I got a recommendation for this book from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. (I have to say that although her books always inspire me with the desire to read far and wide, I haven’t struck gold on any of her recommendations yet. I fully expect to, though.) I had never read anything by John Banville, so I had no real expectations. The Untouchable was interesting, but my reactions swung wildly between enjoying it and loathing it. Let me try to sum up.
The Untouchable is the story of Victor Maskell, betrayed and betrayer. He leads a double life in almost every way he can: he is an Irishman living in England; he is gay, and a married father of two; he works for British Intelligence and for Moscow throughout the thirties, forties and fifties. The story is told in the first person, telling all Victor’s secrets, large and small, as he reflects on his life. It’s a complex story about a wildly complicated time, and it’s populated with lively characters: spies, socialites, Soviets.
I ought to have loved it. But somehow, I didn’t. Part of the problem was that the story was told pianissimo. Victor is a supremely narcissistic character, and all the other people revolve around him, disappearing entirely once they are out of sight, having no independent existence. Even Victor’s strongest emotions seem stifled and suppressed, overwritten for his lookers-on. It’s oddly repellent to feel that he is creating the story for our benefit, trying to manipulate our reactions even when he is being most “honest.” Here’s an example:
There was something wrong, something too deliberate, too self-conscious, in these occasions of intense contemplation. A suspicion of fraudulence always attended the moment. I seemed to be looking not at the pictures, but at myself looking at them…. The dreadful thought comes to me that perhaps I do not understand art, that what I see in it and seek in it is not there, or, if it is, that I have put it there. Have I any authenticity at all? Or have I double dealt for so long that my true self has been forfeit? My true self. Ah.
Of course this passage is meant to give the key to the novel, the essential fakery that lies at the heart of Victor’s existence. Unfortunately, it could just as easily apply to the style. I had no sense of anguish upon reading this, and sometimes turned away from the book, put off by his existential hand-wringing.
The other problem with the book was even harder to forgive: hideous overuse of adjectives. Open to any page, and there are twenty unnecessary adjectives blunting the force of the prose. Here, I opened at page 172, completely at random. All the following examples are from a single paragraph:
peculiar, stolid-faced fawning
voluptuous, swooning lapse
loud enthusiasm; small boys
imaginary, yet strangely, shiveringly palpable enemy
exalted, almost holy terror, inexplicably pleasurable
hay-smelling, late-summer heat
humble toil; purest form
interesting and useful skills
After a time, I became so involved in rewriting these phrases in my mind with a much more restrained style that I couldn’t engage in the story. This really contributed to my sense that it was told in a muffled voice – buried under the adjectives, I suppose.
Overall, I did enjoy the book. It could have been better (and about a third shorter) if he’d had a good editor, but he did create distinctive characters and lead us through their lives. That, after all, is why I read.