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The Untouchable by John Banville
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's review
Feb 23, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 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 as Surveyor of the King's Pictures and leading figure in British art history (Indeed, I have one of Blunt’s books, Baroque and Rococo Architecture and Decoration, gracing my shelves, one of the few remaining from my grad school days.)

This is Banville's longest novel, and in a way, the most focused (in terms of plot), deriving as it does from historical figures and incidents. But the roman à clef mode simples serves as an armature upon which Banville constructs diverse meditations on art, friendship, loyalty, authenticity, patriotism, academia, family and so many of the other topics which defined and defied the tumultuous twentieth century.

And as always, Banville prose is luminous and delightful, poetically effervescent: sticking one's nose in a Banville book the bubbles practically tickle it. Though I was slightly shocked by how much he appropriated from Blunt's life, the book is not of course about the "facts"—be they fictional "facts" or factual "facts"—it's about how they are presented and developed. The facts surrounding a life do not make a character, particularly a literary character. Nor does it put the type of ruminations into the head of a narrator as Banville does. That takes a master craftsman, an artist. A poet.
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