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John Banville: The Untouchable

In my review of Ghosts, I said There are two kinds of novelist in the world – those that use the word lambent and those that don’t. After reading this book, I will add another variant. There are two kinds of novelist in the world – those that use the word hoyden and those that don’t. Have you ever said Oh, that girl’s a real hoyden? No, of course you haven’t. You probably think it means something like whore, when in fact the perfectly good English equivalent is tomboy. Banville’s narrator may well be highly educated and well-read but I bet the model for the narrator never used the word hoyden.

Unlike his previous books, this book is a disguised (very thinly disguised but disguised) story of contemporary politics. The narrator, Victor Maskell, is clearly Anthony Blunt with a bit of Louis MacNeice thrown in. Like Blunt, Maskell is one of the Cambridge Spies, is related to the Queen, is an art historian who becomes George VI’s and then Elizabeth II’s art curator and specializes in Poussin, is gay and well educated. Unlike Blunt but like MacNeice, he is Irish, the son of a bishop, has a brother with Down’s syndrome and marries and has children. Wittily, the brother is called Freddie, which was MacNeice’s real first name and is, of course, the first name of his art expert turned criminal in his previous books. As well as his fellow spies, there is a host of other characters who can be more or less identified with real people, including Graham Greene, Alan Turing, Julian Bell, Baron Rothschild, Jim Skardon and others. Indeed part of the conceit, but also part of the fun, of this book is that Maskell indicates that there are far more spies than have been exposed and he identifies them (the fictional ones, of course), leaving us to guess who they were actually based on.

The book once again features a cantankerous, arrogant, self-centred, unpleasant old man. Whatever you may think about Maskell’s spying, he is not a nice person. He mistreats his wife, he ignores his kids, he doesn’t really seem to have much of a motive for his spying (though he does, at least, reject any financial reward for it) and is generally obnoxious. The only affection he has is for a copy of the (fictitious) Death of Seneca by Poussin, which he managed to pick up on the cheap. It clearly takes the place of a household pet and is of more value and concern to him than his son and daughter are. He is telling his story soon after he has been unmasked, when Margaret Thatcher reveals his name in Parliament. While writing down his story he is also talking to a potential biographer whose role is not entirely clear. Maskell does not try to justify his spying. Indeed, he is more concerned with his problems with his gay lovers and with hobnobbing with royalty. He does show occasional concern for the downtrodden, including his Russian contact, who returns to Russia to what is almost certain death. But, unlike Burgess, McLean and Philby, he has no interest in
defecting to Russia. Indeed on his one trip there, he does not like it.

Despite the fact that Maskell is almost as obnoxious as Freddie Montgomery (Banville must have had some problems with art critics in his life), this story is much more interesting than Freddie’s, not least because the spies story is intrinsically more interesting and, of course, trying to identify who is who makes for much more fun. With all the action, which Banville keeps moving all the time, whether it is spying, drunken debauchery, family upheavals, helping out the royal family and the art world, there is never a dull moment.

Publishing history

First published in 1997 by Picador