February: Touching on The Untouchable

Surely no word better illustrates the essential duplicity of language itself than ‘radical’. In common usage, a radical is someone with extreme views; a radical idea is one that wants to wipe away the existing orthodoxy and start afresh. And yet, the latin root of the word is radicare, to root; not ‘root out’ as you might think. So really, a radical person or a radical idea should be one with deep roots.

The radical/radical dichotomy is dramatised in my big February read, John Banville’s novel, The Untouchable, based on the real-life character of Anthony Blunt.

Blunt was the ultimate contradiction: World War Two officer, art historian, Master of the Queen’s Pictures and – as Mrs Thatcher revealed to the House of Commons in 1979 – a Soviet spy for three decades – one of the notorious ‘Cambridge Five’ which also included high ranking MI6 agents Kim Philby and Guy Burgess.

Image result for anthony blunt
Anthony Blunt

In the roman a clef tradition, Banville recreates history, altering the names of characters who are, nevertheless, identifiable as real-life individuals. At the same time he distances himself from the standards of historians by mingling facets of different characters. While Blunt grew up in England, for example, Banville’s narrator, Victor Maskell, is given an Irish protestant childhood based on that of the poet Louis Macneice. 

The writer explained in an interview that both Blunt and Macneice were the sons of clergyman, giving them a psychological commonality. 

Banville’s narrators are almost always social climbers ashamed of their drab origins. But the father’s religion set against the son’s atheism, and his crossing of the Irish Sea to England, heightens the pitch of familial rejection, and the sense of a character torn – or tearing himself – away from his roots, yet wanting to put down new ones. 

Talking about his inspiration for The Untouchable, Banville said he was staggered by the volume of sang froid required to maintain a career at the heart of the Establishment while betraying your country for so long. Clearly, he doesn’t buy Marxism as a convincing explanation – it only ever seems to fill a gap in the life of the young Maskell. Banville paints a picture of a man who, quite early on, develops the idea of life as a performance, with the authentic self as illusory. Blunt/Maskell’s latent homosexuality, which he only ‘discovers’ during a night of air raids on London, is one more ingredient in the personality of a man who seemed destined to lead ‘the secret life’.   

And yet, to return to the radical/radical dichotomy, after a lifetime of secrecy, the narrator discovers in himself the joy of revealing all. Banville creates a fictional ‘audience’ in the form of a young female writer researching his story. As he narrates, he clearly enjoys trying to shock her, lending a tantalising air of mock-anti-heroic exaggeration to the whole narrative. And yet he sometimes swerves into raw honesty about his emotions, the chief of which is fear and fascination with the one inevitable ending – death. 

You would be hard pushed to find a novel which delves as deeply, or with as much sinister pleasure as The Untouchable, into twentieth century man’s heart of darkness.

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