Book Review – The Untouchable by John Banville (I read the Kindle edition)
As mentioned in one of my previous posts, The Untouchable is, indirectly, about Anthony Blunt. Blunt was one of the five (Cambridge) spies who were identified after the Second World War as having spied for Russia. The five were Guy Burgess, Donald McLean, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and eventually the fifth one has variously been identified although Blunt claimed it was John Cairncross.
These spies all belonged to a Cambridge elite just before and during the Second World War and throughout this book Victor Maskell (Anthony Blunt) gives several reasons and none for having become a spy for Russia. In the end it seems to have been a certain boredom, a disenchantment with life in England at the time , the class system and in particular with America. Maskell is not really a Marxist (he confesses he has not read Marx) and he is totally turned off by Russia as a potential place to live after just one visit prior to the war; he constantly skirts around the question ‘Why did you do it?‘ asked by Serena Vandeleur, the woman who says she wants to write his biography after he has been ‘outed’ as a spy.
I very much enjoyed reading this book, from the very beginning when we meet Victor Maskell as he is preparing for his public humiliation (being stripped off his honours, ousted from his post as the Queen’s curator) to the very disturbing end and last chapter. The book is in the form of reminiscences for the benefit of Miss Vandeleur, and Maskell recounts his background as the son of an Irish pastor, whose mother died when he and his special needs brother Freddy are quite young, about Hetty his step mother, and subsequently ‘escaping’ to Cambridge where he becomes part of a circle of highly intellectual friends who are all to a greater or lesser extent disenchanted with English politics.
Victor says he will reveal his life as if he is restoring a painting, stripping away layer after layer until he comes to what he is, the very thing itself. On this journey he reflects on philosophy, politics, what and who we are. At one point, he says, he considered himself a Stoic, who denied there was such a thing as progress: ’Periodically, at the end of aeons, the world is destroyed in a holocaust of fire and then started again.‘ He adds that he has always found this pre-Nietzschean notion of eternal recurrence very comforting ‘because it drains events of all consequences while at the same time conferring on them the numinous significance that derives from fixity, from completeness.’
These and similar reflections show that Maskell is a man without the kind of fervour or belief you would expect of a spy – why do it? He is a nihilist in that respect and therefore his account becomes even more disconcerting. Throughout the book you are left with that question, what drove the man, what was it that drove his co-spies? In the case of Maskell there does not appear to have been a great desire to change the world, opt for something better, rather there is an acknowledgement that in fact there is not anything better and that what he is doing (has done) is no more than rebelling against a certain ennui, grabbing a sense of opportunity and then trying out how far he can go. ’It was all selfishness of course; we did not care a damn about the world, much as we might shout about freedom and justice and the plight of the masses. All selfishness.‘ In addition, ‘I did not deceive myself as to the nature of the choice I had made. I was not like Boy [purportedly Burgess] with his puerile conviction of the perfectibility of man and not like Querell [Graham Greene?], either, wandering the world and I often think how differently things might have gone for me if I had not encountered Felix Hartmann when I did.‘
Banville draws and develops the characters, and in particular that of Victor Maskell, beautifully and such that you are drawn along and try to get beyond the words into finding that answer as to why someone does the things he or she does.
The disguises of some of the characters are fairly thin (this is a so-called roman-a-clef) however this may also cause some misidentification as apparently Graham Greene was not in fact part of Blunt’s circle (but did know Philby). Nevertheless he is clearly the Roman Catholic writer referred to as Querell. Others are similarly included in this novel but may not really have played the kind of part allocated to them; family details of Maskell himself are different from those of Blunt’s. However this may be, this is a very absorbing read and is much more than a spy story. The themes that are being taken up are wide-ranging. I have not even mentioned yet Maskell’s homosexuality in a time when this was dangerous (if it became public knowledge) and, if found out, would mean prison and definitely would mean the end of one’s career. There is also the repeated reference to art and Maskell’s love for a particular painting he has acquired, a Poussin. Paintings are true and honest in a way human beings never are “…art was the only thing in my life that was untainted.’
I liked the few references to Greek heroes in this book, for example once when Maskell comes back from a hairy war-time enterprise he reflects when climbing the stairs to his flat in London and with his feet ‘turned to lead and a heart turned to stone’ that ‘surely Odysseus himself, back from the war, must have experienced such a moment of strange dread on the threshold of home.’
This is a very satisfying read and I must find some more books by Banville; I also liked his latest book that won the Mann Booker Prize, The Sea. Not sure if I ever reviewed that?