Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Untouchable, by John Banville

A fictional memoir based on a real-life spy, brilliant literary fiction with a gay flair but not much excitement.

The Untouchable

Macmillan, 1997, 416 pages

Victor Maskell has been betrayed. After the announcement in the Commons, the hasty revelation of his double life of wartime espionage, his photograph is all over the papers. His disgrace is public, his position as curator of the Queen’s pictures terminated… Maskell writes his own testament, in an act not unlike the restoration of one of his beloved pictures, in order for the process of verification and attribution to begin.

John Banville is a prestigious literary author whose talent for crafting dense, lyrical prose is undeniable, but whose stories are very much a matter of taste. This puts him, to my mind, in the company of the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, and Haruki Murakami.

I was sufficiently impressed by his writing in The Sea to be willing to try him again, though I didn't really enjoy The Sea. So after I read a books1001 review of The Untouchable, I thought maybe a spy thriller would be more to my liking. Literary spy thrillers are a particular favorite of mine.

I highly recommend reading the above-linked review, as it's quite a thorough one and phys2b liked The Untouchable a lot more than I did. I found it to be much like The Sea: a richly-characterized novel about a fairly unlikable person, in which not much happens despite the fact that it's about a spy ring operating throughout World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.

By "not much happens," I mean there aren't really any twists or turns in the story to engage the reader's suspense. Victor Maskell, the narrator, is giving a retrospective account of his life (to a young woman who is to write his biography), trying to burnish his reputation a bit without being at all apologetic about the fact that he was a Soviet spy for decades. Starting out as an idealistic young Marxist college student (back when, as he puts it, "everyone had to be either a Marxist or a Fascist in those days"), he is recruited by the Russians just before the outbreak of World War II. During the war, he and his friends are working for British intelligence and passing secrets to the Soviets. When the war ends, he maintains contact with his Soviet handler, even as moves into the upper ranks of English society, becoming a renowned art historian and a confidante of the queen herself.

Eventually, he drops out of the spy game altogether; the Russians do actually let him walk away, or so he thinks. But eventually, his role as a long-time double-agent is exposed, and he is disgraced, stripped of his knighthood, and left with bittersweet memories and an awkwardly distant family.

Patrick had all the best qualities of a wife, and was blessedly lacking in two of the worst: he was neither female, nor fertile. I ask myself in these days of protest and the pursuit of so-called liberation if women fully realize how deeply, viscerally, sorrowfully, men hate them.

Much of this roman à clef has to do with Maskell's homosexuality. He speaks frankly and in almost-but-not-quite graphic detail about his discovery of his taste for dick. He really, really likes dick. He talks about it a lot. He is not a shamefully closeted homosexual; he is a happily closeted one. He revels in his queerness, much as he revels in the simultaneous thrill of being a closeted double-agent.

Everybody nowadays disparages the 1950s, saying what a dreary decade it was—and they are right, if you think of McCarthyism, and Korea, the Hungarian rebellion, all that serious historical stuff; I suspect, however, that it is not public but private affairs that people are complaining of. Quite simply, I think they did not get enough of sex. All that fumbling with corsetry and woollen undergarments, all those grim couplings in the back seats of motor cars. The complaints and tears and resentful silences, while the wireless crooned callously of everlasting love— faugh! what dinginess! what soul-sapping desperation! The best that could be hoped for was a shabby deal marked by the exchange of a cheap ring, followed by a life of furtive relievings on one side and of ill-paid prostitution on the other. Whereas— O my friends! — to be queer was very bliss. The Fifties was the last great age of queerdom. All the talk now is of freedom and pride (pride!), but these young hotheads in their pink bell-bottoms, clamouring for the right to do it in the streets if they feel like it, do not seem to appreciate, or at least seem to wish to deny, the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear. At night before I went out cottaging I would have to spend an hour downing jorums of gin to steady my nerves and steel myself for the perils that lay ahead. The possibility of being beaten up, robbed, infected with disease, was as nothing compared with the prospect of arrest and public disgrace. And the higher one had climbed in society, the farther one would fall.

The risks he speaks of are not overstated — Alan Turing, the renowned mathematician who was so vital to Britain's codebreaking efforts during the war, was criminally prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, and sentenced to chemical castration, which drove him to suicide.

There are many layers to Maskell's story, who is a fictionalized version of real-life spy Anthony Blunt. He's a complicated man and Banville masterfully weaves historical fact with fiction, making Maskell's memoir realistic and vivid. But he's really not a very likable man, even aside from the spying for the Russians, and his memoir reads like what it is, an old man looking back on a life with regrets and reminisces. Being bereft of either sympathetic characters or gripping plot, this book just didn't make me a Banville fan, even if I do admire his craftsmanship.

But if you want to know the real story...

The Untouchable is based on the infamous Cambridge Spies, with Victor Maskell being a fictionalized version of Anthony Blunt, and the other four real-life spies also having fictional counterparts in this book.

Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977)

Philby, Burgess and Maclean

This 70s docudrama about three of the Cambridge spies is not very sensationalized, and portrays the double-agent game as it is, a grimey, unglamorous subculture inhabited by grimey little men who mostly spend their lives in fear of the moment when their cover will be blown. Although the cast was made up of veteran British actors, making it a better production than it deserved to be, as a movie it was pretty dull, and without the historical background (and some interest in the story behind it), it's really not worth watching.

Cambridge Spies (2003)

Cambridge Spies

This was a 6-episode BBC miniseries about the Cambridge spy ring, involving all of the named historical figures and quite a few minor ones. Being longer and more dramatic, there are probably a few more liberties taken with the strict historical account and interpretations of each character's role. Not having read that much about it, I won't vouch for its accuracy, but it's a fairly interesting period drama covering the 30s to the 60s, which notably gives Americans a rather larger role (mostly as foils). The emphasis in this production is on class warfare, which is the driving motivation for a bunch of upper-class Cambridge lads to become Marxists, a few of them then becoming active agents of the USSR.

This was a decent if not particularly memorable drama, worth seeing if you have an interest in the story.

Verdict: I remain lukewarm about most literary fiction, and decidedly lukewarm about John Banville, who writes circles around most genre writers but fails to give me characters I care about or a story that engages. This fictional memoir is a finely-crafted piece of historicized fiction, and Banville is a writer to study and appreciate for his gifts, but even though I like spy stories, I was left admiring but not enjoying The Untouchable.

Also by John Banville: My review of The Sea.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, john banville, literary, movies, netflix, reviews

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