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A Stylish Account of the Cambridge Spy Ring
on 3 December 2012
Although one of my reasons for reading the novel is that it takes me out of my comfort zone to places where my mind would not normally dwell, I must admit that I did not like the places where John Banville's "The Untouchable" took me. It is not a question that I still harbour a narrow minded view of the novel, rather it was just simply that the world of spies and a Cambridge elite has very little to say to me that I would find interesting.
In The Untouchable, Banville sets out to write a fictionalised account of the Cambridge spy ring in which Anthony Blunt, the person whom the main character Victor Maskell is based on, played a leading part. The narrator, Victor Maskell, aged 72 looks back on his turbulent life by telling his story to a Miss Vandeleur his supposed biographer. In doing so the narration moves back and forth in time seamlessly and is rendered with a wry sense of humour. Maskell's self reflection holds a mirror up for us to see the hypocrisy and sycophancy of himself, his circle of friends and acquaintances. In true auto/biography tradition what is revealed are issues to do with life, family, friendships career.
Deception is obviously a key issue in the novel and even in the current turmoil that Victor is facing, as a result of his past, he still remains deceitful. As he tells his story to Miss Vandeleur he ponders whether he himself is writing a journal, memoir or autobiography. Meanwhile, of course Miss Vandeleur appears to be setting out to write a biography of Victor whom he acknowledges would be upset if she knew she was being pre-empted by his ultimate autobiography. This was a clever move by Banville in setting out his attitude towards his character.
The result is that Victor's dubious character, the ambiguity around his intentions and his attitude towards those he deals with leaves large section of the novel reading like an autobiography itself. Banville creates a very good imagined autobiographical tone but at the end of it all it did not capture my imagination and swept me along. Rather I was left disinterested in the life and times of Victor Maskell.
Nonetheless, as Victor reflects on his life Banville successfully paints a character who is a lonely, ostracised and bitter man. And Victor's consideration of what has happened to him as a result of betraying his country reveals a self centred idealistic character. He wants us to pity him by asking us: "What have I done to be so reviled, in a nation of traitors, who daily betray friends, wives, children, tax inspectors?" He answers his own question by deluding himself, saying: "I think what they find so shocking is that someone - one of their own that is - should actually have held an ideal."
Apart from the fact that I like to finish novels I have started one of the things that kept me going with this novel is that Banville's prose is simply lovely to read and his style is certainly one to admire. He is capable of composing rhythmically well balanced sentences with precise and arresting diction. Here is a typical example where Victor is reminiscing to his erstwhile biographer about how he must have appeared to a Russian contact: "I suspect I exuded a faint odour of sanctity, inherited from a long line of clerical forebears, which Oleg and his like would have mistaken for a sign of zealotry, and which would worry them for they were practical men, and chary of ideology."
The novel is brilliantly referential form fairy tales: "We climbed, the princess Rapunzel and I, through a maze of stone back-staircase and mildewed corridors", to comments on the fine arts. Banville's constant reprise of mentioning the paintings The Death of Seneca by Poussin and The Fall of Jerusalem in which he finds significance was a nice touch. Indeed, perhaps the only thing that endeared me to Victor was his love of the fine arts. Victor's exuberance for art is infectious he tells us: "Art was the only thing in my life that was untainted ... . I know, and who should know better, that art is supposed to teach us to see the world in all its solidity and truth, but in those years it was the possibility of transcendence, even for the space of a quarter of an hour, that I sought after repeatedly, like a prelate returning nightly to the brothel."
If part of Banville's aim was to explode the myths that surrounds characters such as Victor Maskell and bring them down to earth as ordinary, dubious and despicable folks then he succeeded. However, for all that and the novel's elegant prose, its subtle and sometimes telling references, I could not nonetheless help feeling that this novel is not saying much. At the end it amounts to a stylish fictionalised account of the Cambridge ring of the past century.