Magazine article The Spectator

Life at the Blunt End

Magazine article The Spectator

Life at the Blunt End

Article excerpt

THE UNTOUCHABLE by John Banvil le Picador, 15.99, pp. 405

The first thing to be noticed about this enthralling novel is that it is properly written: John Banville's prose is clear, fluent, and possessed of authentic energy - the real thing, in fact. The second appreciation, which is no less sincere, is more complicated. John Banville is writing close to the news, albeit at a distance of 20 years from the final unfolding of events, and his protagonist, Victor Maskell, is a thinly disguised Anthony Blunt, with all the correct attributes: Marlborough, Trinity, `the Institute', the Poussin, the familiarity with the Windsor drawings and their owner, the lectures on Borromini and on Mansart, the early articles for The Spectator, and even the companion of the last days and the manner of his death.

What is cleverly concealed until page 278 is the extent and nature of Maskell's and presumably Blunt's activities in the war. Until then the spying had been negligible, an affair of misplaced ideological enthusiasm, serious anticipation of the Revolution, insincere endorsement of 'committed' artists - but that is where it all happened, in that episode of bad faith that was to prefigure all the others. Maskell, with his mature appreciation of the Stoics, which he gains from his hero Poussin, is deprived of authenticity almost of right, by virtue of that early shouldering of the burden of bad art. Yet it could be argued, and it is, that only an ironist could savour the bad faith of a life conceived as comedy, a comedy to which a surprising number of people had access. At the end even Poussin fails to comfort the committed art historian, leading him to wonder whether he ever felt anything at all for pictures, or rather that what he felt was as ever something he put there himself, like the secrets he passed to his Russian contact. In both cases the information was coded: perhaps dilettantism was unequal to the task of understanding.

Since this is a novel Maskell is given an Irish background, a retarded brother, a wife and two children, and a homosexuality only latent until the moment of revelation. He is civilised, playful, and without principles. Indeed his lack of morality is never so much as hinted at: only the reader's increasing unease will supply it. Otherwise this seems a not altogether misleading picture of the Jazz Age, the phoney war, and the Blitz, in which all the players were curiously light-hearted. Maskell never fought in Spain, went to Russia only once and hated it, and found it almost a joke to pass on to credulous and gloomy Russians the substance of the repartee exchanged at upper-class dinner parties, where drink made indiscretion almost obligatory. …

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