One of the most dazzling and adventurous 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 Maskell, 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 tortuous 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 Untouchable places John Banville in the select company of both Conrad and le Carre. Winner of the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction Contemporary fiction gets no better than this... Banville's books teem with life and humor. - Patrick McGrath, The New York Times Book Review Victor Maskell is one of the great characters in recent fiction... The Untouchable is the best work of art in any medium on [its] subject. -Washington Post Book World As remarkable a literary voice as any to come out of Ireland; Joyce and Beckett notwithstanding. -San Francisco Chronicle From the Trade Paperback edition.
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 Carr� 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)
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June 28, 1998
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