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The Untouchable
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on 1 January 2018
I give this book 5 stars for the poetry and beauty of the writing, the clear voice of the protagonist and crystal clear conveyance of the other characters and his relationships with them. Banville is a true master. This is my second Banville read - the first Mrs Osborne - he now joins Colm Toibin in my top 2 living writers. I look forward to reading his other novels.
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on 9 March 2017
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on 16 September 2016
I'm giving Banville's rather sprawling Oxbridge spy novel 4 stars, without particularly enjoying the story. What I did admire though was the quality of the writing, plus the novel's secret life of a superior vocabulary primer.

The novel is essentially a Russian spy's memoir penned by Victor Maskell, a sort of Anthony Blunt figure. It roves from 1930s post-graduate exuberance to an anticlimactic 1980s disintegration. Victor is not an appealing character. Vaguely supercilious, vain, opportunistic, pretty shallow, and breezily destructive. What's more, he appears to get away with it. Yes, there's the painful betrayal, the public shaming, the tattered family affairs but somehow Victor just floats above it all with an infuriating waspish insouciance. Nothing much seems to penetrate that austere self-regard of his.

Maybe that's just how a certain class and type were bred back then. Still now perhaps. But it's little to delight in. It was only Banville's delectable, eye-catching prose that rescued it. Stuff like:

"I drank my gin. Cold fire, hot, slivers of ice. The furled umbrella, which I had leaned against the arm of m chair, fell on the marble floor with a muffled clatter. My props were not behaving themselves at all today."
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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 ....
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on 9 November 2017
The Cambridge spy story is well known, at the level of newspaper accounts. Here we have a great writer bringing the spies to life in their habitat, including Londonderry during the blitz. A triumph.
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on 6 April 2017
Good book purchased for someone else who was very happy with it.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 9 October 2011
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 in prose that is fluent, articulate and perfectly judged, and although the subject matter in this novel is serious, this is a story that works on several levels and is, in many ways, very comical. If you are looking for an amusing and intelligent literary novel, then you have it here in 'The Untouchable'.

4 Stars.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 October 2003
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
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VINE VOICEon 23 November 2005
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.
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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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