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. Mary Whipple
I enjoyed this book tremendously. The character of Victor Maskell (the "mask" in Maskell representing a persona of Anthony Blunt) is complex and believable; the story is suspenseful, and Banville's prose can only be described as both luminous and effortless: "A huge, bone-white moon hung above the prostrate sea, and the ship's wake flashed and writhed like a great silver rope unravelling behind us." [p. 57]
And yet, since I have read biographies of Anthony Blunt and Louis MacNeice's autobiographical "The Strings are False" (not to mention every available book on the Cambridge Spies), I feel rather like Dorothy of Oz, who has glimpsed "that man behind the curtain" who should be ignored, if the magic is to be believed.
Those who have not read the literature on the Cambridge Spies will enjoy the book without reservation. Those who have will discover that "The Untouchable" represents a fascinating roman à clef. The boisterous Boy Bannister, who haunts the Gryphon [read Gargoyle] club, can only be Guy Burgess; Philip MacLeish, the "dour Scot" code named Castor [read Homer] can only represent Donald Maclean. Other characters are more equivocal. For instance, one detects a bit of MacNeice not only in Maskell but also in the character of Nick Brevoort. Furthermore, Banville's use of names of actual people who figured in Blunt's real Cambridge life (e.g. Leo, Victor, Sykes, Alistair) as ingredients mixed into his narrative, from which they emerge reborn into new characters, contributes to the verisimilitude of Maskell's character. Except for Boy Bannister, however, the other spies are composites. For instance, Alistair Sykes (who seems to be puffing on Kim Philby's pipe) is given a job at what passes for Bletchley Park, and he suffers Alan Turing's tragic demise. One is not so naïve, however, as to suppose that any resemblance between the "department" bureaucrat Querell, who finds Catholicism and writes "The Orient Express," the first of many "overrated Balkan thrillers" [p. 76], and SIS officer Graham Greene, who underwent a similar religious enlightenment and wrote "Stamboul Express," is strictly coincidental.
In Victor Maskell, Banville has portrayed a tragic anti-hero, grafting the life and persona of poet Louis MacNeice onto that of the art historian and (need one mention?) Soviet agent Anthony Blunt; both of their fathers were clergymen. Furthermore, Banvile has given Victor Maskell not only MacNeice's mentally challenged brother but also his stepmother, and his domineering governess; he has likewise provided him with MacNeice's Irish nationality, and he has even given him MacNeice's wife, Mariette, whom we meet in Maskell's wife, the enigmatically perverse "Vivienne." Banville also takes Maskell and Brevoort on a pre-war trip to Spain, a journey that Blunt actually took with Louis MacNeice. Banville's literary transplant, however, results in a beautifully rounded characterization that Blunt, whose personality was severely compartmentalized, could never have hoped to achieve in real life. Since MacNeice and Blunt were such close friends at Marlborough School, one can only imagine that as far as the character of Victor Maskell is concerned, Anthony Blunt would have been rather pleased with Banville's finished product.
on 10 May 2013
I like John Banville's writing. It is often beautifully crafted and polished. But sometimes as in this book the polishing is so detailed that it gets inn the way of the story. Banville has said that he would like his prose to be as dense and rich as poetry but he seems to have spent so much time attempting to do that for The Untouchable that the momentum of the story gets lost and the plot become submerged under a thicket of (occasionally unnecessary) exploration of the memories of Victor Maskell.
This has the beneficial effect at times of replicating the querulous arrogance and smugness a reader might associate with Maskell (a fictionalied Anthony Blunt) but at the expense of narrative pace.
If you are going to read this you need to set aside some time ....
on 3 December 2012
Although one of my reasons for reading the novel is that it takes me out of my comfort zone to places where my mind would not normally dwell, I must admit that I did not like the places where John Banville's "The Untouchable" took me. It is not a question that I still harbour a narrow minded view of the novel, rather it was just simply that the world of spies and a Cambridge elite has very little to say to me that I would find interesting.
In The Untouchable, Banville sets out to write a fictionalised account of the Cambridge spy ring in which Anthony Blunt, the person whom the main character Victor Maskell is based on, played a leading part. The narrator, Victor Maskell, aged 72 looks back on his turbulent life by telling his story to a Miss Vandeleur his supposed biographer. In doing so the narration moves back and forth in time seamlessly and is rendered with a wry sense of humour. Maskell's self reflection holds a mirror up for us to see the hypocrisy and sycophancy of himself, his circle of friends and acquaintances. In true auto/biography tradition what is revealed are issues to do with life, family, friendships career.
Deception is obviously a key issue in the novel and even in the current turmoil that Victor is facing, as a result of his past, he still remains deceitful. As he tells his story to Miss Vandeleur he ponders whether he himself is writing a journal, memoir or autobiography. Meanwhile, of course Miss Vandeleur appears to be setting out to write a biography of Victor whom he acknowledges would be upset if she knew she was being pre-empted by his ultimate autobiography. This was a clever move by Banville in setting out his attitude towards his character.
The result is that Victor's dubious character, the ambiguity around his intentions and his attitude towards those he deals with leaves large section of the novel reading like an autobiography itself. Banville creates a very good imagined autobiographical tone but at the end of it all it did not capture my imagination and swept me along. Rather I was left disinterested in the life and times of Victor Maskell.
Nonetheless, as Victor reflects on his life Banville successfully paints a character who is a lonely, ostracised and bitter man. And Victor's consideration of what has happened to him as a result of betraying his country reveals a self centred idealistic character. He wants us to pity him by asking us: "What have I done to be so reviled, in a nation of traitors, who daily betray friends, wives, children, tax inspectors?" He answers his own question by deluding himself, saying: "I think what they find so shocking is that someone - one of their own that is - should actually have held an ideal."
Apart from the fact that I like to finish novels I have started one of the things that kept me going with this novel is that Banville's prose is simply lovely to read and his style is certainly one to admire. He is capable of composing rhythmically well balanced sentences with precise and arresting diction. Here is a typical example where Victor is reminiscing to his erstwhile biographer about how he must have appeared to a Russian contact: "I suspect I exuded a faint odour of sanctity, inherited from a long line of clerical forebears, which Oleg and his like would have mistaken for a sign of zealotry, and which would worry them for they were practical men, and chary of ideology."
The novel is brilliantly referential form fairy tales: "We climbed, the princess Rapunzel and I, through a maze of stone back-staircase and mildewed corridors", to comments on the fine arts. Banville's constant reprise of mentioning the paintings The Death of Seneca by Poussin and The Fall of Jerusalem in which he finds significance was a nice touch. Indeed, perhaps the only thing that endeared me to Victor was his love of the fine arts. Victor's exuberance for art is infectious he tells us: "Art was the only thing in my life that was untainted ... . I know, and who should know better, that art is supposed to teach us to see the world in all its solidity and truth, but in those years it was the possibility of transcendence, even for the space of a quarter of an hour, that I sought after repeatedly, like a prelate returning nightly to the brothel."
If part of Banville's aim was to explode the myths that surrounds characters such as Victor Maskell and bring them down to earth as ordinary, dubious and despicable folks then he succeeded. However, for all that and the novel's elegant prose, its subtle and sometimes telling references, I could not nonetheless help feeling that this novel is not saying much. At the end it amounts to a stylish fictionalised account of the Cambridge ring of the past century.
Considering this book was first published in 1997, I have come to it rather late - however I am glad I finally got around to reading it, as it was well worth the read.
This novel is based on the real life Anthony Blunt, the knighted curator of the Queen's pictures who admitted in 1979 that he had been a Soviet spy for decades. It is interesting to note that lovers of art often appear in the pages of John Banville's books. One of his earlier books, 'The Book of Evidence', was narrated by an art thief who later reappeared in 'Ghosts', and another of his novels: 'Athena' revolves around a man who has been employed to take part in a conspiracy to authenticate a series of fake paintings. In 'The Untouchable', Banville's Blunt is rechristened Victor Maskell, the narrator of his own story. Providing we are in the hands of a good writer (and, in John Banville, we are) I often find first person narrated fiction really draws the reader in and within the first few pages of the novel I found I had entered Victor Maskell's world. And what a world it is, as Victor moves from the heady days of his life at Cambridge into a world of art, parties, alcohol, espionage, gay sex, love and betrayal.
If you already know something about the Cambridge spies, I should imagine you would have an entertaining time reading this novel, deciding which character is meant to represent whom. I must admit that I knew only a little about the Cambridge spies before I read this book and, as one of the reviews in my edition states that "The Untouchable is no more about Anthony Blunt than 'Henry V' is about Henry V", I still may not know a huge amount more about what actually happened and to whom. But, that said, I found this to be a fascinating novel written with stunning, seductive prose that is fluent, articulate and perfectly judged. Although the subject matter in this novel is serious, this is a story that works on several levels and is, in some ways, a comic masterpiece. If you want an amusing, intelligent and inspired literary novel, then you have it here in 'The Untouchable'.
on 1 June 2014
Not an easy read and many might give up ... but the mystery and the writing is compelling ... worth sticking at it
on 1 September 2014
An outstanding novel. After reading the first few pages I had to get out of the bath and tell my family that I was reading one of the finest pieces of writing I've encountered over more than 35 years of reading contemporary fiction. John Banville is the best living author writing in English today. I really hope he wins the Nobel Prize, he should.
on 5 January 2015
Beautifully written and a fascinating insight into the mindset of the "Spies". I have long wonderedabout this and found it convincing though those who are still sympathetic to them and don't regard them as traitors may not. Brilliant evocation of London now and in wartime. I don't usually like flashbacks - in this case the hero's memories of life as a C of E vicar's son in Northern Ireland and to wartime incidents - but here they seemed quite appropriate.
on 27 April 2013
What an astonishing writer John Banville is. There are passages in this book that are so beautifully crafted that they take your breath away. He creates a whole world, full of intricate and convincing detail, and above all he makes you believe in Victor Maskell. The are some longeurs, and some chapters that don't quite work, but the overall impression is of a master at work.
on 12 September 2013
This novel is based on the life of upper class English art historian, Sir Anthony Blunt, who managed to be the curator of Her Majesty's pictures at the same time as being a Stalinist spy.
I have never really figured out how important people like Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean etc. really were and would love to know.
Many writers have made a living out of them and Banville has jumped on this bandwagon.
He has simply used Blunt as a coat peg to hang this story on although his main character is not an English but Irish albeit from
Not an Ulster Scot - Scotch-Irish for American readers - son of the manse with his staunch Presbyterianism but a wishy-washy Church of Ireland (i.e. Church of England) type.
A bit like Philip Carey in Somerset's Maugham's "Of Human Bondage", in fact. Other parts are reminiscent of Anthony Burgess's "Earthly Powers".
He is also a homosexual, like Blunt, but is also the father of two children. I assume this is supposed to make the story more interesting although whether it succeeds is another matter.
It is quite a good read albeit with some purple patches* but it fails to address the moral question of why people like Blunt became Soviet spies.
The writer - or narrator - escapes this point by mentioning the names of agents he gave to his Soviet contacts and not giving a damn about what happened to them. However, he does so in a very unconvincing way.
After all, old boy, why bother about prisoners being shot in the Gulag when one can admire Pousin's exquisite painting "The Death of Seneca"?
P.G. Wodehouse, may I introduce you to Comrade Stalin?
* Here's one example: "A thick drop of sunlight seethed in a glass paperweight on a low table. Mrs. Beaver was in the garden dosing hollyhocks with a mixture from her copper kettle. Tinny jazz music came hiccupping faintly down from upstairs..."