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The Untouchable

3.98 of 5 stars 3.98  ·  rating details  ·  1,669 ratings  ·  169 reviews
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 subjec ...more
Paperback, 367 pages
Published June 30th 1998 by Vintage (first published 1997)
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Dec 30, 2014 David rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Queer Marxist Soviet double-agents, people who like snoozy literary fiction
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; alth
I've been spending the last month reading novels written by John Banville. It's fun with authors that have multiple works to stick with them one after another for a while to glimpse their depth and soak their craft. If at all possible the author should be wise and a good artist so that you see a little better where you are and maybe, if you are so inclined, refine your own attempts at expression through the absorption of their rhythms, their vocabulary. I started off with The Sea and then read T ...more
After reading something written so well, it’s a disappointment having only my own less eloquent words available to praise it. Maybe it’s better to let Banville’s passages sell themselves. I’ll get to those soon, but first a bit of context. The book, I learned only today, is a Roman a clef -- more or less a true account of the infamous Cambridge spies disguised as a novel. The focus is on Victor Maskell, a composite figure based primarily on real-life Anthony Blunt. It’s structured as a memoir by ...more
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 ...more
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 duplicit ...more
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 ...more
John Banville takes on the Cambridge spies, a subject which seems to hold a perennial fascination for the literary imagination as it has been fictionalized in many different ways. Part of that may stem from the phenomenon where the misdeeds of the rich and famous are always inherently interesting but more specifically, it may be that people at the top of a socioeconomic hierarchy are not usually the first to try to bring it down. Banville offers some speculation in the course of creating compell ...more
Mark Joyce
A book I’d like to erase from my mind to be able to experience it all over again.

As an espionage thriller it has the mood and tawdry realism of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. But (with the greatest love and admiration for early John le Carré) this is much more than a genre novel.

I’ve seen Banville compared to Vladimir Nabokov and on the evidence of The Untouchable the comparison is not overblown. In fact I’d go as far as to submit that this as good as Lolita in the way it uses a heinous cri
Vit Babenco
What forces a person to betray his country? Where do all the spies come from? What makes them ticking? Some true espionage stories are much stranger than fiction, especially when the tale is told by such master as John Banville.
“To take possession of a city of which you are not a native you must first fall in love there.”
To achieve our own ideals we are ready to betray any ideals of the others.
Lauren Albert
In the end, I found the book chilling in its portrayal of a man without authentic emotional ties. He is alienated from his children. Apparent friends have betrayed him. He doesn't even seem particularly tied to the politics that have supposedly driven him into his life as a double-agent.
Elizabeth (Alaska)
I first read John Banville several years ago when I picked up a mystery, Christine Falls, written under a pseudonym. By now, I remember little of that story, but I still remember that the writing was of close to literary quality rather than the somewhat less quality that is usual in the genre. I wasn't disappointed here in The Untouchable.

Several GR members have this shelved as spy/thriller, and, with the GR description, I was sort of expecting something in that vein. Well, it isn't. This is wr
Jan 26, 2014 Richard rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Spy-thriller readers, anyone who likes intelligent analysis of character
Recommended to Richard by: Banville's other books already read
This is the fourth Banville novel I've read this month. It shows the attentiveness to history evident in COPERNICUS and KEPLER, and its narrator Victor Mask ell shares characteristics with that of THE SEA. THE UNTOUCHABLE fictionalizes the British spy ring in which Anthony Blunt, the art historian and Royal appointee was the "fourth man," unmasked for years after the defection of Donald McLean ("the dour Scot") and Guy Burgess ('Boy") with the aid of Kim Philby (Nick, the MP; Querell, the Le Car ...more
I didn't know anything about the real-life events behind this - I'm a little curious but not at all concerned how much of it was fact and how much fiction - I was content simply to enjoy it as a stand-alone work, and enjoy it I did.
All the elements were promising - a world-weary English(ish)man for a main character, a WWII backdrop, a healthy dollop of debauched high society, and a bit of a spy mystery driving the narrative - but it would all have been for nothing without the right delivery, and
This is an enjoyable, if rather depressing, tale of one of the "Cambridge spies" outed for being Russian moles in British intelligence during and after the War. The account is "fictionalized", as they say, but the amount of historical detail is impressive. It might be read as a cautionary tale, as the narrator's early adoption of a Stoic (not to mean simply "stoical": he directly cites Marcus Aurelius and Seneca as his influences, and a portrait of the latter is a central prop running through th ...more
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 fal ...more
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
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 alw ...more
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 s ...more
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 psycholog ...more
Michael Graeme
A novel based on the lives of the infamous Cambridge four, a quartet at the heart of the British establishment, who were also socialist idealists, spying for the Soviets. Told through the eyes of Victor Maskell, a character modelled on Anthony Blunt, the last of the spies to be unmasked, the novel begins in the years between the wars, and conjours up an atmosphere that is impressively persuasive and run through with an atmosphere of brooding menace. As an art historian and keeper of the King's P ...more
Kelly O'Dowd
Yet another book I don't remember reading at all...

"That kind of sweaty, bladder-tightening terror is not like, for instance, the dull dread that I feel nowadays when I contemplate the painful and extremely messy death that I know awaits me, sooner rather than later. What made it different was the element of chance. I have never been a gambler, but I can understand how it must feel when at the end of its counter-clockwise run the little wooden ball, making a rattle that is distractingly reminisc
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 place.
it 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 abse
"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 actua ...more
Jim Leckband
Victor Maskell, a Poussin expert, late in the book does a wordplay on the title of one of Poussin's famous works "Et in Arcadia Ego" - "Even in Arcadia, I am". The "I" being death and Arcadia being a perfect place. Maskell, in his narration, ironically writes "Even in death, there is life". For me this was what this book was about, a man who never lets anyone get close to him, but who would rather betray his country than his friends, somehow is alive enough to make this a brilliant novel. He may ...more
John Banville is a fascinating writer. This is my second try at his novels, and there seems to be quite a pattern. The writing is gorgeous, the plot interesting and gratifyingly complex, and all of the characters utterly and profoundly unsympathetic. I get the sense that the author feels a bit like it would be giving in to cheap standards to give his principle character any redeemable personality traits.

Victor Maskell, the Cambridge spy around which the story revolves, is selfish and vain almos
May 09, 2015 LectoraEstherica marked it as abandonados  ·  review of another edition
Este es uno de esos libros que al cogerlo y comenzar a leerlo sentía que era lo que me debía de gustar, pero que no lo iba a hacer.
Lo he abandonado en la página 70, porque ya me estaba saltado páginas, en las que simplemente se enrollaba como unas persianas muy bonitas y de forma intrincada, tanto que me ha parecido demasiado pretencioso. Y aburrido.
Tal vez para otro tiempo en el futuro.
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 vividne ...more
May 17, 2007 Bill rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: a certain sort of Anglophile
Shelves: novels
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.
Lynn Beene
I once taught a college course on the literary heritage of the Cambridge Spies, the WWII British group who rose in political power and importance at the same time as they cruelly betrayed their country, it's allies, and the individuals who died piteously because of these individuals' immoralities. I scheduled the class to read the best of fiction and drama centering on these traitors--art arising from gross treachery. What I didn't anticipate was that Banville's novel along would have filled the ...more
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 Ma ...more
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Anyone reading The Untouchable? 7 20 May 12, 2015 03:03AM  
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Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland. His father worked in a garage and died when Banville was in his early thirties; his mother was a housewife. He is the youngest of three siblings; his older brother Vincent is also a novelist and has written under the name Vincent Lawrence as well as his own. His sister Vonnie Banville-Evans has written both a children's novel and a reminiscence of growing up ...more
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“To take possession of a city of which you are not a native you must first fall in love there.” 12 likes
“The telephone ringing gave me a dreadful start. I have never got used to this machine, the way it crouches so malevolently, ready to start clamouring for attention when you least expect it, like a mad baby.” 7 likes
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