Blunt weapons of the homintern

THE UNTOUCHABLE by John Banville Picador pounds 15.99

JOHN BANVILLE's new novel is the memoir and self-portrait of a disgraced former spy, who has been Keeper of the Queen's pictures, Director of the Institute (Art) and an eminence in the Department (Foreign Affairs). He is not called Anthony Blunt; his name is Victor Maskell.

In old age Maskell broods and muses over a life of treachery and seeks his own betrayer. He discovers that he was never trusted, that his leaked information was of little value, that he was a pawn in the game he thought he controlled. Now he has lost everything; even his treasured Poussin, the one constant love of his life, may not be authentic. There is nothing to do but gratify his children by dying: "Why do the young always think it better that the old should be dead?"

Like many scholars he had a vague yearning for a life of action; after Cambridge and the Apostles the spy business seemed an amusing pastime, blending harmoniously with his other activities. His friends of course were all doing it too.

But unlike his friends Maskell has no political allegiance. Accused of having betrayed everything, he is able to reply: "What you mean by everything is nothing to me. To be capable of betraying something you must first believe in it." At the moment of his recruitment, certainly, he is aware of a "brief tumescence in the air"; he is also aware that this is a game, exciting but ludicrous. When a Russian comrade describes atrocities in the war against the Whites, Maskell nods in grim complicity, but "just below the lid of my sobriety there was squeezed a cackle of disgraceful laughter, as if there were a merry little elf curled up inside me, hand clapped to mouth and cheeks bulging and weasel eyes malignantly aglitter".

For him, the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War and Poussin's "Capture of Jerusalem" have the same significance; they are both "remote, complete, all frozen cry and rampant steed and stylised, gorgeous cruelty". Cruelty has appealed to him from infancy; his brother, born with brain damage, was his first silent, defenceless victim. His native Ireland, his father, his stepmother, his home are all shrugged off; so too his wife and children. His only continuing relationships are with fellow spies and dissenters. He is seduced by Danny, his friend Boy's lover ("Welcome to the Homintern," cries Boy) and he pursues his new sexual career with unflagging appetite. Later he wonders if women realise "how deeply, viscerally, sorrowfully men hate them."

The world of Queerdom and the world of espionage converge; by night he goes "prowling in mad excitement, with his dark desires and his country's secrets clutched to his breast". By day, for order and silence and tranquillity he turns to art, to his monograph on Poussin (20 years in the writing), to the great collections at Windsor and at the Institute. For these he cares as he cannot and will not care for people.

Cold, snobbish, cruel, fastidious, Maskell is a horror. One might entirely weary of him were it not for his occasional inklings, bewildered apprehensions of another world from which he is excluded. Catching sight of his wife's engorged breasts beneath her bedjacket he is consumed by anguished pity; just twice he finds himself weeping silently, uncontrollably. And at a lover's sleepy smile, "something opened in me, briefly, frighteningly, as if a little window had been thrown open on to a vast, far, dark, deserted plain."

Banville excels and exults in such moments, when "something snags and stops, turning and turning, like a leaf on a stream." Wind and weather, sunlight and the great passing clouds shadow, illuminate and overlay the grim and acerbic narrative. The prose is stunning; every sentence is perfectly judged in length and weight, every simile is piercingly apposite; a faint, familiar shock is "like a sootfall in a chimney".

There are occasional oddities - a curious number of comparisons involving dead animals, an excess of descriptions of poor, kind, Hettie the stepmother - as beast of burden, as big old bag of bones, as sorrowing old buffalo, and as settling into a car with a "henlike subsidence". On the other hand, they are all too good to waste. The language is formal and dense, intoxicating in its precision. "A thick drop of sunlight seethed in a glass paperweight on a low table." Words like flocculent, oneiric, brumous and umbrage shed a sombre glow.

Like the earlier Dr Copernicus, Kepler and The Newton Letter, The Untouchable mixes fictional and historical truth. The accumulated detail of characters and situation makes for a strange sense of half-recognition, of deja vu. There are echoes of Conrad, of Waugh, of Patrick Hamilton and of Graham Greene (who appears, disguised, in various outfits, but notably in a high- shouldered dark brown suit which reminds the narrator of an HP sauce bottle).

Fog shrouds the streetlamps, inscrutable figures move into doorways, coat collars turned up, hat brims lowered. There is a great deal of drinking and a charming disquisition on smoking as a Watteau-esque activity.

While at the core of the book, at the heart of Maskell, there is a desolation, an icy vacuum, its literary delights are overwhelming, a verbal demonstration of Poussin's requirements of a painting: "It is an imitation of anything that is to be seen under the sun, done with lines and colour. Its end is delectation."

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