The Untouchable

This week I finished John Banville’s The Untouchable, a moving chronicle of longing, reminiscence, and sadness. It is a book about memory and about the act of remembering, too personal to really be called a history, despite the fact that it’s based on real people and events. Memory for Banville is much sadder than it is for that most famous of literary recollectors, Marcel Proust, and not just because the concerns of The Untouchable are much graver than the frivolous happenstance of Remembrance of Things Past. Rather, it is because the act of remembering itself is a tragedy, a dirge for time irrevocably lost. From the title of Proust’s work, À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, one might expect the loss of time to be of primary concern. But in fact the emphasis is on the search, an inherently hopeful act: implicit in searching is the possibility that something might be found, that the past might be reconstructed or reconstrued in some meaningful way. The past, for Victor Maskell, Banville’s memoir-writing protagonist, is utterly dead, alien and irreconcilable to the present, and doomed to wither and die. The protagonist’s desire to commit the events of his life to writing is an irresistible but ultimately futile urge, resulting in a text that is, to him, a spectral footnote to the vivid experience of his life.

“Ah, what heights of contempt I was capable of in those days! Now, in old age, I have largely lost that faculty, and I miss it, for it was passion of a sort.”

Yet what a text it is for the reader. The novel is profoundly moving in spite of its rather inert protagonist, who is a fictionalised version of Anthony Blunt of the Cambridge Five. Victor Maskell is twice an outsider for being Irish and homosexual, but many times an insider for being extremely privileged, related by marriage to the British monarchy, and generally very fortunate in his major life events. He is obsessed with art, which seems to be a symptom of his tendency to objectify all things rather than a passion for its own sake. He values art more than he values people, and says as much, dwelling especially on the one great piece of art he managed to acquire, Nicolas Poussin’s The Death of Seneca.

For all his talk of art, he does not seem to get much genuine enjoyment from it. That he regards this weak predilection as the passion of his life is telling, for he is utterly callous to most of the people in his life. He nonchalantly abuses his disabled brother in childhood, and although he respects his father in a perfunctory way, he shows little affection for him and rarely sees him. He surprises himself by marrying, casually proposing to Baby after a casual liaison, and unexpectedly being accepted (though one wonders how reliable he is in describing this scene given his gradual coming to terms with his sexual orientation). Throughout his life he is distant from his wife, who, to be fair, seems none too attached to him either, and he is totally absent from his children during their upbringing. Even his feelings towards his lovers seem muted and lacking in affect.

What he lacks in personal warmth, however, he makes up in his great powers of detailed recollection. Even as he laments his inability to re-live his past, his descriptions do powerfully evoke the respective spirits of the interwar, war, and postwar periods. Episodes in the Kremlin, during the Blitz, or at Bletchley Park are recounted with power, detail, and clarity, in most cases giving a real sense of how the experience of historic events differs completely from the way they come to be understood by later generations.

“Of course, we were all spies in those days.”

Maskell is not a good man, occasionally verging on wholly unsympathetic, yet this does not make the narrative any less overridingly sad. The terrible banality of great men, the terrible weight of years, the terrible humanity of history, the terrible withering away of age. Above all, the terrible millstone of nostalgia! It’s heartbreaking how easily it all comes and goes: marriage, children, ideals, philosophy, art, duty, betrayals, affairs. He documents all the significant moments of his own life, of the lives of others, and of the twentieth century itself, and all of it together amounts to quintessence of dust. How short the pleasures last, the drinks, the boys, the youth. At the end of his life, having lost all of his friends, he remembers drunkenly quoting Blake in London with an early infatuation turned friend, then brother-in-law, then enemy, Nick, and even this moment of young, ecstatic, drunken joy becomes part of the profound tragedy that is the passage of time. There is painful honesty in the way he forever regards the massive historical events as mere footnotes to personal tribulations, of great national tragedies as less important than small personal slights and the grudges subsequently cultivated over lifetimes. This is the human experience in honest and sad distillation.

It’s not a perfect novel. The framing device of recounting Victor’s memoirs to a journalist is a bit pointless, serving mainly to allow him to contrast the 1980s to the alien period of his youth. It’s a long novel, and the pacing is sometimes uneven. But it is nonetheless a great novel, achieving a kind of synthesis of
the deathly pallor of Graham Greene and the broad, beautiful strokes of Anthony Powell, inflected by the sense of irrevocable loss of Fitzgerald. I won’t deny that I wept a bit at the end of the book. More than any other experience it reminds me of listening to Richard and Linda Thompson’s Withered and Died, which has precisely the same spirit as The Untouchable:

This cruel country has driven me down
Teased me and lied, teased me and lied
I’ve only sad stories to tell to this town
My dreams have withered and died

Once I was bending the tops of the trees
Kind words in my ear, kind faces to see
Then I struck up with a boy from the West
Played run and hide, played run and hide
Count one to ten and he’s gone with the rest
My dreams have withered and died

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