Frank Kermode

  • The Untouchable by John Banville
    Picador, 405 pp, £15.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 330 33931 1

This ought to be a good novel, for it is by a good writer and deals intelligently with a bit of British history that continues to interest us. And it certainly gives pleasure; so it seems a shade ungrateful to be asking what’s wrong with it. Is this all? Is this the best a lively imagination can make of the plight of the virtuous spy, whether wild or sober, dedicated or not, Blunt or Burgess?

There is nothing much here to conflict with the stereotypical idea of the Thirties, the afternoon men in their Soho clubs and hideouts, their lust for working-class boys, their not wonderfully well-informed Marxism, and their easy way of arranging matters to suit themselves, whether in the choice of wartime careers, say at Bletchley, or perhaps in some other establishment where scraps of secret could be salvaged to keep their Russian contacts happy.

As to plot and scene and dialogue all is competent, even, at times, rich or funny. But again and again one feels that the writing is more assured when the story reaches a pause, when Maskell, the hero based on Blunt, contemplates a moment or a view and records some sort of epiphany. There is one near the beginning of the book, just before Maskell is being vetted for recruitment: ‘The moment stretched. Neither of us spoke. Time can stand still, I am convinced of it; something snags and stops, turning and turning, like a leaf on a stream. A thick drop of sunlight seethed in a glass paperweight on a low table.’ Light seething in glasses is a recurring figure, perhaps random, perhaps a leitmotif about the significance of which one can only speculate: it could have to do with seduction, or with the sensitive eye of the art expert, or something else; or maybe it’s a figuration that exists simply for itself.

Some of these epiphanies are related to paintings, most often to a small Poussin depicting the death of Seneca, bought for Maskell by Leo, later Lord Rothenstein, an identifiable fellow-traveller who has ‘the matt sheen of the very rich’. The theme of the picture is obligingly explained in detail to a tedious young woman interviewer. It keeps coming up, not only for its ecstatic potential but because of its subject, the compulsory suicide of Seneca, who was given no choice by an ungrateful Nero. Maskell claims to be a Stoic, too, and similarly situated.

In another light, the painting offers the novel its whole programme: ‘The problem for Poussin in the depiction of suffering is how to stylise it, as the rules of classical art demand, while yet making it immediately felt.’ But this problem is not solved here, because what is stylised is not so much the hero’s suffering as his unlovely detachment from ordinary human concerns (wife, children). He tries to make himself a bit more like Seneca by pointing out that the philosopher had his faults, too; but it doesn’t really work.

Maskell, who is the narrator, moves from Trinity College, Cambridge to what is evidently the Courtauld Institute, where he rather improbably (but, as we know, the whole tale of the Spies is profoundly implausible) keeps a catamite in the director’s top-floor flat. He begins his story when it is almost over; finally, after long delay (not expressly connected with his boasted closeness to top Royals), he is exposed and disgraced, de-knighted, ill, harried by the press, and is writing a sort of journal-autobiography.

He is the son of an Irish bishop (this genealogy is presumably borrowed from Louis MacNeice, who became a friend of Blunt’s at Marlborough) and above all he is a connoisseur. ‘Art was the only thing in my life that was untainted.’ Art offered ‘the possibility of transcendence, even for the space of a quarter of an hour’. He owns a Bonington as well as the Poussin – the authenticity of which is authoritatively but impudently questioned at about the time its owner’s was demolished. He is not at all repentant about his career as a traitor, and claims never to have had his heart in the cause for which, eventually, he suffered.

What interested his foreign masters was his closeness to the Palace, where he looked after the pictures. He had chats with the King, whom he liked, knew his wife well enough to despise her, and even carried out a secret postwar royal mission to Bavaria. ‘Your value for us,’ said his contacts, ‘is that you are at the heart of the English establishment.’ Sometimes he saw himself less as a spy than as a very high-class gossip writer. He may have allowed men to go to their deaths, and even taken some risks himself, but he has trouble believing that the information he conveys is of any importance. Anyway, as he tells his interviewer, ‘I did not spy for the Russians. I spied for Europe.’ And indeed a prewar visit to Russia did nothing to alleviate his dislike of Russians. They just happened, unfortunately, to live where the Revolution happened.

Elsewhere, however, he says ‘we did not care a damn about the world, much as we might shout about freedom and justice and the plight of the masses. All selfishness.’ He and his friends did not bother to read Marx: ‘we had others to do that for us. The working-class Comrades were great readers.’ They were spared contact with ‘such an essentially vulgar ideology’. Maskell prefers Blake, whom, when drunk, he declaims, much in the manner of that other failed artist, Gully Jimson.

He was, though it would have been anachronistic to say so, gay, but he entered late, well over thirty, one guesses, and after a cold marriage, into ‘queerdom’. ‘The Fifties was the last great age of queerdom. All the talk now is of freedom and pride (pride!), but these young hotheads in their pink bell-bottoms, clamouring for the right to do it in the streets 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.’ He is an old-fashioned gentleman, from the days when it was necessary to consider (defy) the risks of exposure, which appeared not to trouble some at least of his more rampant friends.

His circle included a rather sinister libertine novelist who said things like ‘a sense of humour is nothing but the other face of despair’ and later went off to live in Antibes; and a strange, rather proletarian Cambridge mathematician who cracked the Enigma code and made the operation at Bletchley possible; but this man was found out, and, following the example of the Stoic Seneca, killed himself by eating an apple he had laced with cyanide. Chief among his associates was Bannister, called simply ‘Boy’, an extremely dissolute, drunken, cottaging risk-taker from his Cambridge days on. Bannister happened to be, of the whole group, the most ideologically committed, though socially the most madly irresponsible. He was admired for his wildness, amply chronicled here, up to the moment of his escape, in which our hero had a part.

All is here done with much knowingness, not only about the lives of the Spies but also about London, still Dickensian until the Blitz; and about the life of these privileged young fellows in their time, a combination of booze, snobbery, sodomy and that hopelessly abstract tenderness for the lower classes, unknown except as subordinates and bed fellows. Some scenes, some dialogue, remind one of the early Angus Wilson. Others recall Anthony Powell’s Poussin-dominated series of novels and also, at moments, that writer’s earlier work. Yet Banville’s own style is distinctive, especially at those epiphanic time-stopped moments (there is a cluster of them in an episode describing the hero’s visit to his father’s house in Northern Ireland) and the prose is usually fresh, though a ‘glans-brown sky’ seems a trifle forced, and there are occasional sentences that trespass on banality, as when bafflement comes over Maskell ‘like a fog’.

Like all good novelists, Banville knows a lot, even about matters with which he cannot have had direct contact: not only the war, Bletchley and so on, but the fact that people carried cigarette-cases and tapped cigarettes briskly before lighting them. Why? he asks. Good question, one answers; but people do these things because they have seen them done, and stop when they see them done no more. However, it is a convincing accent, one of many such. On the other hand, Maskell, who is supposed to have been educated in Cambridge, has really no more idea than his Russian contact of what Syndics are and do in that university. But of course the great thing, as Kingsley Amis pointed out, is to sound as if you know some things well, and the rest will be taken on trust (except by readers who happen to have privileged information).

For the rest, this novel (sometimes possibly a shade too expansive, as in the accounts of Maskell’s journeys to Ireland, France and Russia) will please because of its intelligence and skill. If it leaves some readers a little discontented, that will perhaps be because it occurs to them to speculate as to what Ford Madox Ford might have made of this material; or because they rather greedily expected even more from a novelist they had long since learnt to admire.