When the world-renowned art historian Anthony Blunt was publicly unmasked in 1979 as a former Soviet spy, his uncomprehending longtime companion, John Gaskin, asked: "Why did you do it?" Blunt replied, "Cowboys and Indians," knowing full well the fantasy was misguided. Blunt was a key figure in the Cambridge Conspiracy, a group of young, upper-class sexual and political radicals who enlisted as agents for Stalin in the 1930s. During and after World War II, they penetrated the highest levels of MI5, the English secret service, and proceeded to feed the Russians a steady stream of prized information, including the names of many MI5 agents in Moscow, sentencing them to torture and death. If Blunt, who also served as director of Coutauld Institute and surveyor of the queen's pictures, was playing cowboys and Indians, he took his share of scalps. Being stripped of his knighthood was hardly punishment enough.
Of course, this sensational betrayal, having been committed by a privileged cadre of dandified, homosexual aesthetes, has proven over the decades to be a literary mother lode (cf John Le Carré) and its newest prospector is John Banville, author of The Book of Evidence and Athena. The Untouchable is a novel posing as a memoir written by a very Blunt-like chap named Victor Maskell just after his fall from grace. (Banville hews fairly close to the big facts while having stirred and shaken some details for dramatic kicks.) Conjuring up a languid, Brideshead Revisited atmosphere of manor-house teas, Oxbridge repartee and impetuous idealism, Maskell sets out the key players: Boy Barrister, a dissolute yet sexually industrious true believer in the cause (modeled on Guy Burgess), the handsome, egotistical Nick Brevoort (on his identity we'll keep mum) and Querell, a cynical papist and Graham Greene-esque writer (although Greene had little to do with this crowd). After Barrister and Maskell visit Russia, Maskell returns with a profound distaste for its citizens and leaders. But as Banville amply demonstrates, this distaste hardly equals his disdain for America, leading us to believe simple snobbery is, in no small way, his motivation for treason.
The grim legal and social repression of homosexuality in England once made everyday gay life a secret endeavor, so it's no shock that many of the Cambridge spies were homosexual; they quickly took to the role-playing required of them. Banville neatly captures this complimentary dovetailing of hidden identity and adventurous thrill: "This is the secret power of the spy, different from the power that orders armies into battle; it is purely personal; it is the power to be and not be, to detach oneself from oneself, to be oneself and at the same time be another." He also takes shrewd measure of how little aesthetics, no matter how marvelously elevated, can invigorate a soul bereft of authenticity as well as feeling. While fellow leftists are dying in Spain, Maskell "passes a sleepless night weighing in the scales the losing of the Louvre against the gaining of the Hermitage." Humiliated and, in the end, betrayed himself, Maskell's erudite and elegantly turned reflections -- you can hear the tinkle of the sherry glass in his voice -- still cannot answer that simple question: Why? In Banville's philosophic yet lyrical telling, this uncertainty and its unnerving implications make The Untouchable a spy novel fit for company among the best of Greene and Le Carré. -- Salon
Contemporary fiction gets no better than this...extraordinary book. -- NY Times Book Review
The author of such exemplary works as Athena (LJ 5/1/95), Irishman Banville here takes on the juicy challenge of writing a spy novel and handles the assignment with far more grace and intelligence than even the best of that genre's authors. Double-agent Victor Maskell wakes up one morning to discover that after years of informing on London for Moscow, someone has informed on him. To sort out what has happened, he begins a journal. What follows is the richly detailed account of a man who clearly had convictions but whose behavior remains an enigma throughout. As he recalls his Irish childhood, complete with pastor father, beloved stepmother, and retarded brother; his emotional entanglements with careless golden boy Nick and his sister, Baby, whom Victor quite oddly marries long before he realizes that he is gay; and his relations with a slew of hedonistic, upper-class Englishmen too incisively characterized to be mere types, Victor remains subtle, crusty, and tantalizingly out of reach. His story is so well told that why he spied and who betrayed him become secondary. Highly recommended. Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
An icy, detailed portrait of a traitor, and a precise meditation on the nature of belief and betrayal.
Banville (Athena, 1995, etc.) tends to allow the shimmering intensity of his prose to overcome plot and character. This time out, though, he keeps matters moving along briskly and his prose, while still vigorous, firmly under control. Sir Victor Maskell, an elderly, much-honored art historian, is revealed in Parliament to have been a spy for the Soviets. Stripped of his knighthood, his various positions and honors, and dying of cancer, Maskell sits down to explain himself. The resulting memoir, ironic, full of lacerating self-knowledge and acidic portraits of his fellow traitors, provides both a lively portrait of art and intelligence circles in Britain from the 1920s to the '70s and a meditation on the forces that inspire treason. Victor is a suitably complex and tormented figure. (Banville, to his credit, is clearly not interested in making him a particularly sympathetic one.) He is a perpetual outsider: An Irish Protestant, far less self-assured than his elegant Cambridge classmates, ambiguous about his sexuality, and more interested in art history than in the contemporary world, he seems to embrace Marxism more to fit in than to assert some firm belief, and to become a traitor more to please his friends than to assert a cause. This is, of course, well-plowed ground: Maskell is in some ways decidedly similar to Anthony Blunt, the art historian/spy, and his circle equally recognizable. Still, Maskell's fierce intelligence, his unblinking consideration of his past, sets this book apart from most fictional explorations of the spy's mentality. There's another reason that Maskell is writing his memoirs: He hopes, by doing so, to uncover who it was that turned him in, and why. He does so, in a bitterly ironic and understated climax.
A resonant reworking of a seemingly exhausted genre, and a subtle, sad, and deeply moving work.
From the Publisher
"Maskell takes his place with John le Carre's Alec Leamas as one of spy fiction's greatest characters. Poetic and deeply affecting." -People
"[Banville's] books are not only an illuminating read—for they are always packed with information and learning—but a joyful and durable source of aesthetic satisfaction." -The New York Review of Books
"Enthralling... Victor Maskell is a thinly disguised Anthony Blunt... Banville has pulled off a marvelous series of tricks." -Anita Brooker, The Spectator
"Banville has the skill, ambition and learning to stand at the end of the great tradition of modernist writers." -Times Literary Supplement
"It must by now be an open secret that on this [U.K.] side of the Atlantic, Banville is the most intelligent and stylish novelist at work." - George Steiner, The Observer
"Banville's acute characterization and laceratingly witty prose capture perfectly the paradoxically idealistic yet cynical mood of the upper classes in 1930s Britain." -Time Out
"An icy detailed portrait of a traitor, and a precise meditation on the nature of belief and betrayal... subtle, sad, and deeply moving work." - Kirkus Reviews
"Delectably droll and masterful... The rich fabric of this novel blends the shrewd humor of a comedy of manners with the suspense of a tale of espionage." - Booklist
"[Written with] grace and intelligence... His story is so well told that why he spied—and who betrayed him—become secondary." - Library Journal