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Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada
My virtue is that I say what I think, my vice that what I think doesn't amount to much.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Untouchable

John Banville's The Untouchable is based on the story of Anthony Blunt and his circle who were recruited as Soviet spies while at Cambridge University in the 1930s. They were upper-class communist sympathizers who infiltrated the highest level of the British government, including MI-5, MI-6, the Foreign Office, and the War Ministry and passed information about the UK to the Soviet Union throughout World War Two into the 1950s. In Banville's novel Victor Maskell, like Blunt, was curator of the Queen's pictures, a knight and also a discrete homosexual.
The novel begins when Maskell is a sick old man, having been outed as a Soviet spy, and is now a social pariah. It is written as a memoir telling his story from his Cambridge days, his wartime espionage, the drunken escapades with his fellow spies to his position as art advisor to the Queen. This is not a fast paced spy novel. In fact Victor seems almost lukewarm about his espionage activities. It is a story about Victor's double lives as a married man with two children and a homosexual when it was a criminal offence in Britain and as a self-professed socialist who is also part of the royal family's inner circle. Victor is not a likeable man and his casual abandonment of his wife and young family is reprehensible. He seems to lack the passion to risk all to help the soviets. It's as if he thought being a  communist was a good idea when he was at Cambridge but somewhere along the road he lost interest and was simply going through the motions. The banality of this spy's life fascinated me.
This novel was published almost two decades ago; I've had it for at least ten years and I regret that it took me so long to get around to reading it. Banville is an author that I want to read more of.

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