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Temporary Note

John Banville
John Banville
By Tim Conley

Such suffering, such grief: unimaginable. No, that’s not right. I can imagine it. I can imagine anything.

Of the unease of being in the world and the precarious antidotes to its tedium, toil, and troubles; of living a life examined yet still not lived; of the entangled desire and reluctance to articulate, to say something about these things – these are what John Banville, one of the foremost English prose stylists writing today, writes – and of complicity, too, or the sensation of it. We must never forget our complicity, because we cannot forget our complicity. In what is just a matter of particulars, and such are both the distinctions between life and art and the definition of fraud. Banville’s novels, each more finely honed and more haunting than the last, house the vagrant voices of savants, deceivers, uncertain fugitives, and what Beckett called “the lost ones.”
Inevitably, Banville’s narrators are articulate males who, for one reason or another, conscious or no, hesitate and prevaricate. For example, in The Book of Evidence, Freddie, who otherwise has a mind for details even of the most ghastly kind, refers to his encounter with someone known as “the American”: “I refer to him as the American because I did not know, or cannot remember, his name, but I am not sure that he was American at all.” That subtle shift in tense from “did not” to “cannot” and the added qualifications of “but” and “at all” are signature examples of Banville’s habit of bit-by-bit negation. A fact is offered and then cancelled, a story related and then dismissed as manufactured and irrelevant. As solid as the images in his elaborate pictures appear to become with study – so many tantalizing paintings populate the author’s works – Banville now and again strokes the frame and throws us back into uncertainty.

Born in Wexford, Ireland on December 8, 1945, John Banville has been literary editor at the Irish Times since 1989, and is a prolific and astute reviewer as well as being a prize-winning novelist and occasional playwright. Even though the intellectual breadth of his fictional subjects can be dazzling (and perhaps, in early books like Birchwood, a little plodding and affected), his language is much and always concerned with clarity. After publishing Long Lankin (1970, comprised of nine short stories and a novella, revised in 1984), Nightspawn (1971), and Birchwood (1973), Banville arguably hit his stride with his baroque portraits of science’s forefathers. Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981), and The Newton Letter (1982, later made into film by Britain’s Channel Four) all profile the named thinkers of their respective titles, though the third focuses on an ambitious biographer rather than on Newton himself. These are not costume dramas but taut examinations of epistemology: they question (as Banville presents it in Kepler) whether indeed “the world works by geometry” – and whether such knowledge is really any sort of comfort. These three “historical” fictions and the work which follows are popularly conceived of as a tetralogy of “scientific” novels, although Mefisto (1989) operates purely in the realm of invented characters.
As its title suggests, Mefisto is a Faustian tale, though without the clean divisions of damnation and salvation, for it begins and ends with the word “chance,” and the devils and bargains within lack definition and linger at the periphery of life and memory. Gabriel Swan, a mathematical prodigy, is a “poor Pinocchio, counting and capering, trying to be real.” The interest others have in him, like that of the fox-like Felix, is always unclear and sometimes sinister, and his attempts at love (with the deafmute puppeteer Sophie and later with the inviolate junkie Adele) are feeble and tainted with opportunism. Are the squalid lives and deaths around him the manifestation of an order in which numbers are the portentous heralds, or are they chance and coincidence, part of a world in which numbers are empty signs? Banville’s most Dickensian city and characters are the best features of this novel of gradual corruption.
Banville’s fondness for the grim and occasionally gruesome confession is most famously displayed in his trilogy of novels, The Book of Evidence (1989), Ghosts (1993), and Athena (1995) – a trilogy which is frequently and easily compared with Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. The Book of Evidence introduces the “protagonist” of the series, one Freddie Montgomery, whose identity will become progressively obscured across the course of the three novels. Freddie is a villain of Nabokovian dimensions, a man of refinement who eloquently writes from his prison cell of his obsession with a painting and how, in his botched attempt to swipe it undetected, he coldly murders an inconvenient chambermaid. Something of a man of science (he works for a time in the same wartime computer lab as Gabriel Swan) and likely a repressed homosexual (Freddie says he has “nothing against” homosexuals, “except that I despise them, of course, and find disgusting the thought of the things they get up to, whatever those things may be”), Freddie is fascinated by his own “inert, neutral, self-sustaining” evil and the horrors of which he is almost passively the author. If a mature Henry James had written Richard III, you might get a civil nightmare of a man like this one, whose confession is everywhere disingenuous and dissembling:

Yes, it’s true, I was disappointed. Did I want to be found out, did I hope to see my name splashed in monster type across every front page? I think I did. I think I longed deep down to be made to stand in front of a jury and reveal all my squalid little secrets. Yes, to be found out, to be suddenly pounced upon, beaten, stripped, and set before the howling multitude, that was my deepest, most ardent desire. I hear the court catching its breath in surprise and disbelief. But ah, do you not also long for this, in your hearts, gentlepersons of the jury? To be rumbled. To feel that heavy hand fall upon your shoulder, and hear the booming voice of authority telling you the game is up at last. In short, to be unmasked. Ask yourselves.

The next volume, Ghosts is a story of castaways washed upon a shore both alien and yet familiar, benignly hospitable and yet vaguely threatening. The island setting allows Banville to set to flight a flock of sly and unusual allusions, from Robinson Crusoe to The Island of Dr. Moreau and Gilligan’s Island. Freddie (never named as such) has a nervous sort of freedom serving as amanuensis to the art scholar Professor Kreutznaer, who himself harbours a secret shame. What Freddie – or another sympathetic monster so like him in manner and past crime as to be nearly identical – actually observes and what he speculates may be taking place around him are often indistinguishable from one another, and his presence is less omniscient than ethereal:

For I felt like something suspended in empty air, weightless, transparent, turning this way or that in every buffet of wind that blew. At least when I was locked away I had felt I was definitively there, but now that I was free (or at large, at any rate) I seemed hardly to be here at all. This is how I imagine ghosts existing, poor, pale wraiths pegged out to shiver in the wind of the world like so much insubstantial laundry, yearning towards us, the heedless ones, as we walk blithely through them.

Thus we have a ponderous Ariel to Kreutznaer’s ineffectual Prospero, but alleged “chance” (or a drunk skipper) rather than a tempest brings interruption in the form of seven interlopers, two of whom vex the narrator’s attempts to remain incognito and without predatory impulse.
The final volume of the trilogy, Athena gives an even greater dramatic emphasis to fakery than the first two. Morrow (think of Molloy, Malone, and Dr. Moreau) is not the narrator’s real name, though its adoption is again suggestion of crimes concealed. The tale of Morrow’s fascination with a woman known as “A” is intertwined with various shady exchanges of paintings, most of which seem to be forgeries. Banville’s ultimate ironic twist, however, belongs to the notion of the genuine among the society of frauds, both in life and art. Banville’s Nabokovian tendencies are apparent in the names he gives his painters (like Jean Vaublin, the subject of Kreutznaer’s studies, and Giovanni Belli), which are anagrammatic or transliteral plays upon his own name. All three of these books consider the effect of art upon one’s perception of the world and the subsequent formulation of ethics which governs one’s actions in it.
It is probably premature to guess, but another sequence of connected novels may be in the offing. The author’s last two novels have been of men at the end of their career, an end which in both cases has been rather forced, and their own disquieted review of their performance – the word is very appropriate here – reveals an anxiety about the possibly objectionable parts they’ve played. Banville turned his hand to the roman-à-clef in The Untouchable (1998), winning praise from both the professors of literature and the aficionados of the spy thriller. Victor Maskell is a loosely disguised Anthony Blunt, and his story is a sympathetic if troubling one, tied as it is to the fact of the heart’s awful propensity for various kinds of treachery and deceit. A diffident homosexual, art historian, and double agent, Maskell narrates his life’s story with a haunted and haunting sense of emptiness, of having somehow missed out on actually living his own life. How do we define ourselves? Nationality, religion, ideology, and possessions are not dependable in this regard, though Banville perhaps allows that our more inexplicable obsessions and passions may render the question meaningless.
“How could I show my face in public, to my public, after the mask had so spectacularly slipped?” So asks Alexander Cleave, an actor in flight from the stage and the newly debilitating idea of an audience in Banville’s Eclipse (2000), a ghost story that tends to get ahead of itself. Returning to his weathered (and noticeably gothic) childhood home, Cleave cannot entirely escape the presence and the perception of others, including, to his surprise, the strangers and wraiths who furtively inhabit his house. A stranger to himself as much as others, Cleave finds that “grief has no grandeur.”
To call Banville’s narrators “unreliable” is like saying the Pope is Catholic. The old expression “a nice Irish witness” – in other words, someone bound to be at odds with the truth – comes readily to mind when reading the testimonials of a Freddie Montgomery or a Victor Maskell. Their peculiar absence of will may be the root of their feelings of loss and culpability and their difficulties with questions of identity, yet the will to confess this feeling of absence, futile though such an effort may be, is there and is too human to be missed.
Banville is reported to be currently at work on a novel entitled Shroud, which we may all anticipate with a little shudder.

–Tim Conley
25 February 2002

More on Banville


Review of Shroud – Tim Conley reviews Banville’s 2003 novel.

You may order Banville’s works online through by visiting the Libyrinth’s Banville Bookstore.


John Banville on the Web – David Alan Sellers’s page offers some brief introductions to Banville’s works and their connections with postmodern thought.

Beatrice Interview – Ron Hogan’s 1997 interview with Banville for Beatrice.

Reading the Future – Mike Murphy talks to Banville for RTE. Part of the “Reading the Future” project.

Utility Search – Search for books and related material on Banville.

eBay Search – Find out what Banville related items are up for auction at eBay.

Google Newsgroup Search – This will search news groups related to Banville.

Yahoo News Search – Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Banville.

Northern Light – This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Banville and his work.

The Internet Public Library Online Literary Criticism Collection – This page has some links to Banville Literary criticism available on the Web.

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