The Untouchable by John Banville

untouchableWhen Banville is writing at his best, he tends to reminisce about people and places rather than tell a story. In The Untouchable (Knopf, 668 pages), Victor Maskell, an Irishman living in England, becomes a spy for the Soviets during World War II. The book begins when the elderly Sir Maskell’s secret past has been revealed in the press. A young biographer, Serena Vandeleur, comes to interview him, and he takes the opportunity to look back over his life. Banville’s most artful writing is to be found in the plotless parts of the narrative, where he is working on characterization by relating memories of his childhood and young adulthood.

After living in England for some time, becoming successful art critic, and falling in with a sophisticated crowd in London, Maskell returns home, wincing every now and again at the replies of his conservative, and sometimes slightly uncouth, parents. His writing is masterful when it comes to describing complex familial relationships and recalling the ambivalence of the narrator’s emotions. Maskell has brought a friend with him on the visit, smooth and gracious Nick, to whom, Maskell realizes much later, he was very much attracted. This makes him more sensitive about his origins, which are very different from Nick’s.  Maskell  wishes he weren’t embarrassed, but he is.

Banville, slipping in some distance between himself and his first-person narrator, reveals Maskell’s unreasonable intolerance for the opinions of the older generation.  When the father remarks that he hopes there will not be another world war, his son “glared at a sausage, thinking what a hopeless booby my father was.” The Nabokovian nastiness of the glaring indicates Maskell’s immaturity, and the name-calling is clearly not a valid critique of a political position. Maskell, we will find later, decides to defend communism based on some superficial personal interests, not the least of which is the excitement involved in the secret life of a spy. After the father’s remark, comes a little dig at the narrator’s step-mother, “‘Peace in our time,’  murmured Hettie, sighing.”  That is, Hettie thinks in clichés and is weak. But this dig is directed at a woman whom the narrator loves deeply on another level and whom he describes elsewhere with fondness. When the narrator returns on his visit, Hettie

was in her sixties but still retained the bloom of youth, a big pink person with teary eyes and dainty feet and an uncontrollable, wobbly smile….When she arrived in our lives I had tried hard to resent and thwart her, but her jollity had been too much for me…. She would get down on hands and knees and chase Freddie and me about the drawing-room floor, growling like a grizzly bear, her face bright red and her great bosom swinging.

The first half or so of the book is devoted to these reflections and to present-tense narration of the aged, newly-exposed spy.  (Not until about mid-point in the book does the narrative of his actual spying career begin.) The present-tense narration, in which nothing much is happening besides Maskell positioning himself to recall the next flashback, is perfect.

…I offered her [Ms. Vandeleur] tea but she said should would prefer a drink. That’s my girl. I said we should have some gin, which gave me an excuse to escape to the kitchen, where the sting of ice cubes and the sharp tang of lime (I always use limes in gin; so much more assertive than the dull old workday lemon) helped me to regain something of my composure. I do not know why I was so agitated. But then how would I not be in a state? In the past three days the tranquil pool that was my life has been churned up and all sorts of disturbing things have risen from the depths. I am beset constantly by a feeling the only name for which I can think of is nostalgia. Great hot waves of remembrance wash through me, bringing images and sensation I would have thought I had entirely forgotten or successfully extirpated, yet so sharp and vivid are they that I falter in my tracks with an inward gasp, assailed by a sort of rapturous sorrow.

What is remarkable about this passage is the way Banville has Maskell’s performing some domestic chore (making drinks) to show how deep emotions come unbidden, disrupting daily existence. A lesser novelist might have put Maskell at the window, alone with his thoughts. But Banville puts ice tongs in his hands and throws in an assertive squirt of lime.

A Banville novel make wonderful rereading. This kind of language appears frequently and is worth mulling over again and again. With this novel in particular I found myself turning pages back more often than forward. It took me months to finally get to the end. I was less interested in finding out “what happens next”  than in finding out what lovely nuanced phrase I might have missed upon first reading.

When Banville starts describing how Maskell trades in secrets and meets Russians in pubs, action and dialogue begin to take up more of the page, and depictions of Maskell’s thoughts begin to dwindle. What descriptions do appear here (mostly critiques of his friends, associates and lovers) do not ironically undermine the narrator in the way that some of the earlier descriptions (of family) do. This part isn’t as interesting. Others have written about the real life circumstance that inspired this novel.  Some see it as a roman à clef based on the life of a real spy.  I rarely have any interest in whatever reality may be clinging to the roots of fiction. What a good writer keeps from life are those things that seem most artful. The real life of a real spy may have given Banville his plot, but the plot is the least interesting thing about this novel.

In the latter half of the novel, we see how Maskell’s secret homosexuality runs parallel to his secret life as a spy. Both are undertaken more for the illicitness of the performance than for the ultimate ends. Maskell is more motivated by the thrill of hanging out in men’s rooms or in pathetic local pubs than he is by actual pleasure or political change. The plot twist depends upon Maskell’s finding out which of his friends betrayed him.  That revelation in the end is not particularly surprising. The “leading a double life” tie between espionage and homosexuality is trite, if true, and disappointingly, Banville does not take the opportunity to play on the ironies.

I recommend reading the first half of the novel a number of times; the second half, skim.

–V. N. Alexander, author of Smoking Hopes. 

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