The Beatrice Interview

John Banville

"...a blessed world, in which we know nothing except through style..."

Ron Hogan

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What attracted Irish novelist John Banville to the story of twentieth century England's greatest spy scandal, the Cambridge affair? "Here are these gifted, privileged young men at the heart of the English establishment," he explains. "well educated, clever, good looking. They seemed to be the natural heirs to British power, after having lived into the 1920s primarily by virtue of having been too young to die in the Great War. And it turns out they were spying for the Soviet Union, of all places." In Anthony Blount, who went on to become an art historian and curator of the queen's paintings until he was publicly 'outed' as a spy in 1979, he found a particularly fascinating personality.

"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."

In The Untouchable, Banville takes a rough outline of Blount's life and assigns it to Victor Maskell. As the aging Maskell, disgraced by the public revelation of his espionage activities, writes an unapolegetic memoir, he attempts to find in his recollections the identity of his betrayer.

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 Blount.

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 believe.

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 incredibly easy.

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 character.

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.

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All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan