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The Untouchable

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  3,002 ratings  ·  337 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
Kindle Edition, 385 pages
Published (first published 1997)
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It took a while for the magic of this to work on me. Initially I thought Banville’s prose had the quality of bracken on a forest floor – the light picks out some beautiful tones and textures but there was a pervading sense of brittle lifelessness. I felt he wrote like someone who never leaves his study - or perhaps never leaves his head. But, then, all of a sudden, just before world war two arrives, it jumped into life and I very much doubt if I’ll read a more beautifully written novel this year ...more
Sep 11, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 25, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  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
Ian "Marvin" Graye

Part I ("My Other Secret Life")

I first encountered the Judge, professionally, in Court.

Early in my career, I appeared in the Family Court 400 times over two years. 50 or so appearances would have been before him.

He was a precise and impatient judge. He had little tolerance for fools or the lazy or the unprepared. My reputation, some of which he would have contributed to, was that I anticipated what a judge wanted and I gave it to him. I use the masculine pronoun, be
Lewis Weinstein
It seems like I have been reading this forever. The story is confusing, but the writing is glorious. Reading Banville is like reading a text book for writers. But you have to read slowly, savoring the word choices and images. It's best to read on kindle, with dictionary at hand. ...more
Jan 05, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, 2019-reads
"Metamorphosis is a painful process" for Victor, an art expert and ambitious man who turns to the life of a spy. In the end, his ambitions ruin him and his friends betray him. His journey of exploration begins late: when he has been ousted in public, deserted, and he tries to make sense of his life through his memoirs:

I imagine the exquisite agony of the caterpillar turning itself into a butterfly, pushing out eye-stalks, pounding its fat-cells into iridescent wing-dust, at last cracking the
As readers we have all experienced or come across books that either make a siren call to us, which we can’t ignore, or speak to us in a way that makes us drown within its pages, or even sing to us, a beautiful melody that soothes our spirit and enthralls us in a way nothing else does. This book had a combination of all those whilst also painting vivid pictures that would definitely give artists around the world a run for their money. Honestly, I am not exaggerating when I say this, as it was my ...more
Vit Babenco
Apr 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jim Fonseca
May 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a great novel based on a blending of the lives of several real-life British men, “The Cambridge Five,” who were spies for the Soviets in the 1930’s through the 1950’s. Our main character, given the name Victor Maskell, is a gay man who found out he was gay only after being married and having two kids. This was a time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain and gay men had to resort to meetings in public restrooms. One character commits suicide after he was arrested in police sting.


Aug 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Joy D
“Espionage has something of the quality of a dream. In the spy’s world, as in dreams, the terrain is always uncertain. You put your foot on what looks like solid ground and it gives way under you and you go into a kind of free fall, turning slowly tail over tip and clutching on to things that are themselves falling. This instability, this myriadness that the world takes on, is both the attraction and the terror of being a spy.” – John Banville, The Untouchable

Seventy-two-year-old protagonist Vic
Mar 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
John Banville has such a refined mind and writes with such elegance that I just love reading such exquisite prose, and often pause to re-read whole sections of his work as there are such wonderful phases and so many subtle nuances. A wonderful writer.

And, by the way, this is not simply another novel about the appeasers and the post-war world where gradually the 'Cambridge Spies' were uncovered, one by one. The narrator is surely based on Anthony Blunt and so one thread running through the work i
Mark Joyce
Jun 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 30, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literature
I liked the first part of this book more than the latter half. There is an odd sense of oh-do-let’s-be-done-with-this in the back half of this book, although there are still some great passages in the latter half.

What I enjoyed most in this book was the richness of Banville’s language. The other main point for me was the inversion of the typical espionage story. One rarely gets the traitor as protagonist, and in this case such an unpalatable character. It was refreshing, in a way.
Jul 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well told, gently paced, character based, spy novel about Irishman, Victor Maskell, an art historian and lecturer who at the start of World War II undertakes to work as a spy for Russia. Victor through his Cambridge connections works for British Army Intelligence. Victor is educated at Cambridge, England and lives in London for the majority of his life. Victor’s story is told in the first person. Victor, now 71 years old, is writing his memoir, mainly about the friends he met at University, hi ...more
Jul 20, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: modern-lit, read-2014
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. ...more
Victor Sonkin
Read because Yanagihara praised it in a recent Guardian interview; a fictionalized account from the 1st person of one of the Cambridge spies — in this case a Protestant Irish immigrant who became a comfortable member of the upper class in London, a curator of the royal art collection and a major art historian, specialist in Poussin (one of whose pictures, The Death of Seneca, he keeps at home, though it seems to be fake). This a long story of his movement in various circles, the glimpses of the ...more
Feb 23, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: irish-authors
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
4* The Book of Evidence
4* O mar
2* Ancient Light (The Cleave Trilogy #3)
2*Bowen and Betjeman
4* Kepler (The Revolutions Trilogy #2)
4* The Untouchable
TR Shroud (The Cleave Trilogy #2)
TR Mrs Osmond
TR Athena (The Freddie Montgomery Trilogy #3)
TR The Blue Guitar
TR Imagens de Praga
TR Doctor Copernicus (The Revolutions Trilogy #1)
TR The Newton Letter (The Revolutions Trilogy #3)
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
Feb 18, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: irish, fiction
This Roman à clef was published in 1997. 'The Untouchable' is based on the life of Anthony Blunt the knighted curator of the Queen's collection, director of the Courtauld Institute of Art who admitted in 1979 that he had been a soviet spy for decades. The story revolves around the infamous Cambridge ring of spies.

Anthony Blunt becomes Victor Maskell. Guy Burgess becomes Boy Bannister a promiscuous homosexual and flamboyant drinker. Another interesting addition is Querrell , the Roman Catholic no
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
Isabelle Leo

Self-reflection, as my dad recently commented to me, is a powerful character activator. This fictional memoir is 367 pages of reflection — Maskell looks back on his whole life. Somehow, this process yields absolutely nothing. It is highly self-conscious self-reflection, so excessive that it becomes about the act of reflection, rather than actually discovering something about yourself. The worst kind of postmodern: self-reflexive, instead of self-reflective. I was at first enthralled with the
Feb 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lit, re-read-lit
Rereading my old review of this (after reading the novel for a second time), I'm a bit embarrassed. I seemed to badly miss some things and the harping on the similarities to Nabokov's prose style is grossly inaccurate. While he shares N's linguistic verve and love of the little details, Banville's style is very much his own. However, I stand by my assertion that this is his best novel. It's involving, funny, and even occasionally moving (and it goes without saying that the prose is flawless). Le ...more
Mar 01, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
James Henderson
I enjoyed this book tremendously and it quickly became my favorite among Banville's many novels. John Banville has created in the character of Victor Maskell someone both complex and believable; the story is suspenseful, and his prose, as always, can only be described as both luminous and effortless. He describes his voyage to France early in the war: "The night was preternaturally calm, and our troopship, a converted steamer which before the outbreak of war had ferried day trippers between Wale ...more
Jul 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well, I have finally read a Banville novel, and it did not disappoint. The complexity of the language was exquisite, his philosophical musing on love, relationships, friendship, social structure and the need for Stoicism in our lives was interesting, to say the least.
He spent the whole novel referencing his beloved "Death of Seneca" by Poussin, I wasn't sure if this was simply a literary device to keep referencing stoicism, since Seneca was one of the great stoic philosophers, but Banville skil
I enjoyed this book very much and I think the ending is terrific. Fascinating to read about Anthony Blunt and find how very closely his career is followed in this fictionalisation of his life.

Banville's writing is beautiful and the pace is perfect. Highly recommended.
Jack Deighton
May 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 para ...more
Sarah Tittle
Aug 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Confession: I've never read John Banville, and I know little if anything about Anthony Blunt and the Cambridge spies. Starting from that blank canvas I came away from this novel highly entertained, a little confused and very hungry for more Banville. The writing is superb. Banville paints his hero as a self-pitying apologist, sardonic, sarcastic, and a little pathetic. I've been looking for fiction set in WWII England and to that extent this novel doesn't exactly fit the bill. Mostly I think bec ...more
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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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