Study Guide

The Untouchable

by John Banville

The Untouchable Essay - Critical Essays

The Untouchable

THE UNTOUCHABLE is a complex, intriguing novel that offers a fictional reworking of Sir Anthony Blunt’s exposure as a spy in 1979. Victor Maskell is another of John Banville’s reflective, self-regarding narrators who uses the narrative to rationalize his actions.

The novel opens immediately after Maskell has been identified in the House of Commons. Son of a Northern Ireland bishop, he attended Cambridge University in the 1930’s where he flirted with Marxist ideology and eventually joined some fellow students in becoming a spy.

During World War II he works for the British Secret Service at a code-breaking center, all the while feeding vital information to the Russians. After the war, he is placed in charge of cataloging the royal art holdings, knighted, and awarded a sinecure as Keeper of the Royal Pictures, all of which he loses once he is exposed.

As in other Banville novels, art and artistic appreciation are central to an understanding of this work. Maskell loses his connection with life as he immerses himself fully in his artistic passions. He continually sees himself and others in artistic terms—he, a hero in a painting and others as caricatures, worthy of scorn, derision, or lofty tolerance. However, a central irony of the novel is that art may actually be the source of Maskell’s undoing.

The issue of identity is also paramount and tied closely to the theme of art. Maskell is many things to many people, and his life is a parade of different roles and selves. In becoming a double, quadruple, etc., agent, one whose allegiances are lost in a maze of poses, Maskell’s ultimate sense of self eludes him.

THE UNTOUCHABLE is further proof that Banville is a major writer. His prose is supple, fluid, and exactly precise. No contemporary writer can capture the slight changes in emotional register that he so deftly manages.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, April 15, 1997, p. 1389.

Commonweal. CXXIV, June 20, 1997, p. 25.

Library Journal. CXXII, April 15, 1997, p. 116.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 20, 1997, p. 2.

National Business Review. May 23, 1997, p. 36.

The New York Review of Books. XLIV, May 29, 1997, p. 17.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, June 8, 1997, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, April 14, 1997, p. 52.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 9, 1997, p. 20.

The Wall Street Journal. May 9, 1997, p. A16.

World Literature Today. Autumn, 1996, p. 958.