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The Untouchable

3.97 of 5 stars 3.97  ·  rating details  ·  1,532 ratings  ·  156 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
ebook, 384 pages
Published February 19th 2009 by Vintage (first published 1997)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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David
May 14, 2012 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
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Francisco
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
Steve
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
Frank
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
Daryl
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
Mike
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
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
...more
Richard
Jan 26, 2014 Richard rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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
Ugh
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
...more
Alex
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
Al
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
Ed
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
...more
Amanda
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
Harriet
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
Ann
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
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
...more
Anne
"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
Hamish
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
Bill
May 17, 2007 Bill rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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
Kevin
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
Robert
The Untouchable by John Banville is an exceptionally good book, one of the best I've read in a long time. The story focuses on Victor Maskell, loosely based on the figure of Anthony Blunt, one of the infamous Cambridge Five, or Six…or Seven…, who in the 1930s began spying for the Soviets and continued to do so right through WWII, when Maskell indicates that he'd had enough, he wanted to live out his life as an art historian (keeper of the King of England's drawings and paintings and director of ...more
Fran
I'm definitely a John Banville fan! Intriguing, sets the atmosphere very well, and keeps the plot moving just fast enough to keep you reading but not so fast you miss the language. Funny and serious.
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.
Martin
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.
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.
Doronike
Iespējams, labākā tulkotā daiļliteratūra, ko es šogad esmu izlasījusi.
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Anyone reading The Untouchable? 6 17 Apr 07, 2014 06:13AM  
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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.” 11 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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