Monday 23 November 2020

A Marxist and a monarchist

The Untouchable The British royal family is an anachronism. Don't you find it odd in the 21st century that one family's wealth, prestige and standing is based on its claim to be descended from a French bastard who invaded England nearly 1000 years ago? Geneticists tell us that pretty much everyone with English ancestry is related to William the Conqueror, including Danny Dyer, who's traced his roots back to King Edward III. So why should Queen Elizabeth and her extended family be the exception and hang on to all the loot?

Saying that, I admit to supporting the Queen, and have something of a soft spot for Charles too. The royal family is an anchor that holds me fast to history and culture, but it's nonetheless a conundrum for someone with moderate socialist views.

The same is also true of Victor Maskell, who is both a Marxist and a monarchist. He's also John Banville's anti-hero in his novel The Untouchable, which we recently read for book club. The roman a clef is a tale of obsession, treachery and deception.

Cambridge educated Maskell was a respected art historian with links to the royal family, but he was also a Soviet spy. In the mid-1960s his activities had been brought to the police's attention, but the affair was hushed up to reduce embarrassment. In return for providing information to the authorities Maskell kept his job and his reputation, however in the early 1980s, when The Untouchable begins, the traitor is unmasked and the scandal becomes public. A young woman named Miss Vandeleur is interested in writing Maskell's biography and the former spy narrates his story as if recording his memories for her.

Maskell's character is partly based on Anthony Blunt, one of a number of British spies known as the Cambridge Five, working for Russia in the mid-20th century. Others in the book are pastiches of known agents or famous figures of the time: Boy Bannister, constantly drunk and an openly unrestrained homosexual is similar to Guy Burgess, Querrell resembles Graham Greenea, Alastair Sykes is modelled on Alan Turing.

Maskell's life is one of privilege and wealth. He talks about his family in Northern Ireland, his student days in Cambridge, wild living during WW2 in London, and visits to Russia, France and Germany. The more I read, the more I disliked him. He insists to Miss Vandeleur that he "was a connoisseur, you know, before I was anything else”. Maybe, but he is also all arrogance, inconsideration and selfishness. In working for Russia he believed he and his colleagues were "brave but playful, always resourceful chaps in school stories". His brother-in-law censures him, "you weren’t serious; you were just in it for amusement, and something you could pretend to believe in". The only thing Maskell truly loves is his painting of the tragic death of Seneca by Poussin.

Banville's writing style necessitates reading the book slowly in order to appreciate it, like fine wine. Maskell, being an academic, occasionally uses archaic vocabulary, and being an art historian he has an eye for detail, especially the changing moods of the sky, sunrises, sunsets, clouds. There are touches of humour too, especially in the descriptions of the Russian contacts and the exploits of Boy Bannister and his chums.

In conclusion, the book's fine prose is utterly seductive in the way the intricacies of Maskell's life are exposed, and the ending is very satisfying.

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