Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Untouchable

The Untouchable is a novel by award-winning author John Banville. I read and loved The Sea and picked up this book on the strength of that experience. The writing is as wonderful as I expected. I'm not as taken by the subject, which is a fictionalized account of the Cambridge spy ring as told in retrospect by one of the major players.

from the back of the book:
One of the most dazzling and inventive writers now working in English takes on the enigma of the Cambridge spies in a novel of exquisite menace, biting social comedy, and vertiginous moral complexity. The narrator is the elderly Victor Masakell, formerly of British intelligence, for many years art expert to the Queen. Now he has been unmasked as a Russian agent and subjected to a disgrace that is almost a kind of death. But at whose instigation?

As Maskell retraces his torturous path from his recruitment at Cambridge to the airless upper regions of the establishment, we discover a figure of manifold doubleness: Irishman and Englishman; husband, father, and lover of men; betrayer and dupe. Beautifully written, filled with convincing fictional portraits of Maskell's co-conspirators, and vibrant with the mysteries of loyalty and identity, The Untouchables places John Banville in the select company of both Conrad and le Carre.
The Guardian explains the roman-à-clef genre, saying,
It is a genre that has long offered readers the pleasure of trying to identify its personages, of being in the know. It originated at the beginning of the 18th century with so-called "secret histories": scandalous narratives of the doings of courtiers. The disguising of identities appeared tactful but was actually provocative. In the 19th century the genre kept a tincture of the forbidden. Lady Caroline Lamb titillated a Regency readership with a fictionalised version of her entanglement with Byron, Glenarvon (1816) (the title is the "disguised" name of the poet). Benjamin Disraeli also turned Byron's exciting life into fiction in Venetia (1837), and then wrote a political roman-à-clef, Coningsby (1844), which prompted the publication of "keys" to its characters.

A sense of revealing what has been secret, of broaching the forbidden, still attaches to the roman-à-clef.
The NYT closes their glowing review with this:
There is much, much more to celebrate in this extraordinary book: prose of a glorious verve and originality, in the service of a richly painted portrait of a man and a period and a society and a political order -- the whole governed by an exquisite thematic design. Contemporary fiction gets no better than this.
Publishers Weekly says, "It is seldom one encounters as keen a literary intelligence as Banville's embarked upon as compulsively entertaining--and thought-provoking--a tale as this." Kirkus Reviews calls it "An icy, detailed portrait of a traitor, and a precise meditation on the nature of belief and betrayal."


  1. The Cambridge spy ring? This is sooo up my alley! I downloaded a sample for whenever I have more time. Thanks for the tip! :-)

    1. His writing is wonderful! I look for his books when I'm at the book store because of how beautifully he writes.