The Untouchable

ISBN: 0679767479
ISBN 13: 9780679767473
By: John Banville

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Reader's Thoughts


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 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.

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.


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.

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.


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]


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.


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.

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.


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.

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 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.


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.

Carinya Kappler

I like to think that this book describes the activities of people on the very outer fringes of society. If in fact the majority of citizens behaved with such crassness and with no real loyalty to their countrymen this world would be an even darker is difficult to feel empathy for spy Victor Maskell who is rudely awakened from his priveleged shallow existence by the betrayal that alters his perception of life. Victor Maskell does not live up to my ideals as a hero. His choices to be absent, as a son, brother, husband and father do not lend him credibility. Even his choices of lovers are flawed leaving him isolated in a world of physical, emotional excesses without the intellectual companionship that could have resulted from more permanent partnerships. The one being he professes to hold an undying secret devotion for emerges as the greatest disappointment of his life.even though the book is written proficiently I felt as though it had nothing uplifting to teach me about human nature, very little to say in defence of the mechanics or subtleties of spying and worse still, no silver lining on the black cloud of treachery.maybe it is a little to close to the truth for comfort.Carinya


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.

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