The Untouchable by John Banville

When a novel is all about a character being unmasked as a Russian agent, it seems like you’d be expecting a bit of a suspense thriller. Real cloak and dagger type of stuff. The Untouchable by John Banville isn’t quite like that. Elderly Victor Maskell has been unmasked as having spent much of his life as a Russian agent, demonized and even his knighthood stripped away though curiously not even arrested, but from there the book mostly takes the form of a slowly moving retrospective memoir.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Anita Shreve and 7th for Robert Wilson)

Victor Maskell is highly placed in English society as WWII approaches. He’s not exactly fabulously wealthy, but he is distantly related to the queen. He attends Cambridge and moves in the right circles. The sort of circles that with his Socialist ideals get him recruited by the Soviets:

I knew what was going on; I knew I was being recruited. It was exciting and alarming and slightly ludicrous, like being summoned from the sideline to play in the senior-school game. It was amusing. This world no longer carries the weight that it did for us. Amusement was not amusement, but a test of the authenticity of a thing, a verification of its worth. The most serious matters amused us. This was something the Felix Hartmanns never understood.

He also starts working for the English secret service. A double agent. Thrilling, right? Well, he’s an art historian.

Victor doesn’t jump out of windows or watch shop windows to see if he’s got a tail waiting to bump him off with prussic acid. He just hangs out in high circles and relays gossip. In his work for the British secret service, he sometimes passes along memos he comes across. There isn’t big adventure here, not the pulse-pounding sort at least:

“Do?” he said, putting on an arch, amused expression; his earlier, violent mood had subsided and he was his smooth self again. “You do not do anything, really.” He took a draught of beer and with relish licked the fringe of foam from his upper lip. His blue-black oiled hair was combed starkly back from his forehead, giving him the pert, suave look of a raptor. He had rubber galoshes on over his dancer’s dainty shoes. I twas said that he wore a hairnet in bed. “Your value for us is that you are at the heart of the English establishment—”

“I am?”

“—and from the information you and Boy Bannister and the others supply to us we shall be able to build a picture of the power bases of this country.” He loved these expositions, the setting out of aims and objectives, the homilies on strategy; every spy is part priest, part pedant.

No, Victor is old. He’s been disgraced…but he’s living quietly at home and remembering how it all came about. No locking him in a room and throwing away the room, just memories. How he was recruited, how he served, how he was betrayed, his homosexuality, his wife and children, all that. It’s a quiet book. For a spy novel, The Untouchable is very quiet.

The Untouchable wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It’s more remembrance, and much more slowly paced than I thought it would be….not much of a thriller at all. It’s well done, but the prose is fairly dense and the pacing is a little slow for my tastes. Really, it struck me more as a literary examination of a character’s life. The spy stuff was just details.

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