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on 5 May 2007
I haven't read the biographies of the people this novel includes under fictional names but as someone interested in spies and in the nineteen thirties and forties this seemed to me an utterly convincing romp described through of a bitter, disillusioned and highly camp and mannered Maskell/Blunt. What makes it for me is the almost casual, amateurish, shallow, damaged and often comical nature of those who populated the world of the Cambridge spies and their Soviet masters which I think is a useful counter to more the dark and serious le Carre mode with its master spies and seriousness. An entertaining and yet profound read about that well worked theme betrayal but here give new life and interest.
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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.
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on 19 January 2008
The characters of Victor Maskell aka Anthony Blunt and all his arrogant mates are so deeply unsympathetic, that after the first hundred pages the story turns tedious. Banville is a brilliant writer but the verbal fireworks give no warmth. One senses him plodding through the true story of Anthony Blunt which at certain point simply gets boring. I understood the mechanism of the 'how' these Cambridge students became involved in the spy ring, but I really didn't understand the 'why.' Unless I am to understand that the why is something monstrous, and in that case, Banville has managed to make this emptiness at the core a tedious thing to contemplate. However, I suspect the author fell in love with his subject, and therefore allows himself some pompous pathos now and then -- equally tedious! I'd say if you are fascinated by the Cambridge spies, you will definitely want to read this book, but otherwise.. I will be hard pressed to read another book by Banville after this one.
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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.
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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..."
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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
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on 7 May 2013
unstretching bed time reading. Descriptions of louche London of the thirties and forties are a bit repetitive. Principal character is so languid that it is difficult to feel anything for him
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on 6 April 2016
highly overrated writer, cripplingly boring book, wildly unlikeable character. silly me, i actually thought it would be about spies, "full of information" as the reviews insist. instead it is about various men's love lives with each other, which is fine if that is what you want to write about but it is Not about spies which is what i want to read about. occasionally a russian fellow lumbers in, tosses back a vodka & says to the hero "keep your ears open" & lumbers off again. apart from that it is long pneumatic paragraphs about the way some guy's eyelashes cast shadows on his cheek, enlivened by lots of express misogyny & even a bit of anti-semitism. but we never learn much of anything about what he actually Did outside of his personal life; even the blitz manages to be bombless & boring. the author states proudly in his afterword that he has not read much about the cambridge spies. the rest of us must read about them elsewhere.
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on 16 May 2013
John Banville is a very clever man. I'm so glad I read this book on my kindle, as I had to look up words almost every page. His prose is like poetry, and its a very sensory book (particularly smell). It hinted at British propaganda in reinventing the characters and story of Blunt: I question whether Blunt would have been quite as unlikeable and shallow as he comes across. Regardless of how one views espionage and the betrayal of ones country, it is not something done lightly, and Banville treats it all a bit lightly.
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on 24 September 2013
It took a few chapters to get into this, but once I did I thoroughly enjoyed it. A good yarn against a recent historical background.
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