By John Banvill
368 pages
New York: Vintage Books, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-76747-9

Comments of Bob Corbett
May 2004

John Banville’s marvelous roman a clef is the thinly disguised story of the life and work of real-life Anthony F. Blunt (1907-1983), a member of the famous Cambridge spies of World War II. In the novel he is Victor (Vic) Maskell and the tale is set in 1979 when Vic has been exposed (but not arrested) as a former Russian/Soviet spy and is having difficulty in coming to terms with his notoriety.

Vic is both a spy and a close student and supporter of Marx, with his notion of a communist person, and the Russian attempt to found such a utopian society. However, neither Vic nor any of the other Cambridge spies have any illusions about Russia and Stalin, neither of the 1930s or the 1950s. The theory is attractive, but the reality lags sadly behind. Vic can be very cynical about their own status as communists.

“"If I were a Communist," he said, "I shouldn't bother with theory at all. I should think only of strategy: how to get things done. I'd use whatever means come to hand-lies, blackmail, murder and mayhem, whatever it takes. You're all idealists pretending to be pragmatists. You think you care only for the cause while really the cause is only something to lose yourselves in, a way to cancel the ego. It's half religion and half Romanticism. Marx is your St. Paul, and your Rousseau."

Unlike the naďve communist who believes with religious fervor in the perfectibility of the individual, Vic has a less utopian view:

“Man is only loveable in the multitude and at a good distance.”

I do enjoy Vic’s aloofness and cynicism. Even the pretense of importance that his crowd had of themselves, including Vic himself, is needled by him in his clearer moments. “They were discussing the gold standard or the state of Italian politics, something like that. Small talk on huge topics.”

Banville’s novel is in the form of a first person meditation/memory of what he has told and will tell Serena Vandeleur, a young woman supposedly writing a book about his life. In Vic’s mind he is writing his own book. And a wonderful book it is. At the time of the novel Vic is 72 year old, retired, a successful art critic and curator, friend of the royal family, elegant and suave bon vivant, and a quite active but discrete homosexual. After the exposure of his past life as a spy he is stripped of his knighthood and dropped from the social register. He is hurt, frustrated and a bit mystified as to how to continue on with his life. A burning question of his reflection is: Who is it who betrayed me?

Little by little Vic reveals himself to us readers. Born into a comfortable family, son of an Irish Protestant bishop, Vic went to Cambridge in the 1920s. Infatuated with Marxism and dreaming of a new world in which the communist man became the model for human being, he belonged to the Apostles, a group of wealthy and well-connected Cambridge students and faculty with similar political interests, and of whom a sizeable portion also seemed to share his homosexual leanings.

He slowly drifted into the role of formal spy, a bit later than some of his colleagues, and his star began to rise when, after Cambridge, he was given a position to catalogue parts of the art collection of the British royal family, becoming a friend of the prince, and resident of Buckingham Palace. Further he was distantly related to the queen.

Many members of the Apostles worked in British Intelligence during the war, actually playing an important role FOR British intelligence, while continuing at the same time to spy for Russia. Just after the war Vic was given a sensitive task to go to the palace of a German relative of the British royal family to retrieve some very sensitive personal documents. We never learn anything about these documents other than that Vic retrieved them deceiving the American overseers at the same time, and that he read and knew the contents of these documents.

Shortly after this trip to Bavaria he ceases his work as a spy and becomes a quite successful art critic and runs a prestigious art institute. He marries, and even though he and his wife have two children, they seldom live together. Before many years into the marriage they drift apart. This separation is exacerbated by Vic’s growing manifestation of his homosexuality and his wife’s rather easy acceptance of the separation.

Eventually we learn that he has been betrayed twice, but this whole episode is never made very clear by Banville, as though he didn’t much care about the details. In the first denunciation there is, evidently, no public notice at all. He is called in; confronted with clear evidence of his spying past, but he pulls the trump card of what he knows about the royal family, demanding all further discussion be dropped. British Intelligence is quite aware that he is no longer active as a spy and not likely to be harmful to British interests. Later on, in 1979, he is uncovered again, and while it has clearly become public and there are the ramifications I mention above, no formal actions seem to have been taken toward him, nor do there seem to be any in the making. Nonetheless, being publicly confronted, de-knighted, stripped of his institute, he feels his life has been ruined and he even contemplates suicide, but not so seriously. This inner battle suggest somewhat of an irony in Banville’s title. Vic was, indeed, “untouchable” as the title suggests, at least in terms of a prison sentence or worse, but he certain was not untouchable in his inner life. The impact of his expose was a significant crisis in his life.

Early in the novel Ms. Vandeleur enters the scene declaring her interest in doing a book on Vic and he sort of cooperates and doesn’t cooperate. He at first says he’ll have nothing to do with her, and we never really know just how much of this reflection he ever shares with her, but he does seem to become resolved to the fact of her book, and under the appearance of thinking about what she should hear, he tells the story we read. It turns out that Ms. Vandeleur isn’t quite who she says, but I’ll leave that plot twist undeveloped.

Banville’s writing is simply masterful. Vic unveils his story with marvelous suspense even though, in some sense, we know key essential ending details from the earliest pages. What is most slowly revealed is the WHO of the two different denunciations, one is no surprise and the other rather startling.

Another part of the brilliance of Banville’s writing is the way Vic deals with homosexuality. It’s all so easy and natural. One even has the sense there are virtually no straight folks in the world. Vic’s world is a world of women, children and gay men; it’s as though the heterosexual male doesn’t exist though a few bi-sexual men are around. It was all so well done by Banville, never raised to the level of “an issue,” just a natural part of Vic’s world. I was very impressed with Banville’s manner of creating and presenting this part of Vic’s life.

John Banville is a serious and exceptionally talented writer. This novel is suspenseful, philosophical, literary, intriguing and sent me rushing to learn more about the Apostles and the Cambridge spies – generally wonderful writing and a gripping story. Yet Vic himself is aware that his life is rather extraordinary, especially the spying and homosexuality. At one point he says: “Art was the only things in my life that was not tainted.”

I must allow Banville one sort of fetish – his attraction to an extremely arcane vocabulary. It’s as though he delights in using words which are likely to send the most literate of readers scurrying to the dictionary as he did me on several occasions. I sort of enjoyed it as well as I did his other word games that abound in The Untouchable. I especially loved his: ““If I may be allowed the oxymoron, profoundly frivolous.”

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Bob Corbett