this came about, how very effective he thought he was, and his rationalization regarding the justice of what he has done. But we slowly grasp that he is an unreliable narrator. He is surprised, for example, that after the war Moscow lets him resign as a spy without repercussions. He does not see that this is because he was not that effective. (The reader also wonders, as a result, how effective Victor is as an interpreter of art and as an art historian—even as he boasts of his art knowledge and as Banville enriches his novel by comparing the deception of reality that is art with the deception involved in espionage.)
There is even a kind of surprise ending, in which Victor is revealed to have been a patsy. For he learns that his best friend is also a spy, and this friend has been manipulating his espionage career. I say kind of a surprise, because we have not penetrated into any of these colorful characters (because narrator Victor himself has not) enough to allow this sudden reversal to have the emotional impact the author likely intended. Indeed, that final scene seems in its way artificially created, down to the gun that is never fired and which Banville acknowledges breaks all the rules of conventional drama.
I must note that Patrick McGrath has written an excellent interpretation of this novel in the New York Times: “Banville has explored the various themes suggested by the study of art: the relationship of painting to the real world, the process of restoration, the distinction between the fake and the authentic, the futility of representation, its complementary pleasures and so on…he has woven these ideas into morally complex stories about violence and passion, guilt and redemption.”
This indeed, reflects the richness of this novel. The original Blunt had the perfect profession to inspire Banville’s insight into a world of artifice, a world of shallow surfaces, of originality, of bravado, and a world of deception and self-deception. Not to forget the world of gay men, who are always living a lie, who continually face the possibility of exposure, and who are always looking back over their shoulder.
The key to Victor’s life is why he is a spy. He is writing a memoir in an attempt to figure it out himself. He intends the memoir for his biographer, who has asked him this question. But he never finds the real answer. Is it because he is Irish, and so hates the British? Is it because he resents his father, a Protestant bishop, and the Soviets preach atheism? Is it because he is a stoic, and so does not identify with his impact on others? Is it because he feels superior to others, and spying allows him to justify this? Is it because he likes the game, much as he likes the game of concealing his homosexuality?
We never know the answer, but this only adds to the mysterious richness of the novel. To sum up, this is a brilliant exploration of the game of spying as told by a narrator who is not nearly as clever as he thinks. Indeed, this is why this work is not filled with his exploits as a spy, because he was indeed ineffectual. Instead, it brilliantly portrays the world he thinks he is deceiving, both his friends and the actual spies who float through his shallow world of drunken parties, back room assignations, and subversive meetings.
This novel surely inspires me to read further Banville novels. He offers that perfect blend, for me, of style and sophistication, of introspection and self-deceit, of story subjugated to character. (June, 2014)