John Banville


The Untouchable


A roman-à-clef: a novel in which actual persons are presented under fictional names.


I gotta say, I found this pretty tough going.


I haven’t read any other Banville, so I don’t know whether this was typical, but the perspective was, to me, so unsympathetic. I couldn’t find anywhere to relate to the narrator, and the narrator was obsessed with himself. There’s a little self-awareness of this, some slight guilt over how little his parents and brother meant to him (and how little he is prepared to give, or even to acknowledge them), but otherwise others are all minor, almost shadowy figures, only occasionally reflected in more pondering upon himself. Was Banville deliberately painting this as a criticism of Anthony Blunt? (A name I coincidentally stumbled upon in just happening to follow this book with Forsythe’s ‘The Deceiver’ – which has its own fictional fiddle with the Cambridge Five, a group I don’t recall having previously heard of; Forsythe’s aside about the group had unmistakeable resonances, and the consequent glance at Wikipedia gave me a clearer picture of what Banville had kept and what he’d manufactured – such as the Irish background. I also got to learn the funky term: ‘roman-à-clef’: a novel in which actual persons are presented under fictional names). Or is that my own reaction, and other readers would have responded differently? I just can’t see his motivations – he seems to have, for example, the most perfunctory feelings for his own wife and children; the closest he seems to get to emotion is occasional lust or his Poussin painting (by ‘he’ I absolutely mean Banville’s character ‘Victor’ as opposed to Blunt – I don’t know whether this book reveals much at all about Anthony Blunt’s actual character or motivations. It might, but I haven’t done the research to know). His complete indifference at causing a violent, sudden suicide is utterly appalling – he appears devoid of a shred of empathy (is Banville going, “’The Untouchable,’ duh, do you want me to spell it out – I already have). I couldn’t begin to grasp why he risked so much to spy for Russia: surely this could only come from caring deeply about something beyond yourself, or beyond mere intellectualising. Yet his Marxism includes not a jot of compassion for those in poverty or suffering exploitation. Alternatively he may have had some deep hatred of the system he betrayed – but this book gives no evidence of this; rather he has a generally vague, but sometimes acute contempt for pretty much everyone. Was spying the ultimate private club, “Ha, I am so far above/beyond the rest of you”?


Banville’s style is fluid, if verbose – and, again, not having read other books of his I’m not sure if this is Banville or Banville’s version of the educated voice of pseudo-Blunt. As material, these are fascinating times and events, but I couldn’t get past the stifling myopic egotism of the narrator. From the Wikipedia article I get the impression that the Cambridge Five occupy a special place in certain British literary circles – maybe this book is chock full of insider references to this special place that were always going to go right by me. Was it one written primarily for the critics?


April 2012


PS: I’ll just attach an embarrassingly long comment I made on Michael Battaglia’s perceptive and articulate amazon review, which, among other things, explores Maskell’s motivations:


I was also perplexed in trying to find viable motivations for Maskell -and this review is probably as close as I've come. I found some real insight in lines like:

"Or does he do it for the same reason a lot of us do things that turn out to be bad ideas later: because you make one poor decision and it just happens to snowball from there, until you reach a point where all the obvious choices have become the terrible ones, but you're unable to tell the difference anymore."

Resonates with a line from a Dave Graney 'N' The Coral Snakes song:

"...You’re a slave to a unnameable half forgotten ambition...."

which really struck me when I first heard it - and has remained with me, remembered as:

"...a slave to a half forgotten, almost unknowable ambition..."

As I think about it now, it's comforting that today the line doesn't feel as pertinent as it has previously. I wonder how much is to do with the passing of youth - moving away from that Adrian Mole state where you're certain you *are* the main character, somehow more important than everyone else, that your actions matter more. The process through angst that maybe you're not as significant as you assumed, and then hopefully making your peace with that. Maskell never seems to escape the walls of his ego, arrested in that childish Piagetian stage where you really can't imagine an alternate perspective (you definitely can't care about it anyway).


And your last paragraph is a killer:

Victor Maskell is apparently based on the life of Russian spy Anthony Blunt, part of an infamous spy ring. But it leaps into something more here, people who are dependent on secrets, no matter how important or what the cost. When Maskell complains about the legalization of homosexuality ruining the fun of it for him, in a way it tells us everything we need to know. There's a thrill in not being found out, but only on your own terms. Banville gives us a century that was only hidden to the people who never noticed that everyone who cared was paying attention to what they were doing, and the grand dramas they created, dancing in what they thought were shadows, was merely a cover created by their own egos and visions. They danced like no one was watching, even while they kept looking out with one eye just in case someone was.”

Way more poignant and articulate, however, than anything I found in Banville's novel. You found Vincent fascinating enough to sustain you. I found 400 pages dwelling in this emptiness way too many. Insightful, perhaps, but lingering and bloating on the same point, denuding and obscuring rather than enhancing and focusing its impact. Meanwhile the company was unpleasant in itself, and even interesting events were polluted through Maskell's interpretation. Sure there are pleasures in 'the unreliable narrator', but it's not enough for me on its own – unless I can enjoy the company. Looking at the recommendations Amazon throws up around this book – Ian McEwan, Kuzuo Ishigiro – I suspect (as with these authors) I might enjoy (or even relish) him in some contexts, but find in others (like ‘Untouchable’) he gives way too much licence to lingering detail, turning an engaging trip to a potent destination into a tedious and unpleasant journey that doesn’t end so much as peter out.


Hey, since I’m being so hypocritical in bloating my own comment, I’ll also add the whole text of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll is where I hide’, the song I referred to earlier, which on rereading has a surprising level of way more succinct resonance, even down to overt spy references towards the end:


Oh I should tell you
About my power
About my mysterious kink
I used to go about
Fully believing
I was invisible

The legendary
Invisible rock singer
I would open my mouth and speak forth
No blues no news just hey mate, yeah you over here, boo
Just for a moment
I would materialise

People started to talk
Started to talk about this
Legendary mysterious loud mouth invisible rock singer cowboy
I began to act cool
Come back
Even though I wasn’t meaning to

People began to come and see this invisible loud mouth rock singer cowboy
You know soon
People would sit behind me at cafes and say, “He thinks he’s invisible, watch,”
Jees you know I hate to keep em waiting I tried my best I got quite upset

Then I thought
Ahh it’s not such a bad thing
To be seen as a guy who thinks he can’t be seen
Even though I know I can
It’s quite a trick

I mean in certain circumstances certain places
Anything goes if you're known
If you’ve got a name around town as a guy who’ll do anything if nobody’s looking
But if any body’s looking
‘Cause they think he thinks he can’t be seen
I mean they scare

Like they think I can’t see em
It’s like I’m blind
Like I’m invisible
Ah you know soon

Everybody’s looking
Because they think I think nobody’s looking
So I can’t not be seen so I’m not looking at them I know exactly where they are

And even if I was they couldn’t see me because they’re too busy waiting for me to dematerialise right there in front of them

What a place to hide
I mean say you were a spy
An undercover man
Somebody on the run
What better place to disappear
What a cover
A lead singer in a rock and roll band

You’re poor
You’re stoned
You’re a slave to a unnameable half forgotten ambition
You’re just another guy on the lost highway
A ramblin’ man
A pirate of love
A rider on the range

A seventh son of a seventh son
A love rustler
A desperado
A bastard right royal historically entitled to be bad

The man in black Jon the conqueroo the worlds forgotten boy
Meat man Mr blues

The velvet fog the silver fox the little cloud that cried
The best dressed chicken in town