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.