“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Jury Remains Out: THE UNTOUCHABLE by John Banville

Acclaimed as literary novels, they are steeped in crime – but is it kosher to call them Irish crime fiction novels? YOU decide! Or … DON’T! This week: THE UNTOUCHABLE by John Banville.
The author of such exemplary works as ATHENA, Irishman Banville here takes on the juicy challenge of writing a spy novel and handles the assignment with far more grace and intelligence than even the best of that genre’s authors. Double-agent Victor Maskell wakes up one morning to discover that after years of informing on London for Moscow, someone has informed on him. To sort out what has happened, he begins a journal. What follows is the richly detailed account of a man who clearly had convictions but whose behaviour remains an enigma throughout. As he recalls his Irish childhood, complete with pastor father, beloved stepmother, and retarded brother; his emotional entanglements with careless golden boy Nick and his sister, Baby, whom Victor quite oddly marries long before he realizes that he is gay; and his relations with a slew of hedonistic, upper-class Englishmen too incisively characterized to be mere types, Victor remains subtle, crusty, and tantalizingly out of reach. His story is so well told that why he spied and who betrayed him become secondary. Highly recommended. – Library Journal

An icy, detailed portrait of a traitor, and a precise meditation on the nature of belief and betrayal. Banville (ATHENA, 1995, etc.) tends to allow the shimmering intensity of his prose to overcome plot and character. This time out, though, he keeps matters moving along briskly and his prose, while still vigorous, firmly under control. Sir Victor Maskell, an elderly, much-honoured art historian, is revealed in Parliament to have been a spy for the Soviets. Stripped of his knighthood, his various positions and honours, and dying of cancer, Maskell sits down to explain himself. The resulting memoir, ironic, full of lacerating self-knowledge and acidic portraits of his fellow traitors, provides both a lively portrait of art and intelligence circles in Britain from the 1920s to the ’70s and a meditation on the forces that inspire treason. Victor is a suitably complex and tormented figure. (Banville, to his credit, is clearly not interested in making him a particularly sympathetic one.) He is a perpetual outsider: An Irish Protestant, far less self-assured than his elegant Cambridge classmates, ambiguous about his sexuality, and more interested in art history than in the contemporary world, he seems to embrace Marxism more to fit in than to assert some firm belief, and to become a traitor more to please his friends than to assert a cause. This is, of course, well-ploughed ground: Maskell is in some ways decidedly similar to Anthony Blunt, the art historian/spy, and his circle equally recognizable. Still, Maskell’s fierce intelligence, his unblinking consideration of his past, sets this book apart from most fictional explorations of the spy’s mentality. There’s another reason that Maskell is writing his memoirs: He hopes, by doing so, to uncover who it was that turned him in, and why. He does so, in a bitterly ironic and understated climax. A resonant reworking of a seemingly exhausted genre, and a subtle, sad, and deeply moving work. – Kirkus Reviews

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