The Untouchable

ISBN: 0679767479
ISBN 13: 9780679767473
By: John Banville

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Reader's Thoughts


Banville's story about the life and career of Victor Maskell, an English academic who, out of boredom and misplaced idealism, becomes a Russian spy in the 30s. He operates successfully until late in life. Eventually exposed and charged with treason when old, sick and dying, he recounts his life in a series of flashbacks. Banville is brilliant in conveying Maskell's vulnerability, self-deceptions, and pretensions. We watch as his life falls apart, and his smug assumptions prove irretrievably false. Espionage books are often needlessly opaque, and despite the fact that Banville writes beautifully, I found that to be the case here. I was also put off by the seemingly endless debauchery and drinking; maybe they really lived that way but they must have had strong constitutions. Banville does capture detail, though, and paints a convincing picture of the ordinary, sordid life of the insignificant spy at the bottom of the food chain.


Random thrift store find.I picked this up because the back blurb ended with "The Untouchables places John Banville in the select company of both Conrad and le Carré." And with that, I had to read it.Slow start at first; most definitely disliked the main character. But then I was reminded that this roman a clef was based on Anthony Blunt and I regained courage to commit… and I am glad I did. Banville painted for me a picture of a man so removed from himself, so caught up with lying about his own sexuality and core that falling into the centerless act of spying at that time period seemed like a logical step. Quite taken by this vantage point, opening me to dilemmas and experiences I would not have thought of, despite my years with le Carré and Furst… Very much recommended for those interested in that time period, but do not expect an action driven novel. Instead, ready oneself for a deeper exploration into someone's —not personality, not mind— but mindset....One quotation that was dogearred, I note, as I look back at my copy:"I had finished my long essay on the Poussin drawings at Windsor and could not disguise form myself the fact that it was a poor, dry thing. I often ask myself whether my decision to purse a life of scholarship—if decision is the word_was the result of an essential poverty of the soul, or if the desiccation which I sometimes suspect is the one truly distinguishing mark of my scholarship was an inevitable consequence of that decision,. What I mean to say is, did the pursuit of accuracy and what I call the right knowledge of things quench the fires of passion in me? The fires of passion: there sounds the voice of a spoiled romantic." [126]


Probably his best book. The prose isn't as ostentatiously ornate as in a lot of his other work. Not that there's anything wrong with ornate prose, but in Banville's case it can get so Nabokovian that it almost feels like plagiarism. Here he reins it in a bit, only without losing any of the best elements of his more ornate stuff. It's still full of perfectly chosen details and words. Extremely vivid. I feel like I use that word in almost all of my complimentary reviews, but that's because vividness is something I value really highly, and it's something Banville excels at. A lot of the time I would find myself with that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the one you get not because of any one aspect, but because the whole thing is Really Good. Never quite Great, but always Really Good.The content itself is also very absorbing. Our Protagonist is well rendered and I loved watching his life unfold, no matter how badly it went. I wish he had put a little of that effort into sketching some of the other characters (though a disinterest in others does fit into the narcissism of the narrator, so who knows? Maybe it was intentional). For example, I thought Qurell was extremely undeveloped given his importance to the plot. I also felt like the device of the woman wanting to write a book about him that kicks off the novel didn't really serve much of a purpose. But minor complaints aside, this is a really good novel and almost a masterpiece.


This is my second try with John Banville. Once again, he impresses me with his ability to write nearly perfect prose and characters who are as flesh and blood and flawed as any who ever breathed, while completely boring me. That's strike two, Mr. Banville, and two is all most authors get from me.Banville is a serious Literary Dude, and this is a serious Literary Dude's novel. The Untouchable is written as a memoir by one Victor Maskell, who is based on real-life Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt; although this is a novel, it's only loosely fictionalized history. Maskell, as he tells his story, was, like Blunt, formerly the keeper of the British royal family's art collection, and has recently been exposed as a Soviet spy since before World War II. Maskell is also a homosexual, which plays a large part of his narrative - he describes his sexual encounters with the same precise elegant prose as he talks about watersheds in history and his role as a Soviet double-agent. Everybody nowadays disparages the 1950s, saying what a dreary decade it was. And they are right, if you think of McCarthyism and Korea, the Hungarian rebellion, all that serious historical stuff. I expect, however, that it is not public but private affairs that people are complaining of. Quite simply, I think they did not get enough of sex. All that fumbling with corsetry and woolen undergarments and all those grim couplings in the back seats of motorcars. The complaints and tears and resentful silences, while the wireless crooned callously of everlasting love. Feh! What dinginess! What soul-sapping desperation! The best that could be hoped for was a shabby deal marked by the exchange of a cheap ring followed by a life of furtive relievings on one side and of ill-paid prostitution on the other.Whereas, oh my friends, to be queer was the very bliss! The Fifties were the last grace age of queerdom. All the talk now is of freedom and pride. Pride! But these young hotheads in their pink bellbottoms, clamoring for the right to do it in the street if they feel like it, do not seem to appreciate, or at least seem to wish to deny, the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear.Maskell is wry, cynical, sometimes humorous, and a bit depressive, looking back on a career that's been generally distinguished while always overshadowed by these twin secrets: he has lived his entire life in two closets, as a homosexual and a double-agent. He has few regrets, and he seems as much amused as he is upset by his public disgrace, the shock of his friends, the shame of his family.As brilliantly narrated as Maskell's story is, the problem is that it isn't much of a story. It's an old man reminiscing about being a young Marxist and a gay blade back when either one could get you hard prison time. There are no dramatic "spy" moments — even during World War II, he's just passing on not-very-important information to the Russians, until eventually he gets tired of the whole thing and rather anticlimactically (as much as a book that's had no suspense to begin with can have an anticlimax) drops out of the spy game. Then, years later, he's thrown under the bus by some of his former associates. (Figuratively, not literally; if anyone were actually thrown under a bus in this book, it would have been more exciting.)Most excellently written? Yes. Banville wins literary prizes — go John Banville. Did I care about Victor Maskell and his whiny, cynical, misogynistic moping after decades of being a Soviet spy? Noooo. If you have a real interest in this era, particularly with a realistically (if not particularly sympathetically) depicted gay character, then you probably won't regret reading this, but don't make the mistake of thinking that because it's about spies it's thrilling.


The Cambridge spies are the subject of this erudite, beautifully written, and highly entertaining novel. The narrator and protagonist is a thinly veiled Anthony Blunt.

Justin Evans

The first fifteen pages were awful--all first person narrative with a seemingly infinite supply of sentence fragments (get it? Because, like, people who aren't novelists can't write in full sentences?) Then it got really, really good for 50 pages. Then I realized that this book, ostensibly an interesting spy story, is in fact sub-standard Henry James narrated by a cynical aesthete who doesn't really believe that art can do anything for anyone. At that point I stopped caring, and read on only because every time I was going to stop something interesting would happen. Then there'd be a death in the family, or a divorce, or some mindless (sorry, I mean 'transcendent') fucking, and I'd be bored for another 80 pages. In short, I should have started reading Le Carre instead, as many of my friends keep telling me to. Banville has his strengths, but, charming prose aside, they're not the strengths I'm particularly interested in: minute observation of concrete objects, interesting descriptive similes. But considering his theme, you'd think there'd be something gripping in here about politics or art (i.e., things in which I am particularly interested). There is not. The first person narration falls into the same trap that all first person narration falls into (it's virtually impossible to read ironically); and Banville seems to believe that his readers will automatically assume that spies must be horrific human beings who don't deserve anything other than a public execution. True, Victor Maskell is a horrific human being who deserves only a public execution, but that's because--if his narrative is to be believed--he can't think about anything other than his penis and the olfactory effects of gin, not because he was a luke-warm socialist.


An acidic roman à clef about a Cambridge art historian who, despite tepid ideological convictions, is recruited to spy for Moscow. Banville's novel is perfect for that particular variety of Anglophile fascinated by the trappings of the era between the Armistice and the evacuation of Dunkirk--tweedy propriety, Bletchly Park, public school homosexuality, and, of course, treason. Banville does it perfectly.

Lynne King

I've got to really think before I do a review on this one and so will come back to it at a later time.


Ambitious saga chronicling the disaffected, alienated generation coming of age in the WWI thirties (upper-class, well-educated, with no 'anchor') and their often-successful wooing by already-converted dons in their respective ivied universities such as Cambridge, Eton, Oxford. LeCarre' has already covered this ground somewhat, but this book is a 'life' of such a young man, played into his seventies and brutally illustrating the cost/benefits balance sheet of an existence predicated upon duplicity--to others and to oneself.I am an easy mark for the the intelligence that is evident behind the writing, the slow (for the most part) pacing, the exquisite character development and the attention to detail. I could do without the graphic descriptions of his conversion, the character might use the term 'awakening,' to his homosexuality, and would make this same criticism of Murakami in 'Norwegian Wood', but maybe it is the expectation of the times.Not a book for everyone, certainly not the suspense/thriller crowd. More a book, as I envision it, to be enjoyed while safely ensconced in a comfortable recliner with a cup of tea at hand, maybe an old dog at your feet, and the the steady drip of a gray Spring evening outside your window. (Forgot the throw rug across your legs.)If this review doesn't send you screaming for the exits, then you may be an appreciative audience--and this book deserves an appreciative audience.


Didn't finish it. Whilst there are some hints of self-deprecation, this novel is largely a self-conscious attempt to 'intellectualise' the spy genre, in a manner which is as shallow as any use of that word ever is. This intellectualisation amounts to an embarrassing avalanche of namedropping from the history of art and ideas, draped over a thin, insight-free plot about Cold War espionage. This gives an idea of how preoccupied in impressing you the text often becomes: Anyway, of all our ideological exemplars, I always secretly preferred Bakunin, so impetuous, disreputable, fierce and irresponsible compared to stolid, hairy-handed Marx. I once went so far as to copy out by hand Bakunin's elegantly vitriolic description of his rival: "[snip]". Not that Marx was any less ferocious than Bakunin, in his way: I admired in particular his intellectual annihilation of Proudhon, whose petit-bourgeois post-Hegelianism and country-bumpkin faith in the essential goodness of the little man Marx held up to cruel and exhaustive ridicule. The spectacle of Marx mercilessly destroying his unfortunate predecessor is horribly exciting, like watching a great beast of the jungle plunging its jaws into the ripped-open belly of some still-thrashing, delicate-limbed herbivore. Violence by proxy, that is the thing: stimulating, satisfying, safe. [page 49]Banville adds that last cowardly line to suggest that what came before it - a pointless and romantically vain rhapsody - is somehow a psychological insight. That intellectual pursuits are a risk-free and self-serving manner in which to complete with others. Fine, but it's hypocritically at odds with the style and 'humour' of the prose, which is the most eye-rolling, unendearing dinner-party wit I've read since The Paper Men. At least that one was short.The cultural self-indulgence is laid thick, and Banville is nauseously attached to the notion of the rockstar intellectual. The hard-drinking, free-loving scholar who not only thinks better than your average mediocrity but who's WAY FUCKIN COOLER, too (see also, The Paper Men). There is nothing here. No stars.


Like many of Banville's narrators, Victor Maskell, the eponymous "untouchable", is an art historian. The details surrounding Maskell's life roughly correspond to a conflation of Anthony Blunt (1907-83), who was exposed in 1979 as a former Soviet spy, and the Belfast-born poet, Louis MacNeice (1907-63). The form of the novel is a fictionalised memoir, written out by Maskell in the last year of his life, detailing his rise from Cambridge undergrad in the early '30s to member of the Royal Household as Surveyor of the King's Pictures and leading figure in British art history (Indeed, I have one of Blunt’s books, Baroque and Rococo Architecture and Decoration, gracing my shelves, one of the few remaining from my grad school days.)This is Banville's longest novel, and in a way, the most focused (in terms of plot), deriving as it does from historical figures and incidents. But the roman à clef mode simples serves as an armature upon which Banville constructs diverse meditations on art, friendship, loyalty, authenticity, patriotism, academia, family and so many of the other topics which defined and defied the tumultuous twentieth century.And as always, Banville prose is luminous and delightful, poetically effervescent: sticking one's nose in a Banville book the bubbles practically tickle it. Though I was slightly shocked by how much he appropriated from Blunt's life, the book is not of course about the "facts"—be they fictional "facts" or factual "facts"—it's about how they are presented and developed. The facts surrounding a life do not make a character, particularly a literary character. Nor does it put the type of ruminations into the head of a narrator as Banville does. That takes a master craftsman, an artist. A poet.


I'm definitely a John Banville fan! Intriguing, sets the atmosphere very well, and keeps the plot moving just fast enough to keep you reading but not so fast you miss the language. Funny and serious.


Banville's rich prose exudes an eloquent yet haunting style that delves deeply into the inner musings and meditations of the Cambridge Five's fifth member. The story unfolds in gloriously slow detail, packed to the brim with florid sentences carefully crafted to reflect the protagonist rather than the writer. While Victor's reflections can at times wear thin, they all work well considering his pretentious and bombastic nature; the way he expresses himself is both disturbing and beautiful but always exquisitely stated. It was a book I found myself returning to with pleasure if only for the writing and the way it so fully supports the character Banville's created.


Victor Maskell is quite the unreliable narrator: he was a spy for the Soviet Union who moves among the royal family of the UK, a closeted homosexual who enjoys the transgressive thrill of not only acting against established morality but also breaking the law in his quest for sex partners, the son of an Anglo-Irish bishop with dual nationality. Maskell is Anthony Blount, the "Fourth Man" among the Cambridge spies, filtered through the author's imagination. Maskell has just been outed by Margaret Thatcher and is preparing himself for total social isolation. He tells his story to Serena Vandeleur, a young woman who wishes to write his biography. "Why did you do it?" is her first question. Maskell provides several answers, none definitive and the question becomes where the truth might lie.

James Debruicker

The protagonist is a closeted homosexual and a double agent for the Russians during the Cold War. Banville then milks the parallels for ALL that they're worth.

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