Tag Archives: John banville

John Banville’s ‘The Book of Evidence’ and Anglo-Irish Nostalgia

Every time I read a John Banville novel, I wish that it were the first time that I was reading a John Banville novel because, taken in a vacuum, each one is a work of great invention. Banville has a capacity to infuse into his high narratives of failed epistemology features of non-high literature (an impulse that Banville now channels into his Benjamin Black persona), and his post-Nabokovian reveries are surely among the most compelling of their kind but, having read about four them, a pattern begins to stand out and here we come to the less appealing aspects of his writing.

  • The perpetually waning, ethereal, always-described-relative-to-their-physical-features female ‘characters.’
  • The aging, reprehensibly lecherous but aesthetically-atuned middle-aged or old men at each of the novel’s centres.
  • The deconstruction of the novel’s artifice every page or so.
  • Four or five points at which it is suggested that the plot in its entirety is contrived.
  • The quiet twist in the text’s last four or five pages.

I could go on, and say a lot of other things that annoy me but the London Review of Books pretty well covered it in its review of his most recent novel The Blue Guitar. So I’ll just say that The Infinities featuring an omniscient God-narrator rather rather than a mortal one, allowed the usual course of his writings to be unsettled and re-vitalised in a way. Still a shame about Helen Godley, as sketchily characterised as she is attractive. Similarly, Banville remains a good sentencer, with a firm grasp on underplayed humour and The Book of Evidence had more than the average amount of good phrases and the momentary diversions of his baroque prose style is generally enough to get me through one of his books.

However, there was more than just this to keep my interest throughout The Book of Evidence, and that was the main character’s apparent nostalgia for the departed world of Georgian Dublin, through the prism of the Anglo-Irish ruling class. Freddie Montgomery is of upper-middle class Catholic stock, though his household, when he returns to Ireland, seems to have Gone Down, as big houses in Irish books will do. Montgomery remembers his father’s attitude to modern Irish history in the following terms: ‘the world, the only worthwhile world, had ended with the last viceroy’s departure from these shores. After that it was all just a wrangle among peasants.’ He even calls Dún Laoghaire Kingstown. This nostalgic treatment of seventeenth-century Ireland is familiar within Irish literature, as one can see from the works of W.B. Yeats and Elizabeth Bowen. One can perhaps just about glimpse the emergent rhythms of Banville’s prose style in the following quote from Bowen’s Court:

‘The great bold rooms, the high doors imposed an order on life. Sun blazed in at the windows, fires roared in the grates. There was a sweet, fresh-paned smell from the floors. Life still kept a touch of colonial vigour; at the same time, because of the glory of everything, it was bound up in the quality of a dream.’

Some of Banville’s thematic preoccupations seem to be gestured towards here also, the faint oscillation of unreality beneath appearance, the intensity of things just in their raw being-ness and the wealth on the backs of colonial subjects without the compromising fact of their existence relates to Banville’s capacity to keep his distance from the interiority of others, and perhaps from the interiority of protagonists themselves. We see also an attraction to surface and a repudiation of tacky actualness.

Roy Foster sees the eighteenth-century pursuit of a high-style in all things from buildings, public works and overwrought, intricate furbelows in their neo-classical architecture as a try-hard pathology in response to their self-perception, a recognition of their colonial status with the attempt to construct a better capital with better public buildings than the English. Foster writes that many contemporary visitors to Dublin expected a provincial town and were confronted with a totally inappropriate level of architectural and civic grandeur. One, in a mode that is not entirely un-Banvillean mode writes that visiting Dublin was like being ‘at table with a man who serves me Burgundy, but whose attendant is a bailiff disguised in livery.’ This pretentiousness emerges from Georgian Dublin’s precarious sense of itself and relates meaningfully to Banville’s high style, as a compensation for the insufficiency of one’s identity. Montgomery’s dreams, his notions, his self are even more dream like, than they at first seem, as they are constructed on a misinterpretation of history.

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Samuel Beckett’s ‘More Pricks Than Kicks,’ and James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’

To compare James Joyce and Samuel Beckett would be nothing new for a critic. When Eimear McBride recommended a familiarity with early-twentieth century Irish modernism in order to grasp her 2013 novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, it was fairly obvious who she was talking about.

Beckett met Joyce in Paris and helped him to translate the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ section of Finnegans Wake into French. Joyce also dictated some sections of the novel to him, necessitated by Joyce’s failing eyesight. While this process was ongoing, there was a knock at the door. Joyce called for whoever it was to come in and proceeded to have a conversation with them, all of which Beckett dutifully typed. Joyce was confused by its presence in the proofs when Beckett read them back, but was amused enough to keep it in the final version. As such Beckett proved himself handy not only as a stenographer, but a co-writer.

John Banville points out that this friendship had its price. Not only did Beckett take to holding a cigarette in the same way as his mentor, but he also emulated his sartorial quirks and wore shoes that were too narrow for his feet. There is a fine line between hero worship and masochism. Furthermore, Beckett’s early writing is stultified by a Joycean tenor, in his shorter fiction from his early career, he too often opts for clattering neologisms and wry allusiveness, rather than the morbid tautologies and minimalism that he became known for.

When reading his collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks, I was struck by the comparisons that could be made between Beckett’s protagonist Belacqua Shuah and Joyce’s analogue in his own fiction, Stephen Dedalus. Both are notable for their solipsism, terrible attitudes towards women and pseudo-intellectual faffing. However, I found a far more engaging link towards the end of the short story ‘A Wet Night,’ in which one can see Beckett wryly negotiating Joyce’s hallowed ground. ‘A Wet Night’ parodically re-iterates the conclusion to Joyce’s legendary final paragraphs in ‘The Dead.’ I’ll include it here because it’s out of copyright and always worth reading:

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

‘A Wet Night,’ shares a setting with ‘The Dead.’ Both take place at Christmas dinner parties and feature a number of Dublin socialites. The conversation at both is insipid, but Beckett’s lacks all the warmth and nostalgia for Dublin hospitality that Joyce probably felt, writing it as he did in Trieste. While Gabriel Conroy leaves Usher Quay in high spirits, feeling himself to be passionately in love with his wife Gretta, Belacqua leaves his dinner party drunk and bereft:

“But the wind had dropped, as it so often does in Dublin when all the respectable men and women whom it delights to annoy have gone to bed, and the rain fell in a uniform, untroubled manner. It fell upon the bay, the littoral, the mountains and the plains, and notably upon the Central Bog it fell with a rather desolate uniformity.”

I really enjoy the bathos of this passage. It teases the reader with its lyrical realism and its suggestion of universality, revealed in the rhythm of its slow, gently undulating sentences. It then subverts itself with a banal academic tone, all turning on the word ‘notably’ and the repetition of the word ‘uniform,’ as if the narrator had something more important to do than to vary their word choice.

In his alcohol-induced fugue, Belacqua throws away a new pair of shoes and we are told that his toes enjoy their newfound freedom which they are ‘rejoicing’ in. I hope it is not labouring the point to propose this as a pun that confirms the rain’s genealogy.