The Untouchable is a complex, intriguing novel that extends and further develops concerns John Banville has explored in previous works (The Book of Evidence, 1989; Ghosts, 1993; and Athena, 1995). This is the first novel to follow the Freddy Morrow trilogy, and here Banville turns his attention to a fictional reworking of Sir Anthony Blunt’s exposure as a spy in 1979. Victor Maskell is another of Banville’s reflective, self-regarding narrators who uses the narrative to explain and rationalize his actions.
The novel opens immediately after Maskell has been identified by the “PM” (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) in the House of Commons. Although he avoids reporters, he does grant a series of interviews to Serena Vandeleur, a writer preparing a book on Morrow’s exploits who seeks an explanation as to why Blunt spied for the Russians, an answer that he consistently evades.
A vain, self-involved man, Maskell writes not so much to confess as to compete with others who would define and describe his life. Son of a Northern Ireland bishop, he attended Cambridge in the 1930’s where he flirted with Marxist ideology and eventually joined some fellow students in becoming a spy, a word he particularly despises because he refuses to see himself as adventuresome or daring.
He recalls his college days, his journey to Russia, spying during World War II, his development as a scholar of Nicolas Poussin’s art, his marriage into the influential Breevort family, and his immersion in the gay lifestyle of his era. For all of his successes and influence, Maskell is an oddly unambitious figure who describes himself as “in remission all my life.” He often finds himself in life-altering situations as a result of impetuous or dubious decisions. He joins the cell of future spies despite the fact that he does not believe in the Soviet Union nor in the perfectibility of the workers’ condition, proposes to Vivienne Breevort, knowing he does not love her and certainly does not want a family, and maintains a lifelong acquaintance with the novelist Querell while always disliking him. His chief attribute is his capacity for dissembling: “I am a great actor, that is the secret of my success.”
During the war he works for the British Secret Service in the code-breaking center at Bletchley Park, all the while feeding vital information to the Russians. After the war, because of his accomplishments as an art scholar and connections with the royal family, he is placed in charge of cataloging the royal art holdings, knighted, and awarded a sinecure as Keeper of the Royal Pictures. He assiduously avoids his family in Ireland and his wife and children in England while he devotes himself to art, his gay relationships, and a life of privileged irresponsibility. Life is a game or entertainment, and when he is exposed and stripped of these privileges, Maskell continues to play a game with Vandeleur and the reader, teasing with halfhearted excuses and motives for his actions.
As in previous novels, art and artistic appreciation are central to an understanding of Banville’s latest work. In The Book of Evidence, for instance, the protagonist kills a housemaid while stealing a painting, and in Athena the same protagonist is inducted into a world of crime when he is commissioned to catalog some paintings by Flemish artists. Similarly, Maskell is another self-proclaimed authority on art and a devotee of aesthetic bliss. Also like Freddy Morrow, Maskell loses his connection with life as he immerses himself fully in his artistic passions.
Early in the narrative he tells Vandeleur that “Art was all that ever mattered to me,” warning her and the reader that any sense of devotion or duty is subservient to his dedication to aesthetic perfection, the one realm where order is achievable. In fact, his greatest sense of loyalty is to Poussin’s The Death of Seneca, which he purchased in his youth. No matter where he goes or the vicissitudes of his life, Maskell stands in awe of that work, describing and evaluating its every nuance. When he learns that the Spanish Brigades have been defeated by Franco, he does not pause in his study of another Poussin painting and even comments that the “two events, the real and the depicted, were equally far off from me in antiquity.”
He continually sees himself and others in artistic terms—he, a latter-day Seneca as interpreted by Poussin, and others as caricatures, worthy of scorn, derision, or lofty tolerance. One explanation for his treason issues from his putative belief that most art criticism is fascist because it is comparative, whereas Marxist art will “emphasise the progressive elements in art.” Maskell often uses the word “amusing” to describe signal events, not because of their humorous...
(The entire section is 1984 words.)