Beneath the Veneer: John Banville’s The Untouchable

By Steve Isenberg

John Banville’s The Untouchable (1997) gives imaginative life to what Lord Annan, then Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, described as  “the long-running inquest upon the culture, morality, and patriotism of intellectuals” brought about by the “saga of the Cambridge spies.”  The artistry of the novel is, indeed, no less captivating than the reality from which it draws — the double life of Anthony Blunt, who juggled the intense secrecy of a spy with the public stature of a leading art historian.

In his recent memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel (2016), John le Carré, once a spy and later the master of the spy novel, wrote, “Spying and the novel are made for each other. Both call for the ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal.” He added, “to the creative writer, fact is raw material, not his taskmaster, but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing. Real truth lies, if anywhere, not in fact, but in nuance.”

Banville’s The Untouchable is a masterful roman a clef that demonstrates the complexities of dealing with “raw material.”

In 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher revealed to Parliament that Anthony Blunt, then Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was the fourth man in a set to have spied for Russia. Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess had defected to Russia years earlier. Their stories had already begun to be told.  All four began their illicit service to Russia in the Thirties, which W.H. Auden called “a low dishonest decade.” During the Second World War, all four worked for the British Secret Services (either MI5, responsible for counter-espionage at home, or MI6, responsible for espionage carried out against the enemy abroad).

Facts that come from a world whose currency is duplicity, disguise, and secrets raise doubts.  Miranda Carter, a fine biographer of Blunt, addresses  “fundamentally unreliable sources,” quoting Malcolm Muggeridge, a journalist, formerly in MI6: “Diplomats and intelligence agents, in my experience, are even bigger liars than journalists, and the historians who try to reconstruct the past out of their records are, for the most part, dealing with fantasy.”

Banville craftily complicates matters. Victor Maskell, the stand-in for Blunt, is the novel’s narrator. He is the historian of his own life, an autobiographer.  His opening chord is a confession of a “lifetime of dissembling,” and his last musing concerns the fate, after his death, of “what, this memoir? this fictional memoir?” What does one call a true tale about lifelong deceit? And aren’t all “true tales” embellished, wittingly or unwittingly? A spy’s private testament, then, is a fiction on a fiction. “In the spy’s world, as in dreams,” says Maskell, “the terrain is always uncertain… This instability, this myriadness that the world takes on, is both the attraction and the terror of being a spy.”

The Untouchable begins: “ First day of a new life.”  Maskell has broken his rule against putting things in writing. He is 72, his “old rheumy eye wild with fright.”  He mentions the Prime Minister, the “disgrace” of  “treachery” now public.  He speaks of the “jackals from the newspapers,” and seizes on a word from a tabloid’s front-page splash:  “Exposed! — what a shiversome, naked-sounding word.”  It calls to mind the flashbulb photographer. Maskell cannot “recognize himself in the public version,” but doesn’t want “to fashion for myself yet another burnished mask.” The first  “burnished mask,” of course, was that of an art historian: “ I realize the metaphor is obvious: attribution, verification, restoration. I shall strip away layer after layer of grime — the toffee-coloured varnish and caked soot […] until I come to the very thing itself and know it for what it is. My soul. My self.”

Where did Maskell’s (and Blunt’s) “dissembling” begin, and why? How did the Cambridge spies, each in his own way, become convinced that their country and their class could neither defeat Fascism nor build a more just society at home.  In The Missing Diplomats (1952), a year after Burgess and Maclean defected, Cyril Connolly, tried to explain their initial betrayal: “ It was more than ten years since the end of the first world war and a new generation was growing up which found no outlet in home politics for the adventurous or altruistic impulses of the adolescent. Marxism satisfied both the rebelliousness of youth and its craving for dogma.” Yet this explanation is insufficient, even for Connolly, who ultimately diagnoses in Burgess and Maclean “schizophrenic characteristics.” George Steiner extends the diagnosis to Blunt in his essay “The Cleric of Treason” (1980): “[C]rucial as they are, neither Blunt’s overt Marxism nor his freemasonry of golden lads takes us to the heart of the maze, which is the radical duplicity, the seeming schizophrenia, of the scholar-teacher of impeccable integrity and the professional deceiver and betrayer.”

Banville’s novel works toward “the heart of the maze,” both psychologically and socio-historically. Because it was the nation that was betrayed, on behalf of another nation and its ideology, and because there were so many stations of this double cross — Cambridge, The Apostles, Bloomsbury, the Spanish Civil War, Moscow under Stalin, and World War II — The Untouchable is inevitably, in Banville’s words, a “big public book.” So how does Banville manage to get his wily, aging spy to open up and lay all the “facts” — if one may call them that — on the table?

Maskell speaks not only to the reader, but also to an interlocutor, a young woman named Serena Vandeleur. She initially comes into his house with reporters, but later confesses that she is not a reporter; she wants to write a book about him. Vandeleur is the only person who asks Maskell why he did what he did, and she keeps pressing. When Maskell says, “In my world, there are no simple questions, and precious few answers of any kind,” she retorts: “There are simple questions; there are answers. Why did you spy for the Russians? How did you get away with it? What did you think you would achieve by betraying your country and your country’s interests?”  Maskell deflects: “I did not spy for the Russians […] I spied for Europe. A much broader church.”

Maskell’s resistance is based directly on Blunt’s. Sometime in the 1980s, Banville watched a documentary about the painter Poussin and Blunt, the leading scholar of his work. The opening shots came from a press conference held the day after Blunt had been named as the fourth spy. Banville was struck when a camera caught Blunt unawares as “the faintest ghost of a smile passed over his face. What the smile said was: Do these people really imagine they will get anything of consequence out of me, a man who has spent decades being grilled with scant success by the best spycatchers in the land? It was at that moment that I knew I would have to base a novel on this man.” In order to do so, he had to imagine a way to penetrate what Steiner, describing that same press conference, called “Blunt’s condescension, the intact carapace of his self-esteem.” Vandeleur is the key.

Banville previous novel, The Book of Evidence (1989), was a proving ground for The Untouchable. Its narrator, the murderer Freddie Montgomery, also tells his own story and reveals his pathology. The actual ground of The Book of Evidence was Ireland, Banville’s homeland. Blunt was the son of an English vicar, but Banville wound his spring tighter in the character of Maskell, making him the son of an Ulster Protestant bishop.  If Maskell becomes the consummate Englishman, it is because he has worked to become one.  But no matter how much he succeeds, his standing is complicated by his Irish origin.

In preparation for the novel, Banville read Louis MacNeice’s autobiography The Strings Are False (1963). MacNeice, had been a close friend of Blunt’s at Marlborough College, and Banville took a bit of MacNeice’s Irish life for Maskell. He gave Maskell a brother, Freddie, who cannot speak and whose howling comes from being shut within himself, a permanent infant, large in body and needing constant, tender care. (MacNeice’s brother William had Down syndrome.) Domestic drama — the strong current of unease with his father, in life and in memory — informs and undermines Maskell’s air of detachment. Without sentimentality, Banville binds Maskell in the ordinary ties of blood, even as Maskell so clearly wishes to escape them.

Banville also binds Maskell in marriage to Vivienne “Baby” Breevort, and in intense friendship to her older brother Nick. Vivienne and Nick are the children of Maskell’s publisher. Accepting Maskell’s proposal, Vivienne tells him that she will never love him. This is not a problem. Their marriage is to be another “burnished mask.” (The wedding night of Maskell and Baby is an example of Banville at his drollest. In bed, Baby has gone over a list of her former lovers, “bankers and polo players and hapless Americans…” Finding out she had married a 31-year-old virgin, she says, “Poor darling, let me help you. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.”) Once Maskell discovers “his kind,” London’s homosexual milieu, his wife becomes little more than a social acquaintance. And no other relationship in the novel is as subtly charged and murky as that of Maskell and Vivienne’s brother Nick. These familial complexities deepen Maskell’s character, inspiring empathy — if not sympathy for his betrayal.

How does Maskell explain his own betrayal?

Spain, the kulaks, the machinations of the Trotskyites, racial violence in the East End — how antique it all seems now, almost quaint, and yet how seriously we took ourselves and our place on the world stage. I often have the idea that what drove those of us who went on to become active agents was the burden of deep — of intolerable — embarrassment that the talk-drunk thirties left us with. The beer, the sandwiches, the sunlight on the cobbles, the aimless walks in shadowed lanes, the sudden, always amazing fact of sex — a whole world of privilege and assurance, all going on, while millions prepared to die. How could we have borne the thought of all that and not —

But no. It will not do. These fine sentiments will not do. I have told myself already, I must not impose retrospective significance on what we were and what we did. Is it that I believed in something then and now believe in nothing?  Or that even then I only believed in the belief, out of longing, out of necessity? The latter, surely. The wave of history rolled over us, as it rolled over so many others of our kind, leaving us quite dry.

¤

At one point, Maskell states: “The worm in the bud is more thorough than the wind that shakes the bough. That is what the spy knows.”

If that is indeed the case, then how did the Russians plant their worm? Banville doesn’t begin with public school days, but that is the background. In Anthony Blunt: His Lives  (2003), Miranda Carter writes that the British public school “offered an excellent training in dissidence [which] inadvertently fostered a questioning and subversive attitude and profound distrust of authority, necessary for any intellectual class and vital to the manufacture of an artist, writer or spy.” Maskell took this training and applied it as a member of the Apostles, Cambridge’s elite academic conversation cluster, which met weekly and had ties to Bloomsbury. John Maynard Keynes, a leading light of both sets, summed up their attitude: “We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom.”

It is at Cambridge, where dons were talent spotters for the secret services, that Maskell meets his first Russian, Felix Hartmann. Their conversation begins as a typical Apostolic dialogue about philosophy and art. Felix’s probing moves Maskell to speak of his rejection of “pure form” and offer his critique of Picasso’s Guernica.  Maskell recalls this episode as his first taste of a phenomenon with which he would later become familiar in the secret world: Felix was “going to work on a potential recruit.” Maskell savors the “brief tumescence in the air” as the subject is changed toward the testing questions.  Of this process, Maskell says there is “[n]othing so tentative, nothing so thrilling, excepting, of course, certain manoeuvres in the sexual chase.”

Banville uses dialogue to recreate scenes from Maskell’s past. The crisp, natural, individuated speech of the conversations lends the novel its internal authenticity. Recollected talk has the air of fact, as if independent of Maskell, the storyteller.  But this credibility is punctured by Maskell’s remark: “The successful spy must be able to live authentically in each of his multiple lives.” Indeed, he is a consummate actor.

A common thread runs through all of the Russian handlers who figure in Maskell’s spying life. While each has a different manner and effect on him, a different physical bearing and way of speaking, all reveal their own precariousness, their constant vulnerability to the whims of their bureaucratic superiors in Moscow.  The handlers, purveyors of betrayal, must reckon with betrayal from their own comrades, resulting in sudden disappearances and replacements. They had a rationale for this.  They were convinced, as was Maskell, that the Revolution deserved allegiance toward its accomplishment, even if it may have begun in the wrong country.  Britain would have been better. Indeed, even as circumstances threaten Maskell’s secret life, he doesn’t give any thought to defecting, especially after being told that he would never be allowed to leave Russia — even to visit the Louvre.

Maskell’s Second World War experience begins in France, as a security officer along with Nick. They are eventually evacuated from Boulogne, leaving on a ship carrying tons of explosives, under fire from the shore. We later learn Nick stored this episode away because he witnessed in Maskell a certain failure of nerve, which casts a long shadow.

Once home, Nick helps Maskell find a job in MI5. It is there that Maskell gets information to pass to the Russians, including secrets from the decoding operation at Bletchley.  The MI5 had effectively turned German agents caught on English soil into double agents. Ironically, no one down the hall, as it were, cracked the identity of the deceivers within.  The British spies were from the right families, went to the right schools, had the right friends — all the touchstones that vouched for loyalty. If something turned up in a man’s history that indicated he might sympathize dangerously with Russia and the Communist cause, it was explained away as a youthful flirtation of the Thirties, before the democracies had squared themselves for the right fight.

There is a poignant moment when a young, gung-ho MI5 Major, Billy Metchett, must question Maskell. Although he is 35, Metchett, an Etonian, seems a schoolboy when he asks Maskell about “a trace” in Maskell’s files: “It seems you were something of a Bolshie.”  Maskell laughs it off: “Oh that. Wasn’t everyone?”  Although initially startled, Billy goes with Maskell’s sophisticated explanation, saying he will tell Maskell’s training commander that “we’ve vetted you and found you stainless as a choirboy.” The intelligence service of the day was without skepticism about its own; it was characterized by brass-plated naiveté and old-boy amateurism.

Throughout the novel, the Catholic novelist Querell, a Graham Greene figure, acts as a perfect foil for Maskell; he is as smoothly and smugly knowing as his counterpart, and as suspicious of Maskell’s Marxism as Maskell is of Querell’s Catholicism. They are two wary converts. Querell is someplace in the Secret Service, another member of the extended club. As the uncovering begins, it turns out the Querell had had an affair with Maskell’s wife. Another important difference: As a heterosexual, Querell did not run the risk of criminal prosecution that forced the homosexual life into secrecy.

Banville does not handle the spy world as a former insider; there is no operational tradecraft and jargon.  Nonetheless, the portraits of Maskell and his circle are as assuredly authentic as the best of Greene and le Carré.  Banville’s emphasis is on Maskell’s cold calculations and poise, rather than harrowing turns of action. We see Maskell fence with his handlers over what he should be doing, dismissing some requests as silly (such as reporting on conversations by known crackpots of social standing.) While he suggests shrewder moves,  he is also compliant. The clandestine meetings, the messaging, the attempts to obtain secret information are all calmly and clearly recollected, not drummed up at a pace. One standout episode concerns the seduction of foreign embassy messengers carrying secret documents on the night train to Scotland.  Betrayal, impersonation, sex as entrapment, the suicide of a remorseful foreign messenger — all are set to boil at a low, steady flame.

After the end of the war, Maskell’s career as art historian blossoms. In Banville’s treatment, the curator’s understanding of technique — of the eye, the hand, the mind, and the emotions behind paintings — are all given due emphasis. For Maskell, Poussin’s painting The Death of Seneca is an icon of dilemma and resolution: “I saw in Poussin a paradigm of myself; the Stoical bent, the rage for calm, the unshakeable belief in the transformative power of art.” The painting is like a talisman: “Art was the only thing in my life that was untainted.”

Another work about Blunt, Alan Bennett’s play A Question of Attribution (1988), casts doubt on whether even art can stand untainted. In one scene, Blunt and the Queen discuss forgery.  We can assume the Queen has been told privately of Blunt’s duplicity; she comments, “So if one comes across a painting with the right background and pedigree, […] then it must be hard, I imagine — even inconceivable — to think it is not what it claims to be.” Later, when Blunt’s assistant asks what they had spoken of, Blunt replies, “I was talking about art. I’m not sure she was.”That Maskell is an art historian of great sophistication makes him a great vehicle for Banville’s high style — an exquisite, vivacious aestheticism worthy of Nabokov, or at least of Evelyn Waugh. The raw material of Blunt gave life to Banville’s Maskell, and, in return, Blunt has been given a permanent, vibrant inner life.

The Untouchable is a serious novel about a spy, unconstrained by the genre of “spy novel.”

Le Carré sees a “voluptuous” quality in the spying life.  Banville does as well: “The aphrodisiac qualities of secrecy and fear” are an integral part of the novel’s chemistry. Maskell comes to see the double life as a debilitating force, sapping him of moral strength and blinding him to “the actual nature of things.” His high social status had made him untouchable for decades, protecting him from exposure and, later, prosecution; but in the end his standing is so low that he seems to belong to the caste of Untouchables.  The price Maskell pays for deceit is not so much the loss of his knighthood and public grace as it is the revelation of their insignificance: “What is there to be seen behind this slender capital?” Dying of cancer, he speaks of “having lived my life in remission.”  What was the original disease?

Banville’s novel does not press for a final judgment. The raw material at its heart divided opinions. George Steiner is on the vehement side: “What is certain is simply this. Anthony Blunt was a KGB minion whose treason over thirty years or more almost certainly did grave damage to his own country and may well have sent other men […] to abject death. The rest is tawdry gossip.” Alan Bennett, on the other hand, found it hard to work up “patriotic indignation”; Blunt seemed “condemned as much out of pique and because he fooled the Establishment as for anything that he did.”

In the 1981 introduction to her The New Meaning of Treason, Rebecca West writes that the Blunt case was hard to discuss “because the curtains have been drawn around it by a fatuous officialdom.”  She pressed on: “That Anthony Blunt was offered immunity from prosecution if he made a statement on his conduct and was allowed to continue as a court official was playing with fire.” In the end West calls espionage “a lout’s game.” This brings to mind T.S. Eliot’s apt observation that the American slang expression “to double-cross” was  “a useful and expressive word […] already in decay; its original meaning of a betrayal of both sides is reduced to plain betrayal, which renders it superfluous.”

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