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on March 19, 2017
This is a novel about spies, but it is not a spy novel. Rather, it is an incredibly well-written fictional biography of one of the Cambridge Five spy ring which passed secrets on to the Communists before and during WWII. This is a first-person account of the life of lead character, Victor Maskell and unravels at length the years when, in addition to being a somewhat tepid spy, Maskell rose to the heights of British academia until he was revealed and disgraced by the government years later. Maskell seems to be based on real-life Anthony Blunt, one of the members of the real spy ring. This book moves along at a deliberate pace, somewhat a la Le Carre, but there is enough insight and action to keep the reader's mind occupied and tension high. Banville is a much better writer than LeCarre -- in fact he's one of the best writers I've read. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, didn't skip a paragraph and found it extremely satisfying.
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VINE VOICEon October 30, 2012
As most readers will already know, this is a fictionalized account of the life Anthony Blunt, one of the "Cambridge Five," who spied for the Soviet Union. The book was highly recommended to me by friends who loved Banville's use of language, but while I found some of his turns of phrase to be insightful and novel, I don't think that's sufficient to carry a 360 page book.

Our narrator is (inevitably, in a book narrated by a spy), evasive and unreliable. Though the story spans about fifty years, we learn almost nothing about what the narrator was doing most of the time. At the end of his life, as he tells this story, he's more concerned with old relationships. The reader has some fun teasing out which of the characters are gay and which are spies (though, if you, like I, keep close tabs on what the narrator says about his friends, the book's big surprise ending will turn out to be too inartfully hidden to have any surprise as all). Without plot, one might find pleasure in the characters, but the truth is that few are described in any detail. Try to describe "Boy" or "Beaver" in anything other than the crudest factual descriptions; it can't be done. Can we guess how they would have responded to some stimulus outside the narrative? No. The characterizations are not paper-thin, but perhaps they are pancake-thin.

So the plot is thin, the characters are thin, the "surprises" at the end are thoroughly foreshadowed for a close reader (and in the case of the fate of the narrator, even for a casual reader). What's left? Some nice turns of phrase, enough for three stars out of five but no more.
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on May 25, 2017
There is surely a story here, but I don't believe that John Banville quite found it. He seems never to get to the core motivation of his narrator and central character. What makes a man betray his country? Banville's narrative vaguely suggests that Victor's reasons were political or philosophical, but even within the fictional narrative Banville has created, I think the evidence suggests that the motivation was aesthetic. The story tells us that Victor is an art historian and some kind of aesthete, but the author doesn't have much empathy for what it can mean for a man to make his life choices around what he finds beautiful rather than what he finds ugly. Without this thread, the story is a window into a world of characters nearly all of whom are entirely unlikeable.
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on January 2, 2013
There are two groups of readers for this novel: those who know a lot about the Cambridge spies in general and Anthony Blunt (the model for the central character) in particular and those who don't. I suspect that a reader's reaction to the book will be influenced by which group he/she falls into; I belong to the second group, which probably explains why it took me so long to become engaged with the narrative.
I found the book very slow going at first; it became much more compelling to me in the second half. The writing is marvelous; I found the descriptions of living in London during the blitz particularly moving and powerful. As other reviewers have noted, the central character is not a terribly pleasant person but his reflections on his past life are fascinating--and told in vivid detail.
I plan to read some of the biographical material about the Cambridge spies and then read this novel again; I think I missed things because the topic was new to me.
This is the first Banville novel I have read although I am a great fan of his mysteries which are published under the name Benjamin Black.
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on May 11, 2014
Mr. Banville has given us a fictional account of the life of a sociopath based upon Anthony Blunt, spy, mathematician, art historian and a very unsavory character. The genius of Banville's work is that by writing in the first person, he brings us into the mind and soul of Victor Maskell and his perceptions of his world in a way truer than a biography could do. It allows him and us to speculate as to motives.

By writing in the first person, he also assumes the mask and personae of a man who is is most erudite and classically trained in the Cambridge tradition. I found is a pleasure to have to refer to the OED to get the meaning a some arcane word that is introduced by Maskell in a totally comfortable manner. We can believe that his character speaks this way.

As to motives perhaps it was best said by Graham Greene (who appears in this book as Querell, an unsavory associate of Maskell) that the reason for Judas' betrayal of Jesus was to be found in Judas' childhood. I found that this character, Maskell reminds me of another, to me, indecipherable sociopath and that is Patricia Highsmith's Mr. Ripley.

This book is as complex and intriguing whether one is familiar with with the historical persons or not. As mesmerizing as watching spider devouring its prey.
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on December 29, 2013
John Banville has quietly been having one of the great literary careers of our time, and “The Untouchable” is perhaps his best work. Inspired by the peculiar case of Sir Anthony Blunt, who managed the British royal family’s art collection while betraying Britain’s deepest secrets to the Soviet Union, Banville’s book imagines the conflicted inner life of a fictional aesthete-traitor. His anti-hero recalls every trick he played, every lie he told, every boundary he transgressed and justifies everything he did, sometimes pathetically, sometimes hilariously. Banville’s sentences are all finely wrought, yet each carries his propulsive story forward—the comparison to Nabokov and “Lolita” is inescapable. By all means begin Banville by reading his Quirke crime novels written as Benjamin Black, but move on as quick as you can to “The Untouchable” or his other confessional classic, “The Book of Evidence.”
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VINE VOICEon September 27, 2006
It is rather commonplace, I suppose, that it is difficult to write an "objective" review of a book one so deeply enjoys. Nevertheless, I'll give it a whirl. Banville truly does seem incapable of writing about anything that does not become a work of art under his pen. And, while John Le Carre is frequently praised as writing spy novels that are literature, they aren't. They're merely a cut above the usual 007 sort of thing. For something to be labelled art, correctly, it must soar above not only any genre it supposedly represents (herein, the "spy novel"), but must also must stake a unique claim in the reader's mind as something rich and strange, the like of which she/he has never yet come across. Banville accomplishes this feat with such apparently effortless ease here that this reader, in any event, is left, after reading it, in a swoon of delight which I'm still savouring.

It's a pity to dissect what makes this so, but, really, it's not much of a dissection, only one cut into two parts: 1) Banville's lyrical, lulling yet erudite prose which comes here through the medium of our somewhat flawed protagonist, Maskell. It is literally transporting, in its Yeatsean reveries, not only to a different time and place but to the inside of Maskell's mind and heart, or perhaps some would prefer the term soul. 2) The Proustian depths of Banville/Maskell's insights into the kaleidoscopic, shape-shifting nature of life, love and identity.

I suppose I'm obliged to say something about the "spy" aspect of the book and the to-do about the Cambridge set. I shall. It's of no importance.........Well, let me qualify, it's of no importance save as the setting in which Banville writes. It's just a sort of prop, as is Maskell's homosexuality. For, after reading this book, one realises that whether one is homo or hetero, spy or patriot (Maskell is, at times, all four.), we are all a bit out of our depths in this world in defining who we are and why we do things. To quote from the book, "Yes, how deceptively light they are, the truly decisive steps in life we take."

When is a certain Swedish committee going to take note of this fellow?
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on April 6, 2017
Highly recommended by the experts. I couldn't finish it.
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on January 3, 2015
I have always been curious about the young Cambridge men, during World War II, who became
Russian spies. It made no sense and I have read many books trying to come to some understanding.
They were all upper class, brilliant, beautifully educated. John Banville has written this book about one
of these men, a novel, with his usual creative imagination. I loved it and have read it twice.
Daisy M
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on December 31, 2012
This book, by the marvellous John Banville, is so well written that I did something I have never done before in all my long years of reading and teaching: I finished the book and turned back to the beginning and reread it. It was such a finely tuned novel, with so much to savor, I did not feel I had fully (or even barely) appreciated Banville's style and diction while I was moving through the plot the first time. The second time was such a revelation in the details of his work! And, this is not even the work of Banville's that I have loved most. But it was one that really rewarded my second immediate reading. May have to reread it a third time, but will wait a bit. He's a terrific writer and one needs to marvel over each sentence and the crafting of his images. No speed-readers need apply.
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