John Banville occupies a very definite and indeed almost unique place among contemporary novelists. He is not fashionable. Indeed he disregards fashion, even the extent to which most novelists, however independent in their natures and talents, keep an eye on what is “in” or “out,” and are often insensibly influenced by this awareness. He shows no interest in discovering in his fiction who he “really is”; nor does he consciously explore the predicament of a class or a society. Social indignation, or powerful statements about the inner life, are not for him: nor is the fantasy projection of the self that goes with magic realism.
Instead he has thoroughly learned what Henry James called “the Lesson of Balzac.” It was a lesson which James himself mastered, and used with the greatest skill. The novelist, like the scientist, picks his theme, and lets nothing about it be lost upon him. He explores it coolly but imaginatively, without recourse to plotting devices or adventitious effect. The subject may be the natural history of a murder, as in Banville’s The Book of Evidence. It might be the history and implications of a scientific mind and its theory, as with the biographical novel Kepler, themes further taken up in The Newton Letter and in Doctor Copernicus. It might be an oblique study of the world of mythology and belief, as in Mefisto, and in Banville’s recent novel, Athena. Banville is above all a learned novelist, who bears his learning lightly.
His new novel, The Untouchable, takes as its theme the psychology and the natural history of treachery and the treacherous person. In one sense such a subject may seem to belong to the past: since the collapse of the Soviet Union the role of the master spy has been greatly diminished, perhaps even abolished; and with it has gone the fascination the public once felt about such men and their activities. But this does not deter Banville, just as it would not have deterred Henry James. This challenging theme has its own interest, irrespective of its immediate or contemporary relevance: with such a subject men’s motives, their personalities, obsessions, and hidden desires, have a timeless quality. The field in which the classic traitors once operated deserves to be chronicled and comprehended by the imagination, as Balzac once chronicled the corruptions of French society, or Scott the mind and heart of historic legend. The novelist can work in a medium more intuitive than that of the historian, giving his personae from the past a view of their own actions, and a voice of their own.
The past in this novel is not far away, but in our time even the immediate achieves its own kind of distance very quickly. The once-famous traitors—Burgess and Maclean, Philby and Blunt—are already historic figures. It is the last of them that Banville takes as his “hero,” making him the annalist of his own downfall and compiler of the memoir he wishes in his last …