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Untouchable by John Banville

Untouchable (original 1997; edition 1998)

by John Banville

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1,126227,287 (3.95)80
Authors:John Banville
Info:Pan Books Ltd (1998), Paperback, 416 pages
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The Untouchable by John Banville (1997)



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Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
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 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (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)
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:57 -0400)

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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.

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