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5.0 out of 5 stars Extraodinarily Good
John Banville, the Dublin author whose fiction is at once literary and accessible, funny and mordant, informed by history but rooted in subjective reality, is one of best writers in English today. "The Untouchable," his 1997 novel based on the life of Sir Anthony Blount, the Fourth Man in the Cambridge Spy Scandal, is extraordinarily good.
"Who am I?" art historian...
Published on May 6 2003 by Robert E. Olsen

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3.0 out of 5 stars "Fiction" or "Non-fiction?" British spy story?
Banvilles craft is apparent in his subtle, patient observations of English manners and behaviour, and that makes this book well worth reading. Depiction of Cold War Spies has been about written into the ground, however. Usually these misguided old Cambridge characters are seen, in our unrelenting paranoia, to have threatened the entire balace of power in the western...
Published on Jan. 20 1998


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5.0 out of 5 stars Extraodinarily Good, May 6 2003
By 
Robert E. Olsen (McLean, VA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Untouchable (Paperback)
John Banville, the Dublin author whose fiction is at once literary and accessible, funny and mordant, informed by history but rooted in subjective reality, is one of best writers in English today. "The Untouchable," his 1997 novel based on the life of Sir Anthony Blount, the Fourth Man in the Cambridge Spy Scandal, is extraordinarily good.
"Who am I?" art historian Victor Maskell asks himself in this first-person narrative, crafted ostensibly for the benefit of an ersatz amanuensis in a leather skirt. "What do I know? What matters?"
Maskell, an essential outsider, has spent a lifetime using his studied charm, suppressed emotions, closeted homosexuality, and distant family connections to winnow a place for himself in the English establishment. It matters not that his marriage is a failure, that he is estranged from his children. Art, he concludes at one point - even the prized painting, attributed to Poussin, which has hung on his wall for 50 years - has no meaning; it simply is. The same, in his view, might be said of existence itself.
This passive and unexamined life comes apart after Maskell, once an amateur intelligence operative, is publicly disgraced for having passed information of questionable value ("state secrets," the press calls it) to wartime ally the Soviet Union (the "enemy"). Why did he do it? Certainly not for money. Was it for the cause of worldwide socialism? For personal amusement? To put on the mask of a man of action? To avenge the underclass? Or was it simply another form of casual duplicity, no different is substance from the duplicity of proper gentlemen who take mistresses or of friendly governments which destroy villages in order to save them?
Nothing is as it seems in this ambiguous, allusion-stocked, politically savvy, richly imagined life of Victor Maskell and his times. Robert E. Olsen
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece of Verisimilitude, April 13 2002
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This review is from: The Untouchable (Paperback)
I never read anything by John Banville until about a year ago, when I picked up a remaindered copy of "The Untouchable". The simplest way to express my reaction to this book is to say that, after finishing it, I promptly went out and bought several more of Banville's novels, realizing that he is one of a small handful of truly outstanding contemporary English writers.
"The Untouchable" is the first person narrative of Victor Maskell, Royalist and Marxist, art curator for the English monarchy and spy for the Soviet Union. Maskell's narrative begins in the 1980s, when he is in his seventies, sick with cancer. It is then that his past is suddenly and unexpectedly made public, the prominent, seemingly conservative intellectual revealed to be a man leading a double life, a traitor to his country. The reality, of course, is much more complex, for Maskell's motives, beliefs and actions, like those of all humans, are uncertain, clouded by conflicting memories, versions and perspectives. Married and the father of two children, Maskell is a homosexual. Ostensibly a Marxist and supporter of the great Soviet experiment, he is deeply attached to England and, in very personal ways, to the Royal family. Presumably acting for many years as a spy for the Soviets, the practical value of his activities is largely confined to being a symbolic trophy for his spymasters in the Kremlin, someone who rubs elbows with the highest levels of the British government while providing little in the way of truly useful information.
Drawing on the historical facts surrounding the Cambridge spies, "The Untouchable" is a brilliantly imagined, vividly realistic fictional memoir of the complex and often perplexing life of such a spy. Banville's prose is flawless, his narrative voice is always at perfect pitch, and his characters and story are a masterpiece of verisimilitude.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, July 14 2001
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This review is from: The Untouchable (Paperback)
Loosely based on the life of British art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, and with capsule portraits of characters based on Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, John Banville's "The Untouchable" is a witty and literate, if sometimes overwritten, novel, that never fails to entertain. The question of how a man like Blunt, or, in his present incarnation, Victor Maskell, could betray his country is a sticky one, but here the answer seems to be, quite casually. Maskell never appears to be very comfortable in the role of socialist, except when he's put on the defensive by his mocking friends, but he is amused by the idea of spying, which dovetails nicely with his personal philosophy of stoicism, as in Seneca, the Roman philosopher who ended his own life after being implicated in a conspiracy against the emperor, Nero. The obvious foreshadowing here is driven home by Maskell's obsession with a picture by Poussin depicting Seneca's suicide, which turns out to be possibly as fake as Maskell himself. Irish by birth, a father and husband, soldier and scholar, Maskell is also a closet homosexual, as well as a distant relation of the Queen. He is a mass of contradictions, who, having been betrayed as a spy and diagnosed as dying from cancer, has begun to wonder what was real and what illusory about his paradoxical life. In the end, he must face up to the ultimate betrayal. In "The Untouchable," Banville offers a perceptive glimpse into the world of those among us who are obliged to lead a double life, sometimes by choice, as in the case of spies, and sometimes not, as in the case of homosexuals. In the final analysis, spy and queer are not that far apart: the glamor and tawdriness, the mystery and banality, and always the backward look over one's shoulder. Victor Maskell may not be the most likeable of protagonists, but he is one of the most complex.
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5.0 out of 5 stars "The Untouchable" is truly awesome : a literary classic, May 16 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: The Untouchable (Paperback)
John Banville's "The Untouchable" is.....untouchable in its literary qualities and an instant classic. It's a shame it didn't enjoy more widespread recognition as a major and enduring literary work than it did. I've read many award winning contemporary novels these past two years but few have been as engaging and satisfying. Despite its topically controversial subject of the "Cambridge spies", Banville eschews cheap and tabloidy sensationalism in favour of a subtle and intimate approach to the unrevelling of the minds and motivation of a small group of intellectuals who betrayed England by passing state secrets to Russia. When their treachery was made public, the shock was compounded by the fact that the last of these spies to have been exposed (renamed Victor Maskell) was not some hip lefty but an art historian personally as well as professionally close to the Royal Family. But what emerges from this poignant and fictionalised treatment of the scandal and Victor Maskell's psyche is the realisation that these acts of treachery were probably committed for reasons that had little to do with ideology but with a desperate need to satisfy a hidden longing. Remember, the Soviet cause never took hold of Victor after an early visit to Russia which totally disenchanted him. But he secretly revelled in the furtive recruitment interviews and the risk of being caught as it provided relief and outlet for his (unconsciously) unhappy existence as a repressed homosexual. To all appearances, he was a family man but there is no trace of fatherliness in his relationship or feelings towards his adult children. The reader isn't spared a tragic ending and Banville's restraint only heightens the pain. "The Untouchable" makes a truly compelling read because Banville's writing is elegant, smart, humourous, subtle and hits you in between the eyes. His prose is never pretentious, always accessible and smooth as silk. This is an outstanding novel that should have made it to the Booker Prize shortlist. I'd give it a 6-star rating if I could. Read it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece of Verisimilitude, March 9 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: The Untouchable (Paperback)
I never read anything by John Banville until recently, when I picked up a remaindered copy of "The Untouchable". The simplest way to express my reaction to this book is to say that, after finishing it, I promptly went out and bought several more of Banville's novels, realizing that he is one of a small handful of truly outstanding contemporary English writers.
"The Untouchable" is the first person narrative of Victor Maskell, Royalist and Marxist, art curator for the English monarchy and spy for the Soviet Union. Maskell's narrative begins in the 1980s, when he is in his seventies, sick with cancer. It is then that his past is suddenly and unexpectedly made public, the prominent, seemingly conservative intellectual revealed to be a man leading a double life, a traitor to his country. The reality, of course, is much more complex, for Maskell's motives, beliefs and actions, like those of all humans, are uncertain, clouded by conflicting memories, versions and perspectives. Married and the father of two children, Maskell is a homosexual. Ostensibly a Marxist and supporter of the great Soviet experiment, he is deeply attached to England and, in very personal ways, to the Royal family. Presumably acting for many years as a spy for the Soviets, the practical value of his activities is largely confined to being a symbolic trophy for his spymasters in the Kremlin, someone who rubs elbows with the highest levels of the British government while providing little in the way of truly useful information.
Drawing on the historical facts surrounding the Cambridge spies, "The Untouchable" is a brilliantly imagined, vividly realistic fictional memoir of the complex and often perplexing life of such a spy. Banville's prose is flawless, his narrative voice is always at perfect pitch, and his characters and story are a masterpiece of verisimilitude.
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5.0 out of 5 stars With This Author It Reads As New Material, Jan. 1 2001
This review is from: The Untouchable (Paperback)
Prior to reading this work, "The Untouchable", I had read, "Athena", also written by Mr. Banville. I have read 5 of his works, however at this point these are as different and far from one another as novels can be. That Mr. Banville is able to write at tremendously separated points on a literary map is a testament to his work as an Author.
As in, "Athena", the events of the novel are told primarily in the first person by Victor. The difference this time through is that Victor is a historically based individual, as are many others in the novel. Victor is one of,"The Cambridge 5", the group of Soviet Spies that maintained there cover for so very long, with the 5th man not being identified publicly until many decades after others had fled to the Soviet Union. Victor is not the name of one of the spies as they existed for so many years, and the names placed on the others are not precise either. If you have read about this group or even one of its more flamboyant members, Kim Philby for example, all the players become readily recognizable.
Mr. Banville delivers a remarkable mosaic of what this particular man may have written had he placed his memories on paper. Victor never wavered from viewing himself as a Royalist, yet he worked for the Communists, without pay. He also worked for the King arranging the Royal Art Collection. His sexuality produced a marriage that lasted until his wife's death, produced two children, while he was discovering and acknowledging his homosexuality. He was raised a Catholic, he married a Jewish woman, and was amazed when she was buried in the traditional Jewish manner, and that his children were conversant in their Mother's religion as well. Even his wife, referred to as Baby until she had one of her own, was able to pass as a man dressed in formal wear and her androgyny. There is nothing about this man that is simple, he is not publicly exposed as a spy until he has ceased from the activity for over 30 years.
I found this to be the finest study of an individual by Mr. Banville, with the possible exception of his, "Doctor Copernicus". The latter is not necessarily better, and which you prefer may depend on the historical period during which their lives take place.
This is an excellent piece of work, and yet another example of this Author's range and depth of knowledge. Whether he is dealing with Kepler, Copernicus, 17th Century Flemish Art, or World War Two, his competency is absolute.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An "anquished, seething in the heart...", June 27 2000
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This review is from: The Untouchable (Paperback)
Victor Maskell takes us step by (often debauched) step through what passes for his life. Maskell, a thinly disguised Anthony Blunt, is one of several by now well-known Cambridge spies from the thirties and forties. Banville vividly recreates not only the political and social turmoil of the period but also the intellectual experimentation and the search for values spawned by these turbulent times. The depiction of decadence, drunkenness, sexual depravity, and social snobbery, combined with intellectual arrogance and political naivete, all show the reader how someone could have been seduced into becoming a willing spy. Though it is difficult to feel any real sympathy for Maskell, one can understand his need for significance--for something bigger in his life--and equally, his eventual need to reject that role. In prose that is astonishing in its facility and virtuosity, Banville sweeps away the fustiness of previous journalistic accounts of the Cambridge spies and creates flawed, breathing humans
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4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, rewarding and challenging, June 19 2000
This review is from: The Untouchable (Paperback)
I've read about one half of Banville's output now so I guess you could say that I'm a fan of his work. The negative aspects of this book highlighted in other reviews here, I recognise in doses. The draw I feel to this book and many other of his works is as has been pointed out elsewhere, that Banville can portray the everyday with such a delicious twist. Some people like their reading matter to lead them along a path rather than to be a vehicle for appreciating looking at life with your head cocked to a rakish angle.
I didn't mean that to sound elitist, but it's my guess that if you are pretty straight-forward with your choice of media e.g. listen to Maria Carey, watch romantic comedies with Meg Ryan in etc., you probably will not see the point of this book. If however you wouldn't like to pigeonhole yourself in that way (or indeed any way), then it is unlikely that you are going to be averse to looking at life in a few different ways.
The book reflects what is rewarding in what is not immediately accessible. I have read books with more suspense, action and am still written well. I have never read books with more liquid lyricism than the books by this author or other comparable authors i.e. Julian Barnes esp. Flaubert's Parrot.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Preferred reading by those who are brain dead., Sept. 23 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Untouchable (Paperback)
It is incomprehensible to me that anyone could read the entire book, let alone enjoy it. I could not, and gave up after the first hundred pages or so. After giving the author one-third of the book to entertain me, all that he managed to elicit was boredom and frustration.
The writer has a considerable vocabulary, and his use of the language is at least competent, but he has no knowledge of storytelling, and the constant stream of pretentious phrases is so mind-numbing, there were times when I just had to put the book down. That he receives considerable praise for his work must surely be more a tribute to the incestuousness of the "literary" clique, rather than any objective assessment by his peers.
Following "Book of Evidence", this is a major disappointment, but even his previous work was seriously flawed, for the final pages of it demonstrated the sheer contempt that Banville must feel for his readership. My greatest fear was that "The Untouchable" would end the same way, and for that reason, I have donated my still-pristine copy to a school fete.
It is an old saying that, "Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach." For John Banville, the halls of academia are baying.
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3.0 out of 5 stars "Fiction" or "Non-fiction?" British spy story?, Jan. 20 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Untouchable (Hardcover)
Banvilles craft is apparent in his subtle, patient observations of English manners and behaviour, and that makes this book well worth reading. Depiction of Cold War Spies has been about written into the ground, however. Usually these misguided old Cambridge characters are seen, in our unrelenting paranoia, to have threatened the entire balace of power in the western world. Having read almost everthing written by John LeCarre, Fredrick Forsyth, and even E. Howard Hunt, today, I cannot compare this spy story to any of those. Yet, if this is an accurate depiction of Antony Blunt's life, and the Kim Philby spy ring of the cold war, we should not make that comparison. Plausibly the (fictional?) Victor Maskell character was not affecting the Western world, or the outcome of the cold war; we see simply a pathetic little character feeding worthless "secrets" to clumsy Soviet agents in bad suits; certainly not the usual paranoid depictions of highly dangerous genius-like characters! So; is it fact or fiction? What bothered me most was getting hooked in the story of a not so likeable character, and then finding halfway through I was reading soft-porn, and not suitable for my preferences either! This book should have come with a warning label! "Some material may cause nausea!" Would I rate it as any kind of prize winner? Not today. I only feel compelled to write because others have rated this book so highly.
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The Untouchable
The Untouchable by John Banville (Paperback - June 30 1998)
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