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Untouchable Paperback – September 18, 1998


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Pan Books Ltd (September 18, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 033033932X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330339322
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.1 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,119,509 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A brilliant, engaging, and highly literate espionage-cum-existential novel, John Banville's The Untouchable concerns the suddenly-exposed double agent Victor Maskell, a character based on the real Cambridge intellectual elites who famously spied on the United Kingdom in the middle of the 20th century. But Maskell--scholar, adventurer, soldier, art curator, and more--respected and still living in England well past his retirement from espionage, looked like he was going to get away with it when suddenly, in his 70s and sick with cancer, he is unmasked. The question of why, and by whom is not as important for Maskell as the larger question of who finally he himself really is, why he spied in the first place, and whether his many-faceted existence adds up to an authentic life. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The author of such exemplary works as Athena (LJ 5/1/95), Irishman Banville here takes on the juicy challenge of writing a spy novel and handles the assignment with far more grace and intelligence than even the best of that genre's authors. Double-agent Victor Maskell wakes up one morning to discover that after years of informing on London for Moscow, someone has informed on him. To sort out what has happened, he begins a journal. What follows is the richly detailed account of a man who clearly had convictions but whose behavior remains an enigma throughout. As he recalls his Irish childhood, complete with pastor father, beloved stepmother, and retarded brother; his emotional entanglements with careless golden boy Nick and his sister, Baby, whom Victor quite oddly marries long before he realizes that he is gay; and his relations with a slew of hedonistic, upper-class Englishmen too incisively characterized to be mere types, Victor remains subtle, crusty, and tantalizingly out of reach. His story is so well told that why he spied?and who betrayed him?become secondary. Highly recommended.
-?Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. He is the author of thirteen previous novels including The Book of Evidence, which was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize. He has received a literary award from the Lannan Foundation. He lives in Dublin.

Customer Reviews

One of the finest books I've ever read.
sennj
Banville is one of the best authors writing in our language today and The Untouchable is a superb example.
Jonathan Kleinbard
I found the book very slow going at first; it became much more compelling to me in the second half.
Helen L. Smits

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

64 of 66 people found the following review helpful By A. Hickman on July 14, 2001
Format: 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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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 16, 2001
Format: 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.Read more ›
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By F. S. L'hoir VINE VOICE on November 23, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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