Michael Burleigh recently won the Nonino International Master of His Time Prize for a life's work which includes Moral Combat: A History of World War II; the trilogy Earthly Powers, Sacred Causes and Blood and Rage; The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001); and several earlier books on German history, all published by Cambridge University Press. He has also won three major awards for TV documentaries. Michael writes regularly on foreign policy and terrorism for the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sunday Times. He is married and lives in central London. In this post he discusses John Banville's The Untouchable.
Michael Burleigh on The Untouchable by John Banville
I'd met John Banville at a private talk-dinner hosted by a banker during the 2005 Sydney Writers' Festival. We met again this January at the Nonino Prize ceremonies in their Grappa distillery in Udine. He was a judge; me a laureate. He was so dry and witty that I felt ashamed that I had not read one of his books, especially as he must have had to burrow into my huge tomes.
He recommended The Untouchable. I have always read a lot of fiction, much more when I was younger. I read novelists as a job lot: Naipaul for three months, Fitzgerald or Roth for the next three and so on. Nowadays I usually read fiction with some writing in mind, like the whole of Dostoevsky, including the published working notebooks, plus my old friend Joseph Frank's five-volume Princeton University Press biography, for my book Earthly Powers. I am nothing if not thorough; obsessive maybe.
I was pretty familiar with the story of Anthony Blunt, the Poussin expert and Soviet agent, although I was living in Germany when the affair burst into the open. I once owned Blunt's three-volume Poussin – big matt rose books published by Phaidon, which I sold with hundreds of other art books when I was broke. I think I subsequently read Miranda Carter's biography of the old traitor. Or at least I read in and out of it with more or less interest. Maybe I have the author wrong? Banville's book is far superior to that. Yes, it does the predictable Alan Bennett stuff – Cambridge, queens and the Queen, tales of ancient Soho – which had all the attractions of an overflowing ashtray to a smoker – the class issue, art and snobbery, post-war England and so on.
But there is something much more at work here. First, the structure of the book replicates what I imagine happens to memory in old age. The earlier life of Victor Maskell (the Blunt figure) is far more salient than the perfunctory chapters dealing with his unmasking and journey into social ignominy. There is the Northern Irish bishop father, an idiot brother, and his stepmother Hattie, their harmless little kind world disconnected from a bitchy metropolitan clique that thinks it has its finger on the pulse of History.
Banville captures the fact that these people 'believe' in Socialism and the Soviet Union in a highly subjective way, the only passion they feel being their condescending hatred of the US and contempt for their own country even as they lap up its Ruritanian rewards. Learning Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist theory was only for autodidacts, Banville observes, in one of many sharp observations about his main characters.
Maskell and his friend 'Boy' Bannermann (the Guy Burgess character) are ultimately driven by the thrill of the illicit, as if spying is the equivalent of 'cottaging' before the Wolfenden era. I was also amazed at how Banville, who I assume is heterosexual, managed to capture the underlying homosexuality of his subject, and his rapid transition from his wife 'Baby' Vivienne to a succession of working class lovers. Banville uses many of the other characters to give Maskell's own sensation of being permanently observed by what might be called 'frenemies' - Nick Brevort (his wife's brother) and Querrell, both it transpires fellow Soviet spies.
For being a spy, Banville, says is like watching yourself in a dream: 'whatever you do, there is another, alternative you standing invisibly to one side, observing, evaluating, remembering...'; '... it is the power to be and not to be, to detach oneself, to be oneself and at the same time another. The trouble is, if I were always at least two versions of myself, so all the others must be similarly twinned with themselves in this awful, slippery way'.
I read several sentences twice, just out of sheer enjoyment at his technical skill. Here he is on the sea voyage Maskell and fellow comrades make to Russia:
So there we were, a boatload of superannuated boys, bucketing through autumn storms along the Skagerrak and down into the Baltic, on our way to encounter the future at first-hand. Needless to say, what I see is a Ship of Fools by one of the anonymous medieval masters, with curly whitecaps and a stylized porpoise bustling through the waves, and our party, in robes and funny hats, crowded on the poop deck, peering eastwards, an emblem of hope and fortitude and, yes, innocence.
It is fashionable nowadays to say that fiction doesn't tackle big subjects too well any more. That when the major questions are economic, and when ideologies are dead or dying, novelists are like bad photographers, out of focus, inattentive to the ways of our world, solipsistic and so on. There is some point to this in the sense that whereas any one could have taken part in a global war, it is given to few to work inside a hedgefund or central bank, and imagination probably does not cut it without some detailed understanding.
Actually, I've always understood that a good novel is worth several shelves of bad history writing, including the hundreds of books that are appearing about the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath. Novels can say something essential about a time that all the learned pages and footnotes fail to grasp. People will object that, yes, but its made up, that there are creative 'liberties'. Well, yes there are, but surely emotional intelligence and essentialism are worth it? This is an extremely fine book, which told me far more about Blunt and his circle than the slightly arch way in which he and they have been served up so far. Even before I finished the book I have been recommending it to all and sundry. Truly marvellous. And not entirely made up.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]