HomeGroupsTalkZeitgeist
This site uses cookies to deliver our services, improve performance, for analytics, and (if not signed in) for advertising. By using LibraryThing you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your use of the site and services is subject to these policies and terms.
Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

The Untouchable by John Banville
Loading...

The Untouchable (1997)

by John Banville

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,203259,980 (3.97)82

None.

Loading...

Sign up for LibraryThing to find out whether you'll like this book.

No current Talk conversations about this book.

» See also 82 mentions

English (24)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (25)
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Made it to page 25. Boring and did not care for story at all. Did not finish.
  booklover3258 | Apr 16, 2019 |
One of the most dazzling and adventurous writers now working in English takes on the enigma of the Cambridge spies in a novel of exquisite menace, biting social comedy, and vertiginous moral complexity. The narrator is the elderly Victor Maskell, formerly of British intelligence, for many years art expert to the Queen. Now he has been unmasked as a Russian agent and subjected to a disgrace that is almost a kind of death. But at whose instigation?

As Maskell retraces his tortuous path from his recruitment at Cambridge to the airless upper regions of the establishment, we discover a figure of manifold doubleness: Irishman and Englishman; husband, father, and lover of men; betrayer and dupe. Beautifully written, filled with convincing fictional portraits of Maskell's co-conspirators, and vibrant with the mysteries of loyalty and identity, The Untouchable places John Banville in the select company of both Conrad and le Carre.
  JESGalway | Sep 17, 2018 |
The novel is the memoir of Victor Maskell, scion of the estate of Carrickdrum in Northern Ireland, an Art Historian, expert on Poussin; and a spy for the USSR since his time at Cambridge in the 1930s. His journal is written down as if for Miss Serena Vandeleur, a journalist who comes to him after his exposure to the press long, long after the Security Services had become aware of his treacherous activities. He thus bears a more than superficial resemblance to Anthony Blunt but doubtless the parallels are not entirely exact.

The attention here is incidental but Banville has previously had painting and painters as a subject - as in The Sea, Athena, The Book of Evidence and Ghosts. The focus here (obviously drawn from Blunt's non-espionage career) is Poussin, specifically Maskell's prized possession, The Death of Seneca, but, in keeping with the book's theme of duplicity and subterfuge, there is a suggestion that the work is not genuine, or at least not by Poussin.

The novel is wonderfully written. Each sentence is in perfect balance; a work of art in itself, the text studded with unusual observations, “The silence that fell, or rather rose – for silence rises, surely?” or comments, “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist,” and the occasional barb, “Trying for the common touch .. and failing ridiculously.” The literary allusions include a reference to Odysseus’s men drinking sea-dark wine.

There are subtle inferences to the insights of a spy, “He made the mistake of thinking that the way to be convincing is to put on a false front,” and the regrets of the trade, “It is odd, how the small dishonesties are the ones that snag in the silk of the mind,” and later, “It is the minor treacheries that weigh most heavily on the heart.” On encountering a tramp with a dog inside his coat Maskell tells us, "(I was) ashamed that I felt more sorrow for the dog than I did for the man. What a thing it is, the human heart."

Maskell claims almost from the outset to have been disenchanted with the USSR, a feeling to which his visit there in the 30s only contributed, and that his controllers consistently misunderstood England (as he puts it.) “Much of my time and energy ... was spent trying to teach Moscow to distinguish between form and content in English life.” Despite his betrayals he says, “I was nothing less than an old-fashioned patriot.” In mitigation he asks, “who could have remained inactive in this ferocious century?” and avers, "We should have had no mercy, no qualms. We would have brought down the whole world."

He receives the Order of the Red Banner (his medal glimpsed only once by him before being hidden away by his handler) for contributing to the Soviet victory at Kursk by transferring details, relayed from Bletchley, of a new German tank design. How much such information really affected that battle is of course debatable.

Some of the dialogue is representative of the times in which the book is set, “Mind if I turn off this nigger racket?” and "'What's the matter with the dago, sir?'" being cases in point.

One of Maskell’s defining features is his homosexuality (though he came to it late, after marriage to the sister of one of his University friends.) Of a lover of his he tells us, "Patrick had all the best qualities of a wife, and was blessedly lacking in two of the worst: he was neither female, nor fertile,” and further comments “(I ask myself..... if women fully realise how deeply, viscerally, sorrowfully, men hate them.)" He is of the opinion that in the fifties "to be queer was very bliss.... the last great age of queerdom." The "young hotheads" of the narrator's present day, "do not seem to appreciate, or at least seem to wish to deny, the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear."

Part of his early protection from wider exposure was that he was sent by the King to Bavaria after the war to retrieve some potentially compromising papers. A distant relation, he refers sardonically to the Queen as Mrs W.

He has a jaundiced view of humanity and at one point he describes the American system as “itself, so demanding, so merciless, undeluded as to the fundamental murderousness and venality of humankind and at the same time grimly, unflaggingly optimistic.”

His observation about his work on Poussin, that he was trying "to pull together into a unity all the disparate strands of character and inspiration and achievement that make up this singular being," might be a description of the novel itself. In The Untouchable Banville has laid out for us a life in just such terms.

It is all a fascinating examination of the existence of a spy. As he ponders who it was who unmasked him - possibly twice - Maskell begins to question everything about his life but asides such as, "My memory is not as good as it's supposed to be. I may have misrecalled everything, got all the details wrong," and, "As to this - what? this memoir? this fictional memoir?" point to the unreliability of his account.

Brilliant stuff. ( )
  jackdeighton | Aug 18, 2017 |
A slow, introspective, dense but ultimately rewarding novel based on the life of one of the figures involved in the "Cambridge Spies" scandal. There's a lot going on here: Banville's book is both a character study of a cold, slightly unlikable academic, an interesting description of the habits of spies during the early years of the Cold War, and, perhaps most importantly, a nostalgic look back at the secretive, booze-soaked gay scene that existed in London at mid-century. At a thematic level, Banville spends a lot of time on secrecy: it's an open secret that Victor is both gay and a Communist, but the painstaking steps he has to take to keep these facades up are exhausting. Also, I think, "The Untouchable" speaks to what might be called the Eichmann question -- can evil be boring? Victor certainly is: he's egotistical, overly refined, and senses that he's not one of his era's leading lights. In many ways, he's excruciatingly ordinary, yet he knowingly sends a number of British informants to their deaths for a cause he seems to have relatively little faith in. Some readers might forget this for long stretches of the book, though. Many authors have hidden evil in their characters, but Banville has done so particularly well. Victor's unconcern for others shows through only rarely: the rest of the time, he seems normal enough.

As you might guess, "The Untouchable" is a very writerly sort of novel: readers who don't enjoy good prose for its own sake might grow bored by Victor's descriptions of weekends spent in suburban bars or Banville's descriptions of the colors present in a particular sunset. Even so, Banville's style also seems to fit his subject: Victor Maskel's only true passion is art, and he makes his only really valuable contribution to London's arts scene. One gets the feeling that he'd appreciate Banville's beautifully wrought -- which is to say painterly -- descriptive passages. How a passion for art might exist in an individual who seems to care so little for others, and, indeed, its ultimate value, is another mystery that the book wisely chooses to leave unresolved. As it is, "The Untouchable" is beautifully written and well-constructed, without really getting at he enigma that resides at its center. A perfect novel, I suspect, for a certain kind of reader. ( )
2 vote TheAmpersand | May 31, 2015 |
This is a terrific reimagining of the life of Anthony Blunt, but although many of the historical events are shared, much of Victor Maskell's life and character is clearly fictional. I found it a bit difficult to get started, but once Maskell's mixture of stylish erudition, humour and ruthlessness became familiar, I found it enjoyable and entertaining - one of Banville's best creations. ( )
  bodachliath | Nov 4, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
There is much, much more to celebrate in this extraordinary book: prose of a glorious verve and originality, in the service of a richly painted portrait of a man and a period and a society and a political order -- the whole governed by an exquisite thematic design. Contemporary fiction gets no better than this.
added by aprille | editNew York Times, McGrath (Jun 8, 1997)
 
You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
For more help see the Common Knowledge help page.
Series (with order)
Canonical title
Original title
Alternative titles
Original publication date
People/Characters
Important places
Important events
Related movies
Awards and honors
Epigraph
Dedication
To Colm and Douglas
First words
First day of the new life.
Quotations
Last words
Disambiguation notice
Publisher's editors
Information from the Italian Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Blurbers
Publisher series
Information from the Italian Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Original language
Information from the Italian Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Canonical DDC/MDS

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679767479, Paperback)

A brilliant, engaging, and highly literate espionage-cum-existential novel, John Banville's The Untouchable concerns the suddenly-exposed double agent Victor Maskell, a character based on the real Cambridge intellectual elites who famously spied on the United Kingdom in the middle of the 20th century. But Maskell--scholar, adventurer, soldier, art curator, and more--respected and still living in England well past his retirement from espionage, looked like he was going to get away with it when suddenly, in his 70s and sick with cancer, he is unmasked. The question of why, and by whom is not as important for Maskell as the larger question of who finally he himself really is, why he spied in the first place, and whether his many-faceted existence adds up to an authentic life.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:57 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In a novel based on the lives of the Cambridge spies, Victor Maskell, faced with exposure after a lifetime of hiding, sits down to pen his memoirs, struggling to come to terms with his life, his friends, and their role in wartime espionage.

» see all 3 descriptions

Quick Links

Popular covers

Rating

Average: (3.97)
0.5
1 1
1.5
2 5
2.5 4
3 42
3.5 13
4 86
4.5 16
5 52

Is this you?

Become a LibraryThing Author.

 

About | Contact | Privacy/Terms | Help/FAQs | Blog | Store | APIs | TinyCat | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | Common Knowledge | 134,092,096 books! | Top bar: Always visible