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Untouchable by John Banville
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Untouchable (original 1997; edition 1998)

by John Banville

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1,016218,374 (3.94)63
Member:tgamble54
Title:Untouchable
Authors:John Banville
Info:Pan Books Ltd (1998), Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****1/2
Tags:fiction

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The Untouchable by John Banville (1997)

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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. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Well-written, but with a touch of Agatha Christie... or maybe that's what we call writing in character? ( )
  amelish | Sep 12, 2013 |
Too drunken maudlin Irish for my taste. ( )
  lxydis | May 11, 2013 |
I'm never sure if a little background is a help or a hindrance. In this case, I think it would have been more of a help to have boned up on the Cambridge Spies before reading the book. I had only the vaguest recollection of the known facts before reading Banville's 1997 book, written already well after the events and characters it treats. Nevertheless, Banville's writing is such a joy. A book to read leisurely so as to enjoy all the wry humour. One tiny but typical example: He names a Filipino maid "Imelda" even though it is clear that the main character does not know her name. It's just a little Marcos-ian joke. The book abounds with them.
But that's an aside really. Banville writes a character study of Victor Maskell, a man who was a spy, the last of the exposed. It seems to be Blunt, of course, but not quite. There is enough of plot action to keep the reader entertained, and enough introspection to make us think. Banville is expert in balancing the two to keep the reader going. Just the same, it's not a book I could read from cover to cover in one sitting. It is too dense and thoughtful for that. An hour here and there occupied me joyfully over a week.
The only downside for me is that I found the Victor Maskell character, and his lifestyle, unattractive. Perhaps that's just me. ( )
1 vote PhilipJHunt | Apr 2, 2013 |
In a stream of conscious interior dialogue, Victor Maskell reveals his duplicitous nature now that he’s unmasked as a Russian double. Once a member of British intelligence and for many years art expert to the Queen, he’s now a disgrace.

The reader recognizes that Banville's novel is inspired or based on the life of real spy, Anthony Blunt, art adviser to QEII and Russian double agent. Even includes a character based on Alan Turing who also commits suicide by eating a poisoned apple.

Loyalty and identity, moral ambiguity, homosexual networks, good old Cambridge spy boys – it’s all here in the quiet masterful prose that proceeds with the inevitability of ocean waves returning and returning to the shore. Love Banville’s style of intimate and introverted portraiture. A rich and engrossing read by a controlled master of the pen. ( )
1 vote Limelite | Dec 21, 2012 |
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:54:28 -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.

(summary from another edition)

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