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The Untouchable


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About the Author

John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. He is the author of more than ten novels, including The Book of Evidence, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Guinness Peat Aviation Award. He won the Booker Prize for his novel The Sea in 2005. He lives in Dublin.


A double agent unmasked in Parliament begins writing his memoir to determine who betrayed him. Expert Irish novelist Banville (Athena, LJ 5/1/95) at his most readable.

Banville (The Book of Evidence; Athena; Ghosts) has always been a highly stylish writer whose prose is almost tactile in its loving delineation of lights and weathers. He sees as an artist does, but the actual structures on which his thrillingly sensuous writing is draped have been, for the most part, a bit fey and elusive. The Untouchable changes that perception overnight. This is an extraordinary breakthrough novel in which keenly observed character and often farcical, sometimes poignant action are developed to the point where they compel as much admiration as the still exquisite language. It is, in fact, comparable to the work of John Le Carré at the height of his powers, and in its tragi-comic aspects is in a class with the recent Tailor of Panama. Victor Maskell, clearly based on Britain's Sir Anthony Blunt, is one of that generation of British spies who came of political age at Cambridge during the 1930s and became double agents, working both for the British Secret Service during WWII and, for most of their lives, for the Soviet Union as well. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, key representatives of that generation, are also pictured here under fictionalized names and so, in a stunningly lifelike (and unflattering) portrait, is Graham Greene. The book begins as Maskell is betrayed as a traitor, he knows not whom, and takes the form of an extended reminscence about his life, ostensibly told to a mousy would-be biographer. (If that sounds like a hoary notion, Banville has a surprise up his sleeve even here.) Maskell‘elusive, cunning, cynical and surprisingly sentimental by turns‘is profoundly fascinating. In the process of his self-revelation, he offers a keen portrait of the spy's ultimate dissociation from his true self. Much of the book is uproariously funny, as a sort of offhand upper-class comic opera. Maskell's raffish friends, his in-laws, his wife, his Russian handlers and his male lovers (later in life, he realizes he is basically homosexual) are often figures of fun who then reveal sudden, appalling depths of feeling. It also evokes with startling immediacy the atmosphere of prewar and wartime London and, in one memorable scene, an uncannily believable encounter with King George VI (like Blunt, Maskell is Keeper of the Royal Pictures). 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. (May)

Maskell takes his place with John le Carre's Alec Leamas as one of spy fiction's greatest characters. Poetic and deeply affecting. -People [Banville's] books are not only an illuminating read--for they are always packed with information and learning--but a joyful and durable source of aesthetic satisfaction. -The New York Review of Books Enthralling... Victor Maskell is a thinly disguised Anthony Blunt... Banville has pulled off a marvelous series of tricks. -Anita Brooker, The Spectator Banville has the skill, ambition and learning to stand at the end of the great tradition of modernist writers. -Times Literary Supplement It must by now be an open secret that on this [U.K.] side of the Atlantic, Banville is the most intelligent and stylish novelist at work. - George Steiner, The Observer Banville's acute characterization and laceratingly witty prose capture perfectly the paradoxically idealistic yet cynical mood of the upper classes in 1930s Britain. -Time Out An icy detailed portrait of a traitor, and a precise meditation on the nature of belief and betrayal... subtle, sad, and deeply moving work. - Kirkus Reviews Delectably droll and masterful... The rich fabric of this novel blends the shrewd humor of a comedy of manners with the suspense of a tale of espionage. - Booklist [Written with] grace and intelligence... His story is so well told that why he spied--and who betrayed him--become secondary. - Library Journal

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