Quickie Face-Off: Strout Vs. Banville

February 6, 2009 | No Comments

My random reading selections often throw up some surprising contrasts. Over a recent beach break I read John Banville’s 1997 novel about the Cambridge spies, The Untouchable, before entering the world of Olive Kitteredge (2008) courtesy of Elizabeth Strout. 

I’d thought myself a fan of Banville, having first encountered his cool styling in The Sea, so I’d been looking forward to this fictionalized re-imagining of the famous British espionage scandal and although it is not necessary to know about Philby, MacLean et al, much of the fun in The Untouchable is derived from trying to match Banville’s creations with their real-life inspirations. His main character, Victor Maskell, is obviously based on Anthony Blunt, curator of the Queen’s paintings and Communist spy, but was Querrell, the “hack author,” a direct swipe at my beloved Graham Greene? The conundrum at the book’s heart is why the bored, apolitical, self-absorbed Maskell would spy for the Russians, when it is obvious he has nothing but contempt for the lower classes and scepticism for everything bar art and Seneca. According to Banville, the answer, unsatisfactory as it may be to many, but which felt believable to me, is that Maskell did it because he could, for the sheer hell of it. Maskell is not likable but that’s not what bothered me about The Untouchable; what bothered me is that having now read a few Banville novels, I find his main characters variations of the same type: a cold, disinterested, intellectual man who recognizes within himself a lack of empathy for others but can neither be bothered, nor is he particularly concerned, about doing anything about it.

Banville’s prose is often extraordinary, masterful – but is he in danger of becoming the male Anita Brookner, of writing the same exquisite novel over and over again?
I’ve not read either of Elizabeth Strout’s previous two works, but it has been a while since I encountered a character so complex, so compelling, and so believable as Olive Kitteredge. Strout’s retired schoolteacher can be a nosy, argumentative contrarian but she can also be perceptive and deeply empathetic of others. Through thirteen linked stories Strout builds an exemplary portrait of one woman’s life and the tragedies and triumphs of the inhabitants of her home-town of Crosby, Maine. Olive’s mistakes with raising her son reverberate through the rest of their lives together, proving that we can never entirely atone for the past, we must simply learn to make peace with the consequences. Her marriage is built on compromise, and the small necessary lies and omissions negotiated between Olive and her husband prove love to be a most flexible and forgiving bond. At the end of The Untouchable I didn’t care what happened to Maskell or his compatriots; despite finishing Olive Kitteredge some time ago, I find I’m caring still.