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Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Untouchable (1997) by John Banville


Book Review
The Untouchable (1997)
 by John Banville

   Not to be confused with the 1987 American film about famous prohibition era FBI agent Elliot Ness, The Untouchable is about Victor Maskell, an Anglo-Irish double agent for Great Britain and the USSR during World War II and the early stages of the Cold War before becoming inactive in the mid 1950's.  Maskell is largely based on real life member of the Cambridge 4/5 Spy Ring Anthony Blunt, with whom Maskell shares multiple key characteristics.  The Cambridge Spy Ring is a fertile source for spy fiction materials as well as being a top seller in the world of non-fiction, but, mostly in the UK, I think.   In the United States, the Cambridge Spy Ring is little known and essentially never discussed.

  They were a group of intellectuals who were recruited by the Soviet Union prior to the Second World War, simultaneously feeding the USSR information while operating at the very highest levels of British government and military.  I was under the impression- and it's an impression reinforced by the Maskell/Blunt character in The Untouchable that they were all gay- almost more dangerous than being a spy for the USSR in mid century England.

  The form of The Untouchable is that of a roman a clef, the life and times of an extremely interesting and almost certainly wholly unsympathetic narrator.  This format reflects the sensibility of Maskell, who, as he repeatedly urges the reader to consider, is a creature of the period between wars in the United Kingdom, with all the excess that would entail (like an English counterpart of New York jazz age frolics).  The question of motivation lurks around the fringes of The Untouchable, never fully resolved, often belittled by Maskell.

  Banville carries off the sexual identity of Maskell with aplomb.  I think, in a sense, that conveying repression is easier than conveying expression, because so much is not said or even, for that matter, thought.  Although the reader assumes that Maskell is gay from jump street, he doesn't actually have a gay experience until after he is married with children.  Blunt was famously revealed as the fourth member of the Burgess-Maclean-Philby spy ring- all of whom appear in fictional guise in The Untouchable

  Banville's prose is ice cold.  It's very crisp, and state of the art.  There is little to no literary excess, no florid turns of phrase.  Banville possesses insight into the human condition, a prime reason why he is a perennial Nobel Prize for Literature long-shot.  Also he is the preeminent Irish novelist of his generation, so the extent that Ireland is going to get another Nobel Prize for Literature, he would be the guy. 

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