"In the things one reads about Blount, he's denigrated as cold,
calculating, mendacious... they can't find enough terrible things to say
about him. And when he behaves bravely during the war, the
writers write it off as his slyness at convincing the British how loyal
he was. No matter what he does, they completely write him of as an
evil character... Even people who knew Blount said they thought he
was cold, that he lacked passion. But nobody who wrote as he did
about the paintings of Poussin could be without passion."
RH: Making Victor Maskell an art historian creates a tie to the
real-life story of Blount, but it's also an interesting thematic thread
with your last three novels (The Book of Evidence,
Ghosts, and Athena).
JB: The emblematic art form of those novels was the painting
because the narrator of those books is fascinated by the surface of
things. I wanted to write from the perspective of the narrator as he
tried to find depth and solidity in those surfaces. In Blount, you had
a man who had spent his life keeping up with appearances, keeping
up the surface. And doing it very well; I have great admiration for
I'm a bit appalled by some reviewers who consider Maskell to be an
irredeemable swine and a villain. I see him as a man near the end of
his life who's lost everything but is absolutely determined to keep a
sense of style. That may sound friviolous, but when I speak of style,
I mean the style Henry James spoke of when he wrote that in
literature, we move through a blessed world, in which we know
nothing except through style, and in which everything is redeemed
by style. Maskell is putting into place a stylish work of art, and it's
not his conscious attempt to work at his own redemption, but I do
believe that art is a special way to achieve redemption.
RH: In writing out his life, however, he comes to realize he's not as
good as seeing through the styles that others adopt as he likes to
JB: Like all narrators, he's completely blind to what's really
going on, and completely misinterprets everything, which is of course
another source of despair in his life. He's misread the signs, the
appearances, and this is a hard thing for him to resign himself to.
RH: But in spite of his despair, he does maintain a certain
unflappability, a matter-of-factness...
JB: I think it's a certain bravery. Despite his self-loathing and
self-disgust, he faces failure and loss and his approaching death with
a great deal of style and also humor. Hardly anybody mentions the
humor, but I think the book's quite funny.
RH: It's hilarious, actually, if you have an ear for dark humor. I
was looking through some of the materials they sent along in the
press kit, and so many of the articles mention Beckett. There's a
similarity between your work and his in that, even in the grimmest
of circumstances, the humor comes through.
JB: That's the marvelous thing about Beckett, how truly funny
his work is. Irish writers like Shaw, Wilde, Joyce and Beckett have a
tradition of regarding the world with a disparaging, skeptical humor
that I find bracing and admirable. Look at Wilde; he was still making
jokes at the end of his life, like the famous comment on his sickbed
about the wallpaper in his room ("One of us will have to go").
One or two reviewers have noted that Maskell is similar to writers
like Shaw and Wilde who went from Ireland to England and became
more English than the English themselves by becoming parodies of
the English. And the English always accepted them, whether they
caught on to the parodic elements or not.
The relationship between England and Ireland is still very strange,
and it's not just bombs and bullets. Geographically, it's strange in that
Ireland is a post-colonial nation with the former colonists living only
seventy miles across the sea. If they were halfway around the world,
I'm sure we wouldn't be as obsessed with the English as we are.
Although I didn't set out consciously to do this, I think The
Invisible is a commentary on that aspect of our relationship. Of
course, I'm probably speaking for my generation, and that new
generation in Ireland may not have this same obsession.
RH: There's an interesting comic reversal for Maskell when he
finally realizes that he's homosexual, because he discovers that after
years of hiding the fact that he's a spy, hiding his homosexuality is
JB: As he says, it's quite a good position to be in. When he's
out cruising, although that's a word he would never use, he's doing
exactly what he does as a spy. He leads a clandestine life, speaking to
people in pubs with coded language. And he sees in homosexuality a
manifestation of the stylishness he wants in life. Of course, this is
England in the '50s, a period with a certain homosexual glamour:
white scarves, top hats, beautiful cars. As he says, the 1950's weren't
very stylish, and the homosexuals had a monopoly on what little
style there was. But he takes his style very seriously, even stoically,
so that he always appears calm on the surface.
RH: His stoicism is a marked contrast to the flamboyance of the
other spy characters, like Boy Bannister, the Guy Burgess
JB: Maskell sees himself as a dry old stick who's led a very
dull, sedentary lifestyle, but when you look at his life, you realize
that it was a life of action. His role was always that of the one who
kept the other spies safe; as he puts it, the one who wipes their noses
and keeps them from running out in traffic.
Maskell knows a moral when he sees one, and he's not going to lie to
himself or others about what he did. He's not going to pretend that
spying was a very serious business to him; I don't think he saw it as
an entirely serious business, but in many respects as a flight from
boredom. He's prepared to admit that, and refuses to constantly
justify his actions or to indulge in sentimentality about them.
That doesn't mean he's not passionate. Milan Kundera has a great
pasage in his last book of essays about how we should realize that
passion isn't only in the heart, it can also be in the mind. I've felt like
copying that passage and sending it to some of the reviewers who've
commented on the coldness of Maskell as a character. I'm not saying
this just solely out of irritation; I think there's a real critical point to
be made that apparent coldness, coolness, control of the surface
personality doesn't always mean a lack of passion.
RH: Maskell is clearly based on your admiration for Blount. But
you don't spend much time on the "guess who?" game so often found
in novels based on real events.
JB: I wasn't interested in that at all, and in retrospect I feel
perhaps it was a mistake to stay as close to his life as I did. But I did
make significant changes. I made Maskell an Irishman, and in the
usual shameless way of fiction writers, I took the boyhood of the
poet MacNeice and given it to Maskell. But I felt justified in doing
that; Blount and MacNeice were best friends in school, and more
importantly, when I was first seriously contemplating this decision, I
took down a copy of MacNeice's poems and the first one I saw was
"Poussin," so I said to myself that this was definitely an omen. I
suppose I gave Maskell an Irish background so that I could avoid the
work of having to inhabit the skin of an Englishman. I felt more
relaxed writing from an Irish perspective.
Historical fiction's a funny thing. You take the facts, as I did in novels
based on the lives of Copernicus and Kepler, and put them into a
melting pot, boil them down with the fiction, and in the end
sometimes even I can't tell which is which in the finished story. It's a
shameless business, playing fast and loose with facts about people's
lives, but I like to think that the process achieves a kind of
illumination of character. Maybe not of a specific character -- I think
Anthony Blount's more fascinating, for example, than Victor Maskell.
Human beings are always more interesting than fictional characters;
fictional characters just look more interesting.