John Banville, “The Untouchable”

I suppose this is electronic serendipity. Stuck in a waiting-room somehow without a book, I went to Amazon to order what I thought was going to be the new Benjamin Black murder mystery. I thought maybe I’d recovered enough strength after the darkness of Christine Falls to attempt a revisit with the nasty Irish pathologist Quirke. I saw that The Untouchable had been highly rated, and bought it.  Quirke did not appear at first. We were in London in the late 1970s. The narrator was clearly based on the spy Anthony Blunt. I thought this might be yet another Banville/Black production: why not a murder mystery around the scandal of the upper-class English spies?

But then something about the pacing gave it away — this was a straight novel. One I would probably not have embarked on without the little tiny Amazon/iPhone mixup. It’s an uncomfortable read. The Blunt character, here called Victor Maskell, is so tricky, so full of self-loathing, so deeply unreliable — and he drinks so very much! Ultimately the novel is more about levels of deception than about spies. Or rather, Banville uses spies to ruminate on deception. But lord, he’s cold! With Le Carré, you’re still aware of a deeply romantic sensibility; his characters believe in something, even if they know it’s hopeless. Maskell is a chilly mortal, for whom one pose is as good as the next and whose greatest attachment is to a painting he believes to be a Poussin.

A word on the booze: nobody in fiction seems to drink for fun any more. I’ve never read so many detailed descriptions of hangovers than in this book, and even the legendary London parties of the 1930s sound terribly distressing. The characters swill everything from warm beer to slivovitz almost dutifully, as if knocking back gritty foul-tasting nutritional supplements. What ever happened to the martini-shaking glee of the Thin Man movies?

Banville doesn’t relish the spycraft the way Le Carré does (and I do, for that matter), so this is less a matter of legends and dead letter drops than of slippery relationships. Because, of course, Blunt/Maskell didn’t exactly spy alone. He’s part of a network of men, highly placed in the British establishment, who fed material to Russia starting in the 1930s. Banville folds another level of deception into his narrator’s character by making him gay, so really, the man’s identity is a funhouse mirror. And I have to say, Banville manages really well with the unreliability and odiousness of this particular character. The man is a complete toad. The only reason to keep reading is the prose.

As in: a wonderful scene set at Dunkirk. As in: the ironic, showy detachment of the narration. “If not a Hun, I thought, then Austrian, surely — somewhere German-speaking, at any rate; all that gloom and soulfulness could only be the result of an upbringing among compound words.” As in endless brilliant word choices: a boat nosing its way “intently” toward a pier; Picasso’s “mighty maenads.” I won’t be ready for another one of his books for a while, though, even if it really is a murder mystery.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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