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Caricatures and Characters in John Banville’s The Untouchable

By Literature

Illustration by Catherine Cao.

In 1979, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher revealed that Sir Anthony Blunt — art historian, a close associate of the royal family, and former MI-5 officer — had been a Russian double agent during WWII. He’d confessed back in 1963 and been granted immunity, but with this public exposure, he was disgraced. He lost his knighthood and his public standing, and spent the rest of his life shuttered. 

In 1997, John Banville, celebrated contemporary Irish novelist, retold this tale of a disgraced former spy in his roman à clef, “The Untouchable.” I was interested in how a contemporary writer would deploy the war-era modernist style. At first, I was enthralled by the characters and the poetic prose. But by the time I finished, that veneer of style had chipped away to reveal a noxious worldview and an empty artistic philosophy.

Blunt’s analogue is named Victor Maskell. Maskell tells his story as a sort of journal-memoir, writing in 1979 after his disgrace. Like Blunt, he is gay and an art historian, specializing in Poussin. Most scenes are sensual descriptions of a place or a hazy conversation between himself and another character. Maskell punctuates each conversation with self-negating aphorisms, disparaging character judgments, or confessions of some nasty emotion: “Guilt is the only affect I know of that does not diminish with time.” “He was genuinely curious about people — the sure mark of the second-rate novelist.” “I felt sorry for her, but there was another feeling […] it was exultation; nasty, secret.” The aphorisms seemed to come on every page, diagnosing every human interaction as empty hypocrisy. 

Self-reflection, someone recently commented to me, is a powerful character activator. This fictional memoir is 367 pages of reflection — Maskell looks back on his whole life. Somehow, this process seems to yield nothing. It is highly self-conscious self-reflection, so excessive that it becomes about the act of reflection, rather than actually discovering something about yourself. Self-reflexive, instead of self-reflective.

But the book’s emptiness is best seen in its characters. In the whole cast, Victor himself is the only character who ever becomes three-dimensional. The flatness problem might have something to do with the type of person art critic Victor is: an aesthete, he sees others as impressions instead of people. This does not, however, get the author off the hook. The manner in which a first-person narrator describes other characters is only half of what forms that character. The other half is the action they take in the story. Alas, the characters in this book hardly take any.

Here lies the problem with this novel: what is its engine? By process of elimination, we know it is not a spy novel. What makes a spy novel engrossing is mystery, the passage of information, the unraveling of a procedure. This book has none of that. So then, is it character-driven? What makes a character-driven novel engrossing is decisions. What choices will the characters make next? You keep turning the pages because you want to find out. But Banville gives his characters no motors. I don’t know what they want, so I don’t care what they do. And they do very little.

Each portrait is composed with a habitual gesture, a linguistic quirk, and a connotative name. Many of them are based on real people — outrageous fellow double agent Guy Burgess (“Boy Bannister”), Graham Greene (“Querell”), mathematician Alan Turing (turned into a spy and renamed “Alastair Sykes”) — though some are invented, like Maskell’s wife “Baby” (Blunt was never married) and Baby’s brother Nick Bevroot (the person Maskell is truly in love with). Yet despite these intriguing frames, these characters all remain imperturbably flat. 

The best example is Querell, the delightfully (at first) disgusting stand-in for British novelist and sometimes-spy Graham Greene (1904-1991). Querell is a lecherous, Catholic, chain-smoking writer and intelligence officer of the Oxbridge boys’ club variety. Maskell writes, “I used to chuckle over newspaper photographs of him hobnobbing with the Pope, since I knew that the lips with which he kissed the papal ring had most likely been between some woman’s thighs a half-hour previously.” Querell is identified by his gestures: he always has one hand in his pocket, and smokes “without cease, apparently the same, everlasting cigarette, for I never seemed able to catch him in the act of lighting up.” Indeed Maskell — who is “never able to catch him in the act” — never understands this man in any depth. 

This set of details is a vivid, even amusing set of lines to draw a caricature. And that’s a funny character for a set piece — an emblematic figure, like Lt. Kilgore’s fifteen minutes in Apocalypse Now. It’s a funny caricature, but it’s not a human being. Yet the whole book is made up of these figurants. Perhaps worst of them all is Maskell’s meaningless wife, “Baby,” who exists only as a mediator for his desire for her brother, and whose internal life he (characteristically) makes no effort to explore. Characters are never fleshed out beyond this amusing surface, and they never take any action in the plot, either. 

So if it isn’t plot-driven, and it isn’t character driven, then it’s purely aesthetic. It is form without content. In an essay on the book, critic Allan Hepburn (my favorite English prof in my undergrad) writes: “Maskell spies for Russia, not because he believes Stalinist Russia is morally or politically superior, but because the formalities of treachery beguile him. Form matters, not content.” The same could be said of the book: rife with technically beautiful descriptions of places and people, it lacks any content about human values or relationships. 

I object to this surface-level human engagement. I object to the loaded dialogue whose meaning is never parsed. I object to the pessimistic aphorisms Maskell derives from each interaction. You can’t reduce people down like this, to a gesture, a hand in a pocket, and then run them through the mouse maze and point to their interactions as demonstrative of fundamental human truths. You didn’t create any real human beings, so your results have no human substance. I can recognize the value of Victor Maskell as a character, as a surfacey person who prizes form over content. I take issue with the way the book itself embraces this value system — in its inactive characters and its endless, formless self-reflection which, finally, yields no substance.

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