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The Art of the Spy: John Banville’s Untouchable


ISSUE:  Autumn 1998
The Untouchable. By John Banville. Knopf. $25. 00.

In the current rage for memoir and documentary adventure, it is easy to forget the seeming paradox that fiction, when masterfully written, can always journey closest to the truth. It can also travel inward to irrelevance, and the Irish writer John Banville’s three previous novels—all lustrous, recalcitrant displays of verbosity and intellect, the vaguely sinister texts of a small cult of fans—seemed to be heading, albeit intriguingly, in that direction. In retrospect, however, it is tempting to see them as a series of studies for the large-scale masterpiece of The Untouchable, a brilliant, satisfying novel based on fact that reminds us why fiction is a matter of life and death as much as the scaling of any summit, the navigation of any storm at sea.

In The Untouchable, Banville has found his ideal story, one that matches his singular obsessions to the narrative voice he has mastered in his previous work. His new novel should not be read as just another book about the Cambridge spies, of which there are plenty; nevertheless, its narrator does bear much more than a passing resemblance to Anthony Blunt, the British art historian and scholar of Poussin who was outed by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 as one of the circle that included Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, and Donald MacLean. It’s interesting to wonder what it would be like to read this novel without any prior knowledge of the Cambridge spies, but the question is ultimately leading: exploiting the historical record has provided Banville with ballast while allowing him to add yet another level of allusiveness on which to play his fascinating head games. After all, the espionage novel, that somewhat debased progeny of Conrad, has always drawn on historical forces to power its readers through labyrinthine, often downright obfuscatory, plots. This historical grounding, not to mention the discipline of plot, rescues The Untouchable from some of the annoying digressions that easily tempt a writer of Banville’s prodigious stylistic abilities, and fondness for narrative poseurs.

“I mustn’t ramble,” his narrator tellingly cautions himself, early in the book.

A failed mathematician and scholar-aesthete who doubles as a Russian agent, this narrator, Blunt’s fictional alterego Victor Maskell, embodies the tensions that have animated much of Banville’s recent fiction, among them the slippery relationship between art and reality, the interaction of layers of memory, the seductive quality of transgression, and sex as an imperfect expression of emotion and identity. The question of why the double life attracts, and how the anti-Fascist Cambridge Five could keep spying for the Soviet Union even after “Uncle Joe” Stalin made his notorious pact with Hitler, runs through The Untouchable, tempering brilliant asides on the nature of art and life. On the surface, Maskell begins to write his confession to discover the person who ratted him out, but he, and Banville, are after bigger game: “Neither do I want to fashion for myself yet another burnished mask,” insists Maskell. “Having pondered for a moment; I realise that the metaphor is obvious: attribution, verification, restoration. I shall strip away layer after layer of grime—the toffee-coloured varnish and caked soot left by a lifetime of dissembling—until I come to the very thing itself and know it for what it is. My soul. My self.” The voice is exquisite, if sometimes frustratingly opaque: it mirrors perfectly Banville’s talent for sentences that stun you with their beauty, only to reveal themselves suddenly as lies. The metaphor of authenticity may seem obvious, the audience for his confession—a young woman biographer who shows up after his disgrace—suspiciously convenient, but the complexity of plot and the subtly hued pigments of Maskell’s self, wedded to an orchestration of narrative equal to Nabokov or Joyce, allow Banville to push the opacity of his unreliable narrator to the edge.

His three previous novels, what Banville has called a “triptych” (in an interview with Susannah Hunnewell printed in The New York Times Book Review, Nov. 28, 1993), do not entirely escape the self-indulgence that often results from such narrative experimentation. Beginning with The Book of Evidence (Scribner’s, 1989), this triptych shares with the new novel a finely tuned but vastly dissembling first person narration by an art connoissuer turned criminal. Freddie Montgomery’s taste for the seedy and exquisite leads him to murder the maid of a wealthy acquaintance as he is stealing the man’s painting, a Dutch portrait of a woman in black. The dead maid’s similarity in age and appearance is the first of numerous examples of doubling, which anticipate Victor Maskell’s double, or as he says, “quintuple” life. The suspense of Montgomery’s crime and eventual capture controls his disgressive tendencies, quickening the plot, but the overheated conception of the latter two panels of the triptych, Ghosts (Knopf, 1993) and Athena (Knopf, 1995), allows Freddie far too much room to ramble.

Ghosts, which owes a great deal to “The Tempest,” is largely a fantasy conceived by the unnamed narrator who is, the clues tell us, a paroled Montgomery. “I had some unwillingness to acknowledge it was him,” Banville told the Times on the book’s publication, “but of course it is. . . I suppose he sounds like the voice in my head.” The story mostly takes place in the, well. . .head of that putatively first person narrator, a supematurally acute observer who achieves a daring ominiscience through his overactive imagination; suffice it to say that the story involves a forgery, a con man, a reclusive art historian, and a ravished young woman after whom Freddie lusts. Her reality, however, flummoxes him, and it is tempting in retrospect to read Freddie’s failure to act against Victor Maskell’s own, different, failing: “Sometimes the chill thought strikes me that the risks I took, the dangers I exposed myself to . . ., were only a substitute for some more simple, much more authentic form of living that was beyond me. Yet if I had not stepped into the spate of history, what would I have been? A dried-up scholar, fussing over nice questions of attribution.”

Athena involves just that—a paroled Freddie’s cataloguing of a stash of stolen, maybe fake, paintings. In the midst of this work he becomes obsessed with another young woman, who happens to resemble the murdered maid. Although she is lovingly and stunningly described right down to her genitalia, the novel wanders so much in the course of its seduction that I, for one, began to wonder if old Freddie, who has by this time adopted an alias, were still in prison with nothing but a notebook, a dictionary, and a sophisticated fantasy life. This may be the point, and Banville’s prose is so sinuous, his evocation of weather, light, faces, so palpable, that it is tempting to let him take you wherever he finds it interesting to go. As he told the Times:

[Ghosts and Athena] are, in one way, an investigation of the way in which the imagination works. We think that we’re seeing what is before us, but in fact the imagination is constantly choosing bits of scenes and elaborating them into what we think of as reality . . . . I’ve always been interested in the relationship between the reader and the text. The reader believes absolutely in the reality he’s reading about, while at the same time knowing that it’s fiction—in other words, very well-wrought, convoluted lies.

He undoubtedly addresses his thematic intentions, but is the result satisfying for the object of his experiment, the poor reader wriggling on the tip of his virtuosic pen? The ambiguity between the levels of real and imagined lends a poignancy to the narrative, a longing for lived experience and genuine emotion, but that poignancy often lies outside the trilogy’s characters; it’s hard not to get frustrated, to ask if it all adds up to more than the work of bloated philosophy that Freddie Montgomery swears he has it in him to write. What’s needed, it seems, is the simple thriller plot that rescues The Book of Evidence, to remind the prodigal Banville that these are novels he’s chosen to write. To paraphrase Forster: it tells a story, goddamn it.

Imagine Banville’s elation when he stumbled upon, or rediscovered, the career of Anthony Blunt. Here was, in the author’s own words (published in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Oct. 11, 1997) “a man who believed style was everything.” Blunt represented a prism for Banville’s aesthetic, and he just happened to stand at the center of one of the great spy stories of all time. The end of the Soviet Union brought truckloads of new information about the Cambridge Five, and Banville undoubtedly found his way from Blunt to Victor Maskell partly through this spate of books, among them retired Russian spymaster Yuri Modin’s My Five Cambridge Friends (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1997). Modin’s engrossing and gracefully written account of his tenure as KGB resident in London in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s provides tantalizing anecdotes about the exploits of the Cambridge spies. He writes triumphantly of the role that information passed by Cairncross played in the Russian victory in the horrific tank battle at Kursk, and Banville gives credit for the same intelligence coup to Maskell in The Untouchable. Modin is also the source for some colorful secondary characters, among them Banville’s brilliant creation Felix Hartmann, a composite of several Russian handlers who, along with Alastair Sykes, the loose fictional twin of Cairncross, recruits young Victor at Cambridge.

The scene is written as a seduction, the first example of Banville’s connection between the world of espionage and homosexual life. Again, the analogy may appear obvious, but Maskell’s rendering of the dangerous, seedy landscapes, internal and external, of clandestine behavior transcend the schematic. Subsequent meetings between Maskell and Hartmann, with whom Maskell falls a bit in love, each have the sensual quality of trysts: “His car was an unexpectedly fancy model, low and sleek with spoked wheels and worryingly eager-looking globe headlights, over the chrome cheeks of which, as we approached, our curved reflections slid, rippling amid a speckle of raindrops.” The adventures of Boy Bannister, Banville’s brilliant alterego for the witty, promiscuous Burgess, are suitably outrageous, and Maskell’s own account of his first gay experience, set while bombs are falling on London, is a graphic testimony to his creator’s dramatic instinct.

The historical epoch is equally sharp, etched in physical, social, and mental terrain. Banville himself wasn’t born until 1945, but his evocation of the Blitz and of the years before the war is cinematic as viewed through Maskell’s acute, often willful, detachment:

London that autumn had an abstracted, provisional air; the atmosphere was hectic and hollow, like that of the last day of school term, or the closing half-hour of a drunken party. People would drift off into silence in the middle of a sentence and look up at the tawny sunlight in the windows and sigh. The streets were like stage-sets, scaled down, two-dimensional, their bustle and busyness tinged with the pathos of something set in motion only so that it might be violently halted. The squawks of news-vendors had an infernal ring—cockney chirpiness has always grated on my nerves. At evening the sunset glare in the sky above the roofs seemed the afterglow of a vast conflagration.

During the Blitz itself, Querell, a slippery, repellent version of Graham Greene, is “the very personification of the times: embittered, tense, offhand, amusingly despairing, older than his, or our, years.”

Maskell dislikes him intensely: “His Catholicism was as incomprehensible to me as he claimed my Marxism was to him; though each was a believer, neither could credit the other’s faith. Yet there was a bond of some sort between us.”

Greene himself had little to do with the Cambridge spies, and his connection to British (and in Banville’s version, Soviet) intelligence is a matter of continuing debate, but it is in the realm of mysterious bonds between writer and spy that fictional license takes over from history. While Greene may not have spent much time with Anthony Blunt, Banville sets his own narrator opposite Querell to explore his central theme:

Now this is difficult; this is the nub of the matter, in a way. It is hard for anyone who has not given himself wholeheartedly to a belief. . .to appreciate how the believer’s conscious mind can separate itself into many compartments containing many, conflicting, dogmas. These are not sealed compartments; they are like the cells of a battery (I think this is how a battery works), over which the electrical charge plays, leaping from one cell to another, gathering force and direction as it goes. You put in the acid of world-historical necessity and the distilled water of pure theory and connect up your points and with a flash and a shudder the patched-together monster of commitment, sutures straining and ape brow clenched, rises in jerky slow motion from Dr. Diabolo’s operating table.

It may be amusing, as Maskell would say, to ferret out where The Untouchable cleaves to the facts. But where it diverges, in the cracks where the novelist’s craft intervenes, it is possible to view Banville’s central concern, how the 20th century has made a monster from the alchemy of art and belief.

And for all the brilliant composites or recreations of actual people in The Untouchable, the best characters Banville made out of whole cloth. Nick and Vivienne Brevoort, friend and wife, respectively, of Maskell, hold the novel together where working entirely from life would have fractured it. Speculation on Banville’s source for this near-mythical brother and sister could range from Kim Philby to Graham Greene’s wife, also called Vivien, but their role in the novel is Banville’s creation alone. Maskell’s obsession with Nick Brevoort, known as the “Beaver,” prefigures his homosexuality and leads him to marry Nick’s sister: “In my poor fuddled vision, brother and sister seemed to merge and separate and merge again, dark on dark and pale on glimmering pale, Pierrot and Pierrette.” Here Banville’s instinct for doubling as a device to reveal sexual identity, which grinds rather obviously in the trilogy, gains power in the form of two breathing, indelible characters. It would take away one of the book’s great pleasures to let slip the role that Nick and Vivienne play in its finale, but the last pages offer enough twists for ten spy novels, all of them satisfying.

These final revelations are indicative of the strengths of the work as a whole: they provide pleasure for the reader while exposing deeper currents of meaning and character; they put forth Banville’s grassy knoll theory, if you will, about the Cambridge spies; and they bring into high relief the novel’s view of the English upper class as a weak fulcrum in the fight between communism and fascism. It was the Establishment’s own hypocrisy and cronyism, the novel seems to say, that allowed the Cambridge Five to operate undetected for so long. If these revelations—which include, in a way, MaskelPs final act—seem to answer too neatly the nagging questions that arise from the intricate structure of the narrative, even if Banville’s pet theory seems like something out of Oliver Stone, The Untouchable, like any lustrous work of art, is ultimately a closed system, which refracts its author’s vision of the world. The only discordant note in an account like Yuri Modin’s is the insistence that he was better positioned than anyone else to interpret the actions and motives of our violent century’s most successful spies. Fiction, which by definition lacks the emphatic, embattled desire to be accurate, reaches something close to truth with its careful arrangement of lies: this, above all, is what Banville’s novel reminds us.

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