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The Untouchable

By John Banville
Published by Picador

In this, John Banville’s eleventh novel, Ireland’s finest living literary artist both continues and extends the spirit which has informed his last three books, the loose trilogy of The Book Of Evidence, Ghosts and Athena, in that it features a narrator who is an artistic, criminal or intellectual outsider, who is recounting and reflecting upon the dark doings and dirty deeds of his life, in a tone of detached, loftily patrician irony. However, this time he is not one of those ‘high cold heroes who renounced the world and human happiness to pursue the big game of the intellect’, as the historian in The Newton Letter, another of Banville’s previous novels, puts it, when considering Copernicus, Kepler and Newton, the subjects of Banville’s earlier ‘science’ tetralogy of Doctor Copernicus, Kepler, The Newton Letter and Mefisto. On this occasion the central character, although a gifted scholar and art critic, has lived a double life at the heart of some of the most important events of this century. Of course, the art/life dichotomy has always been a major theme in Banville’s work, and although he has always denied it, it is commonly accepted that The Book Of Evidence was inspired by the notorious McArthur murder case. But here the supposed opposition between aesthetics and politics, the private and the public, receives its most stark examination and thorough treatment yet at Banville’s hands.

 

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The story has its origins in the spy ring which grew out of Cambridge in the 1930s, and came into its own in the 50s and 60s, when everywhere the talk was of ‘reds under the bed’. Victor Maskell, the narrator (‘hero’ would be pushing it a bit too far), seems to be based on an amalgam of Anthony Blunt and Louis MacNiece, who knew each other at Marlborough public school, which Maskell also attends, although admittedly MacNiece was, in ‘real life’ as they call it, an Oxonian, and although he visited Spain with Auden, was never a committed Marxist, nor for that matter, a practising homosexual. Blunt, however, as we know, was both.
Other characters too are drawn from life, with Querell, for example, a thinly disguised Graham Greene. Indeed, Banville seems to indulge in some satiric flourishes at Greene’s expense, when he writes of Querell, ‘He was genuinely curious about people - the sure mark of the second-rate novelist.’ This is probably in revenge for Greene messing Banville around when he judged the 1989 Guinness Peat Aviation Awards, when the prize money nearly went to an unknown who was not on the shortlist.
As homosexual and as Marxist, Maskell is an Outsider, but as Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures and Director of the Art Institute - an occasional guest at Windsor Castle even - he is an Insider. The book builds into a heady brew of political and sexual intrigue, where, as Maskell says, ‘the sex and the spying had sustained a kind of equilibrium, each a cover for the other.’
But, as always with Banville, the story is almost secondary to the sheer beauty of the language in which it is told. He could write about anything and make it interesting. On every page there is an image or an insight to drool over. Try phrases like these for size: ‘anyway, persons of her age are impervious to the tics and twitches by which the old betray the pain of their predicament’; or ‘My father talked about the threat of war. He always had an acute sense of the weight and menace of the world, conceiving it as something like a gigantic spinning-top at whose pointed end the individual cowered, hands clasped in supplication to a capricious and worryingly taciturn God.’
I foresee Booker nominations, glittering prizes. Or maybe it is even too good for those gaudy baubles, which are, after all, only literary lotteries. Whether it is commercially successful and generally recognised or not, The Untouchable expands an already awesome achievement in contemporary fiction, in which Banville reminds us, once again, what writing can do, and what it can be.

First published in The World of Hibernia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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