Victor Maskell has been betrayed. After the announcement in the Commons, the hasty revelation of his double life of wartime espionage, his photograph is all over the papers. His disgrace is public, his position as curator of the Queen’s pictures terminated… Maskell writes his own testament, in an act not unlike the restoration of one of his beloved pictures, in order for the process of verification and attribution to begin.
©1997 John Banville (P)2014 Audible, Inc.
This is my second try with John Banville. Once again, he impresses me with his ability to write nearly perfect prose and characters who are as flesh and blood and flawed as any who ever breathed, while completely boring me. That's strike two, Mr. Banville, and two is all most authors get from me.
Banville is a serious Literary Dude, and this is a serious Literary Dude's novel. The Untouchable is written as a memoir by one Victor Maskell, who is based on real-life Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt; although this is a novel, it's only loosely fictionalized history. Maskell, as he tells his story, was, like Blunt, formerly the keeper of the British royal family's art collection, and has recently been exposed as a Soviet spy since before World War II. Maskell is also a homosexual, which plays a large part of his narrative - he describes his sexual encounters with the same precise elegant prose as he talks about watersheds in history and his role as a Soviet double-agent.
"Everybody nowadays disparages the 1950s, saying what a dreary decade it was. And they are right, if you think of McCarthyism and Korea, the Hungarian rebellion, all that serious historical stuff. I expect, however, that it is not public but private affairs that people are complaining of. Quite simply, I think they did not get enough of sex. All that fumbling with corsetry and woolen undergarments and all those grim couplings in the back seats of motorcars. The complaints and tears and resentful silences, while the wireless crooned callously of everlasting love. Feh! What dinginess! What soul-sapping desperation! The best that could be hoped for was a shabby deal marked by the exchange of a cheap ring followed by a life of furtive relievings on one side and of ill-paid prostitution on the other.
Whereas, oh my friends, to be queer was the very bliss! The Fifties were the last grace age of queerdom. All the talk now is of freedom and pride. Pride! But these young hotheads in their pink bellbottoms, clamoring for the right to do it in the street if they feel like it, do not seem to appreciate, or at least seem to wish to deny, the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear.
Maskell is wry, cynical, sometimes humorous, and a bit depressive, looking back on a career that's been generally distinguished while always overshadowed by these twin secrets: he has lived his entire life in two closets, as a homosexual and a double-agent. He has few regrets, and he seems as much amused as he is upset by his public disgrace, the shock of his friends, the shame of his family.
As brilliantly narrated as Maskell's story is, the problem is that it isn't much of a story. It's an old man reminiscing about being a young Marxist and a gay blade back when either one could get you hard prison time. There are no dramatic "spy" moments — even during World War II, he's just passing on not-very-important information to the Russians, until eventually he gets tired of the whole thing and rather anticlimactically (as much as a book that's had no suspense to begin with can have an anticlimax) drops out of the spy game. Then, years later, he's thrown under the bus by some of his former associates. (Figuratively, not literally; if anyone were actually thrown under a bus in this book, it would have been more exciting.)
Most excellently written? Yes. Banville wins literary prizes — go John Banville. Did I care about Victor Maskell and his whiny, cynical, misogynistic moping after decades of being a Soviet spy? Noooo. If you have a real interest in this era, particularly with a realistically (if not particularly sympathetically) depicted gay character, then you probably won't regret reading this, but don't make the mistake of thinking that because it's about spies it's thrilling.
I would like to say that Bill Wallis's narration is perfect. For capturing Maskell's dreary, bored-with-it-all sense of ennui-laced indignation, and lending the necessary distinguished British touch to Banville's prose, Wallis is perfect. However, he frequently lowers his voice to a near-mumble, practically muttering asides under his breath, so be aware that this book isn't a good one to listen to while driving, since you'll be straining your ears to make out what he's saying unless you crank the volume way up.
"Lonely for Socialism"
Here’s another new writer to me that, having read this really enjoyable book, I’m at a complete loss as to why he’s been lost to me. I read the earlier reviews and claims to Henry James, with some scepticism, but I was quickly disavowed of this and from the first settled into a really well written first person narrative that was sustained throughout the huge landscape of near historical London.
Anthony Blunt has always been a fascinating character - at the heart of Establishment and at the same time a betrayer who stayed true to the cause of Marxism. The clé to this romanà gets about as close as it would seem possible to get without actually transforming into a memoir - and I’d be interest to have a look at Blunt’s own work - but what fascinating source material.
The motivation - and peculiarly English - lack of a zealous driving force behind the perceived actions of treason and treachery provide the underlying motor for this portrait. The writing is rich, deep, well researched, authorative and kind. There are wonderful epithets and stand alone sketches along the way that I hugely enjoyed and will look for more Banville to fill up the months ahead.
"Excellent match of narrator and text"
Bill Wallis deserves every praise and thanks for his narration of The Untouchable.
His Victor Maskill is simply far more interesting than the Victor Maskill I encountered when reading the book alone; Wallis conveys beautifully the humour, snobbery and tragedy in this most engaging of characters.
If you are a fan of Banville, then I would recommend this without hesitation.
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