The Untouchable

ISBN: 0679767479
ISBN 13: 9780679767473
By: John Banville

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Reader's Thoughts

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.


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.


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.

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.

Vit Babenco

What forces a person to betray his country? Where do all the spies come from? What makes them ticking? Some true espionage stories are much stranger than fiction, especially when the tale is told by such master as John Banville.“To take possession of a city of which you are not a native you must first fall in love there.”To achieve our own ideals we are ready to betray any ideals of the others.


A fascinating roman-à-clef, where, instead of the very real Anthony Blunt, we get the may as well have been real Victor Maskell, Irishman, aesthete, homosexual, art historian, and spy, moving through upper class Britain on either side of the Second World War and living right through to the onset of Thatcher. Banville has Maskell tell us his story with enough humor and poignancy so that he never outstays his welcome, even if you wouldn’t necessarily trust him as far as you would throw him. And Maskell isn’t alone, this book is full of colorful, well-drawn characters. Ultimately though, “The Untouchable” is about identity and the lies people tell to each other and to themselves, which may sound simple, but really is not. Fortunately, Banville knows this and has more than enough skill to show us. This was my first John Banville book, it wont be my last.


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 Untouchable by John Banville is an exceptionally good book, one of the best I've read in a long time. The story focuses on Victor Maskell, loosely based on the figure of Anthony Blunt, one of the infamous Cambridge Five, or Six…or Seven…, who in the 1930s began spying for the Soviets and continued to do so right through WWII, when Maskell indicates that he'd had enough, he wanted to live out his life as an art historian (keeper of the King of England's drawings and paintings and director of an art institute.)Setting the historical spy ring aside and focusing on the novel, Banville creates a marvelous, multi-faceted, cheeky, proud, insecure, and eloquent figure in Maskell. Like Banville, Maskell writes beautifully about the sky's soaring commentary on the earth (how the clouds scudded along, how the sun blazed, how the mists and fogs and shadows drifted down upon mortals in imitation of their engimas and flaws). Beyond that, he captures complex action involving English folk who seem to become more and more irritating the higher they rise in society and more vicious and cynical the lower they fall (or were born). The dialogue is great--fast, to the point, always in character--and there is a pretty convincing rendition of what spying in those days was all about: filching decoded documents, reporting on who was up and who was down, correcting Soviet misapprehensions about Great Britain's capabilities and intentions. Lots of this is what spies call pocket litter, stuff you snatch without seeing any value in it, just letting the analysts figure it out.Maskell was born to a prelate in Ireland, went to Cambridge, and fell into a situation that was wrong-headed but made a certain sense at the time. He and his fellows saw the 1930s as a period when socialism and fascism were going head-to-head, England was too weak-kneed to deal with this battle, and America had no appetite for recrossing the Atlantic as well. The Spanish Civil War had an incendiary effect on these young men and women. They didn't like the Soviet Union and, as it is phrased in the book, wish socialism had prevailed somewhere else, but it didn't, so they sided with Stalin and stuck to him and each other through the ultimate struggle with Hitler.Maskell becomes a respected art historian, a lover of Poussin, in particular, and marries. He may or may not have been the father of his children. Probably not. Soon after marriage, he realizes he's gay. A lot of his crowd is gay. So there are two undersides to respectability here: the refined Cambridge/Oxford class spying and the refined Cambridge/Oxford class slumming for homosexual opportunities.Maskell is cheeky, diffident, candid, eloquent, snotty and wise about his situation. Coming from Northern Ireland, he's "all right," meaning he isn't Catholic, but his brain leads him upward and gets him, too smart by half, into a situation that has to turn out badly.Passages in this book wherein the rain falls on windows and glistens on the street and is reflected in unsympathetic eyes are wonderful. Banville is a superb stylist. He refers to Blake now and then, but not too often. He describes Poussin and others in terms befitting a true art historian. He captures the misery, fatalism, and luck of living through the London Blitz persuasively.Some of the characters in the book are fully realized the moment they walk on stage. Others, Maskell's wife, doesn't really come through until the end. And still others, it seems to me (I'm thinking of his brother-in-law) are a bit too archly and indefinitely drawn. Maskell isn't meant to understand exactly how and why his brother-in-law must come out on top, must have been the one who sold him out, and the confrontation with Mark at the end of the book is blown off in a kind of summary rather than a real scene, which is unfortunate.The novel is written as a memoir after Maskell has been outed as a spy many years after making a deal to turn over what he knew in exchange for maintaining his place (and job) in society. He has some kind of cancer, but he has, befitting an art historian, an astonishing memory, and he wants what he's gone through to be known. The words "traitor" and "spy" thrown at him in the press are too simple; they don't convey the legitimate moral complexity or the substance of a life over which Maskell didn't have full control.In the book, Maskell acknowledges that his actions must have led to certain deaths. Sir Anthony Blunt denied this. Both would agree they were out of their depth. Banville's Maskell is by far the more interesting character, though. The Untouchable is a book worth reading.For more of my comments on contemporary writing, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).


I'm struggling with this book as it takes some time getting used to it. The story, thus far, is interesting but the prose is unbelievably (and annoyingly) pretentious. I need a dictionary by my side as I read this book because every other word is unfamiliar. If it weren't for the prose, I might think more highly of this book.Victor Maskell's life is over. He's dying of cancer and he's been kicked out of every organization and removed of all honors because he was a spy for the Russians back in the day. Most of the book is recollections of Vic's past -- how he became a spy, how he met his wife, his time spent in France, the birth of his child, etc. and it's all interesting and moves the story along (he's relegating this story to Miss Vandeleur who wishes to write a book on spies). Again, I wish the prose was lighter -- Victor sounds like a pompous butt-head. But you do get used to the prose and then the story starts to come out. Towards the end, I just felt really sorry for Vic. He's had a difficult life and was majorly betrayed by many friends of his and some family.

Laura Hogensen

A masterpiece. Banville's prose is exquisite. He also writes some of the finest endings I have ever read. Victor Maskell, the unreliable narrator of The Untouchable is unknowable even to himself. Readers are given only a glimpse of this man's double, triple, myriad selves. This isn't a novel about spies. Not at the core. It's subject is far more elusive - the search for self that we all undergo, or ignore, in the course of our lives. Victor is pedantic and snobby, intelligent yet unaware, guarded and cold yet we feel for him too. This novel draws you in on so many levels. Even if you don't appreciate the plot, the writing is superb. Read it.


An auspicious introduction for me, to this very intelligent author. In this very well crafted novel the author takes us through a fictional account of the life of a Cambridge spy during the time around World War II. The protagonist leads a double life in almost every sense of the meaning, and finds thrills in his deception, the same way he finds comfort in art, which is his another of his loves. His identity is built on lies, and those lies are both his security, and potentially his undoing. Now for a book about espionage, fraught with the potential of danger, and taking place during a bloody war, there really is not a lot of action. However, this book does not need gratuitous action scenes to compel the reader to keep flipping pages; the story itself, filled with suspense and wit, is more than sufficient to keep one compelled and eagerly reading on.


I didn't know anything about the real-life events behind this - I'm a little curious but not at all concerned how much of it was fact and how much fiction - I was content simply to enjoy it as a stand-alone work, and enjoy it I did.All the elements were promising - a world-weary English(ish)man for a main character, a WWII backdrop, a healthy dollop of debauched high society, and a bit of a spy mystery driving the narrative - but it would all have been for nothing without the right delivery, and boy does Banville deliver.OK, so his prose, characters and settings don't quite have Mr Graham Greene's unique touch of aching genius, nor does his dialogue quite have Mr Joseph Conrad's spark, but I place The Untouchable almost in that same league - at a minimum these things are all mahogany-solid throughout, and quite often the prose quavered on the brink of being beautiful. For a 400-page spy novel, that was a very welcome surprise.I'm told The Sea is a bit meh, but on the strength of what I've just read, I'll be returning to Mr Banville in the not-too-distant future...Favourite quote:Is there anything more dispiriting than an empty, hand-warmed, sticky gin glass?


After reading something written so well, it’s a disappointment having only my own less eloquent words available to praise it. Maybe it’s better to let Banville’s passages sell themselves. I’ll get to those soon, but first a bit of context. The book, I learned only today, is a Roman a clef -- more or less a true account of the infamous Cambridge spies disguised as a novel. The focus is on Victor Maskell, a composite figure based primarily on real-life Anthony Blunt. It’s structured as a memoir by Victor in his mature years reflecting back on his days as a would-be ideologue in the socialists' camp (stoicists', really), an intelligence officer in WWII, a spy for the Russians, a renowned art historian, an uninvolved family man, and a fancier of men. Finding conflict in a life like that was no challenge. Breathing life into an inherently cold fish was. Victor was undeniably complex, but there was not a lot of empathy to endear him to anyone. The pleasure in reading the book was not in witnessing any ultimate humanization, but in the language and intelligence of the author. Here are some samples. Judge for yourself. Illustrating one aspect of the man Victor was: “[T:]he crowd was so large it had overflowed from the gallery, and people were standing about the pavement in the evening sunshine, drinking white wine and sneering at passers-by, and producing that self-congratulatory low roar that is the natural collective voice of imbibers at the fount of art. Ah, what heights of contempt I was capable of in those days! Now, in old age, I have largely lost that faculty, and I miss it, for it was passion of a sort.”And another, as mentioned by a friend: “The trouble with you, Vic, is that you think of the world as a sort of huge museum with too many visitors allowed in.”Victor comparing his Irish upbringing with that of a Jewish friend: “[W:]e shared the innate, bleak romanticism of our two very different races, the legacy of dispossession, and, especially, the lively anticipation of eventual revenge, which, when it came to politics, could be made to pass for optimism.”On his evolving views, speaking about: “the American system itself, so demanding, so merciless, undeluded as to the fundamental murderousness and venality of humankind and at the same time so grimly, unflaggingly optimistic. More heresy, I know, more apostasy; soon I shall have no beliefs left at all, only a cluster of fiercely held denials.”Victor reminiscing with old friend, Nick: “’Do you remember,’ I said, ‘that summer when we first came down to London, and we used to walk through Soho at night, reciting Blake aloud, to the amusement of the tarts? The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction. He was our hero, do you remember? Scourge of hypocrisy, the champion of freedom and truth.’ ‘We were usually drunk, as I recall,’ he said, and laughed; Nick does not really laugh, it is only a noise that he makes which he has learned to imitate from others. […:] ‘The tygers of wrath,’ he said. ‘Is that what you thought we were?’”“How to Write” books tell you to use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. When you’re John Banville, though, and know all the right ones, maybe the rule shouldn’t apply. He may not be to your taste if, say, Hemingway shots are your beverage of choice, but as cups of tea go, for English Lit types, this guy’s well worth a try.


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.


A beautifully handled, sarcastic, changeable, moving 1st person voice, in the character of Victor Maskell, Russian/British double agent and art historian. John Banville is brilliant in his creation of this prickly character, whom I love in spite of, and maybe because of, his prickliness and undecorated honesty. Brilliant, too, the way Maskell's homosexuality meshes with, resonates with, his spying -- both illicit activities in England in the 1920s and 30s (and into the "modern" era. . . ). The story sags in the middle, and could have used some serious editing, yet the opening and closing thirds are echt Banville, glorious, absorbing.

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