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.


This book revolves around a British intellectual and art historian who is a spy for the Russians during the 1930's and 40's. It is based on an actual Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt. The story is riddled with betrayals, including political, sexual, and personal. It takes awhile to get into, especially if you do not know the basis of the story. Banville is known as a great prose stylist, and he is that, but have your dictionary handy. This book takes some work, but it is a very interesting psychological portrait with enough twists to keep the patient reader turning the pages.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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]

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.


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.

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


This is the fictional account of Victor Maskell, a Brit who spied for the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century, but also was a respected art critic, military officer, code breaker, latent homosexual (at least until his 30s and thereafter when he settles into his sexual identity), and poor family man (married to a woman who admits she doesn't love him). It is based on the true account of Anthony Blunt, a member of the so-called Cambridge spies.The book is a brilliant psychological and philosophical dissection of Maskell's life, as he recalls it for a biographer who comes to call when he is in his 70s. Banville's writing is wonderful as we look into the depths of Maskell's mind, trying to find out why he decided to spy for the Soviets and make some of the, in retrospect, horrible decisions that he made. If there's one key criticism of the novel, it's that we don't get an convincing sense of the motivation behind Maskell's decision to engage in espionage for the Soviets; perhaps there were more layers to it than my simple reading could determine, but I was left unsatisfied. Moreover, I was so fed up with Maskell's ego that by page 300 or so of a 400 page book, I was pretty much finished with him.Nevertheless, if you enjoy the philosophical narratives that British character fiction authors seem to specialize in, The Untouchable is up there with the best of them.


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.

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.


"The Untouchable" is a brilliant re-imagining of the story of the now infamous Cambridge spies as seen through the eyes of one of their own. Victor Maskell is the son of a Protestant Irish bishop who finds himself in Cambridge in the 1930s studying Art History. By association he falls in with a group of louche young men who would come to espouse Bolshevism and act as Russian spies both before and and during the Second World War. (Victor is loosely based on Anthony Blunt.) Victor, while not actually reprehensible is not really an appealing person - he is effete, snobbish, irresponsible, self-involved and initially confused about his sexuality, although he marries and perhaps fathers two children. However, in Banville's capable and dazzling words, Victor's "memoir" becomes both compelling and sympathetic. Banville is an extraordinary writer and the books only marginally falls short when the reader senses some ambiguity or confusion between the past and the present. Highly recommended.

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