Tag Archives: John banville

Eimear McBride’s ‘The Lesser Bohemians’ and The Ride in Contemporary Letters

the-lesser-bohemians***Content warning: Things get racy***

The Bad Sex Award is a literary prize awarded to the author who writes the most cringeworthy scene in which sex happens in a particular year. A survey of past nominees suggest that the judges have more in mind then the ding an sich, and are more attentive to column inches; bad sex awards tend to follow the trendy novelists de nos jours, and probably marks a tipping point in any writer’s career when they move from middle-aged gravitas-endowed male author to punching bag, see Jonathan Franzen, John Banville. The John Banville parody twitter accounts, incidentally, marked the occasion of Banville’s nomination rather well:

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In one of my college tutorials, the conversation turned to the ways in which literature is a fairly paltry medium when it comes to the depiction of sex, especially in our age of spectacle or image capitalism; the extent to which sexual materials are available, distributed, makes ink on a page seem somewhat retrograde. Nevertheless, I might contest that with the next couple of examples. The sex scene in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, reads as follows:

Then they were everywhere at once again, looped about the other, everything new for the second time, and she closed her eyes to see them together, which she could almost do, which she could do for the sheerest time, bodies turned and edged and sidled, one way and the other, this and that concurrent, here by as there, like back-fronted Picasso lovers.

This paragraph does what DeLillo does best, in moving aqueously through a never stable milieu, with an attention to things moving in and out of shape(s), the reality inflected by the partiality of the lover’s perspectives, particularly in the barest suggestion that Klara Sax can see more of the occasion with her eyes closed. There is also the hint of Hamlet’s beast with two backs, cleverly hybridised with the cubist reference; the beast with four backs, as it were.

Anne Enright’s The Gathering treats if not quite ‘carnal intercourse, with ejaculation of semen within the natural female organ,’ the act of fellatio in terms as follows:

‘Where were you?’ he says, and I’d love to say I was out, like he is out all the time. Doing, making, being — or even shagging. I’d love to say, ‘I was just out shagging,’ in a debonair sort of voice…I put my hand gently against his shirt front and the gesture is so graceful, even as I watch it, that it leads me, quite easily, to the buckle of the belt, which I tug with my other hand, and so, by softly pushing him away while pulling him forward, I contrive to blow my husband, in our own kitchen. On a school day.

This is real, I think. This is real.

Though I am not sure that it is, actually. When we are done, Tom plants a dry, thoughtful kiss in the middle of my forehead. He can not claim that he has been fobbed off — not after his official, all-time favourite thing — but he knows that he has been fobbed off, all the same. And it makes him angry.

‘I just don’t know where you’re coming from,’ he says. A corporate phrase from my corporate boy.

This is a very unsettling, and of course, very funny paragraph. Veronica is coming to terms with, according herself to the fragments of her selfhood in the aftermath of her brother Liam’s suicide, and this is just one example of a behaviour she adopts in its aftermath, as a way of construing herself in the event’s wake, indicated by her jealousy in her husband’s seemingly effortless capacity to Be. Her husband exhibits concern for her behaviour, the prevailing domestic codes of behaviour in their household; the rules implied in the stand-alone clause ‘On a school day,’ means that this is not a regular occurrence, and that Veronica is shaking things up. Her ambivalence towards her husband in this scene, as well as her dominance, are expressed in her pushing him in two directions at once. Ultimately, the event is a failure. Veronica is uncertain as to whether what has just happened is real or not, unreality being an ongoing thematic concern in The Gathering. The bland sum-up from her husband deepens the uncanniness, and gestures towards the impossibility of accessing Veronica as a character in the conventional sense.

Both paragraphs are very different in their approaches, but there is a definite similarity in their approaches, and that is, primarily, their avoidance. Very little detail is given about who puts what where and for how long. This is why I have difficulties with the premise of the bad sex award, as it is one of the rare forays that the non-literary press makes into contemporary literature, to make fun of the conceptual apparatus of prose. And it is, often, very silly, but it is silly for a reason that writing itself is silly. Bald statements of all that is the case don’t read well, literary writing is decidedly ambiguous, elliptical, and at its best when (apologies for using a creative writing workshop phrase) showing, not telling. So it is also for representations of The Ride. Say things too directly, and it becomes monotonous, but go too far with the figurative language, and journalists will mock you publicly.

We see similar methods of elision in Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, which probably devotes more pages to sex than any other novel I can remember, let alone a self-consciously experimental one:

Alright. He wets his lips then goes to the words at a similar lick

Nowisthewinterofourdisconte

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and allthecloudsthatloured upon our hours…hs right I’m right there I’m. I pull back quick. He presses it onto me as his body gives up. Wet on my chest, ends of my hair and my breast and the heat. Goes everywhere and him smearing it all down me as I, touching the threat of bruise on my lip, lay my head on his knee.

The most significant absence here, is the word semen, or come, or whatever word you want to substitute over ‘it.’ Sex in The Lesser Bohemians generally observes this rule, interior monologue emphasising immediate sensory perception over systematic apprehension, interspersed with erratic formatting, punctuation, etc. Though the above is unique in that it is one of the few occasions in which Shakespeare is channeled directly. It’s never totally cringeworthy, it’s relatively interesting and not at all sexy. McBride’s methodology is however, drained of some of its vitality by its overuse; there is an awful lot of riding in the book.

It’s peculiar then, that McBride, having demonstrated her commitment to showing, not telling, then spends quite of the novel doing the latter. About halfway through the text, the novel’s love interest, Stephen, outlines his personal history, over the course of fifty or so pages. This soliloquy is interrupted about seven times, as Claire Lowdon points out, solely in order to remind us that the main character, Eily, is there. The endless references to Stephen’s tic, repetitions of howlers such as ‘the irony wasn’t lost on me when,’ just emphasise the strings and incongruous presence of what seems to be a first-draft of a screenplay based on an Edna O’Brien novel within an Edna O’Brien novel. Stephen’s Miserable Irish Childhood™ (complete with alcoholic father, suffocating mother, sexual abuse, etc. etc.) manages to disperse any mystique that might have imbued the character, and it escalates to such an absurd level by what is not even his early adolescence that I lack the ability to do justice to the exorbitant heights of its ridiculous hamminess.

Further, the self-hatred fuelled drug vortex into which both characters fall into at various points are singularly unconvincing. Choosing just one example is difficult, but I might have to go for the one wherein Eily, after having injected herself with one marijuana too many, begins to argue with Stephen, (who has just taken her back for having sex with someone else) and then dares him and her flatmate, named Flatmate, to have a threesome with her. The rage that she manages to sustain after having smoked weed is one level of ridiculousness, the blows to which Stephen and Flatmate nearly come is another, but all this is trumped by the next morning, when Stephen, all strife forgotten, begins assisting Flatmate in converting the flat into a squat to fend of some meddling bailiffs. Knowing what McBride is capable of from the undeniable virtuosity and power of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and even some of The Lesser Bohemians’ more successful moments make these lapses from form all the more baffling.

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Declan Kiberd at the Theatre of Memory Symposium

Declan Kiberd giving a rather brilliant talk on the state of Ireland, memory and its relationship to culture. Great readings of Yeats, Joyce and the revolutionary generation abound, albeit greenwashed slightly. Also has a dig at the revisionist historians, which I would make more of if it wasn’t for his great idea for a new, radical arts policy.

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.

Kevin Barry reading Brian Friel’s ‘The Saucer of Larks’

I saw Kevin Barry read the first few pages of his novel Beatlebone at Imagining Home: The Literary Imagination. It was one of the better readings I’ve ever seen, not that the evening was short of them, with Anne Enright reading from the climax of The Green Road, Colm Tóibín from The Heather Blazing and John Banville from a biography of Roger Casement. Nevertheless, Barry’s selection was the one most easily categorised as a performance; he do the police in different voices. So I was happy when I saw that Barry read a Brian Friel short story for the New Yorker Fiction podcast. It, it meaning the story, Barry’s performance and the post-story discussion, is very good.

http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction/kevin-barry-reads-brian-friel

John Banville’s Tour of Dublin

Short podcast/radio documentary of John Banville giving Mariella Frostrup, host of Open Book on BBC Radio 4, a tour of Dublin and going over some of his own memories/impressions of the city from back in the day. Features excerpts from Benjamin Black’s crime novels, read by Owen Roe, who should read every audiobook.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04d11l6

William H. Gass’ ‘The Tunnel’ and the Sad Man Monologue

William H. Gass’ novel The Tunnel strikes me, in one way, by its similarity to a particular kind of fiction written by a particular kind of novelist of a particular age and gender, a sub-genre I call ‘The Sad Man Monologue.’ This form was, I would argue, pioneered by Samuel Beckett in his Trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt and L’innomable, though I am open to being corrected on that, (damienrants at https://iscriptorblog.wordpress.com/ suggests Goethe, Heinrich Von Kleist and Fyodor Dostoevsky as plausible pre-modernist progenitors) and is practiced nowadays by the aforementioned Gass, occasionally by Paul Auster and exclusively by John Banville.

Below are some key features of the genre, for your perusal and edification:

The narrator is a middle-aged man – This is a fairly consistent feature of the genre, as these texts generally depict the narrator as writing the account as we read it, hopping back and forth in time, from a bathetic present to a Kodak-distant youth in which feelings were felt intensely. The neither/nor in-between space of middle age is crucial for bringing together the pathos of departed days with the anxiety of a more proximate death.

The writing is of an extremely heightened sort – More so, I think than any other invented sub-genre today, the authors of sad man monologues embroider with densely worded baroqueries. The reason behind this linguistically charged and seductive register is that the sad men are, generally speaking, shits, and often unrepentant shits at that, probably necessitating its glossy surfaces and (sometimes) exquisite proliferation of sub-clauses.

The narrator complains about the unattractiveness of their spouse – A bugbear I have as regards this genre is that each sad man finds time, ample time in fact, to denigrate the attractiveness of their wife and log their resentment over how little gratifying sex they get. I find it so bizarre that in the works of these writers, time and time again, half the novel is devoted to the fundamental pain of the human condition, epistemological, phenomenological uncertainty, the unreliability of memory, the indignity of having an infinite intellect yoked to a decaying body, yet the narrator still finds time to harp on his petty domestics chauvinistically, as if this had some sort of universal significance. This annoys me because 1) I suspect the narrator is no spring chicken, 2) I have no idea what they expect, holing themselves away authoring the story of their life and being so angst ridden all the time, 3) it comes across like a male author getting a dig in at their wife.

The narrator is an erudite and studious sort, well up on contemporary thought – These novels are shot through with flirtations of references to The Jacques. This is fun, but wears quickly, especially when one reads Gass, who makes the effort to traduce this theoretical terminology into his own inimitably mad register, then returns to these other authors, who make use of phrases like ‘unconscious,’ ‘meaninglessness,’ ‘fracture,’ or god help us, that familiar clattering of the undergraduate, ‘signifier.’

Scanning my bookshelves for a gender counterpoint, the sad woman monologue, (again, examples please), I come away with J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Both bring productive knottiness into the formulae above, Enright’s Veronica moves back before her own birth, introducing impossible pre-natal perspectives, just as Coetzee’s Magda, allows others to speak their own pieces in dialogue, committing a cardinal sin against the genre. This is complicated by the fact that both narrators inflect what they see or narrate to suit their own interests; their supposed capacity to deal in heteroglossia in fact points towards a more insidious variant of monomania.

The Gathering is class. Read The Gathering.

J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ and one-word titles

When discussing J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, one should probably start with its title. As you may have already noticed, it is one word long. It is striking in the promise that it implicitly makes in exploring the nature of the abstract concept of disgrace in itself. Reading the novel for the second time I was keen to figure out exactly what it is that Coetzee is saying about disgrace, more on that later, but is also set me off on the collecting of one-word abstract titles.

When I first learned about the novel as an undergrad, it was mostly through Ian Watt’s interesting but flawed study, The Rise of the Novel. For Watt, the novel was the first form that took account of the specific nature of the world. Social milieux, individualism and consumerism were the driving forces behind the emergence of the genre; abstraction was not within its repertoire. This is what makes the grand statements that underpin these one-word titles so captivating, it takes what is supposedly the most modern literary genre while pledging a return to medieval morality plays, when ‘human nature’ was not something we placed in quotation marks.

My bookshelves were as good a place to start in pursuit of this genre-within-a-genre as anywhere else and as such I submit the few that I have that do qualify, some that don’t and the few that are marginal or limit cases.

Yes

Martin Amis’ novel Success is one such example, but in terms of its exploration of the theme is sets for itself I’m uncertain how successful it is. It details two brothers, one of whom is more successful than the other in sexual, financial terms. At roughly the halfway point, the less successful, ‘nicer’ brother begins to overtake the other, only for the reader to find that the initially more successful brother’s success may have been a meta-fictional game all along. Success is moderately diverting as a narrative, but makes no grand statements in the way that one might wish. I own a copy of his novel Money and I’m hoping that it turns out to be more successful in that regard.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is not strictly a novel, but from the parts that I have read (thin ice), it arguably anticipates the methodology of the maximalist novelists, such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace with its encyclopaedic knowledge of classical myth and the scope of its ambition. Since Ovid’s subject matter is change, it stands to reason (and also idle speculation, I suppose), that he is articulating a vision of a world based primarily in change. That said, this figuration of Ovid as a poet who is aware of the mutability of all things is a very modern understanding.

Another example is Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, a deft and fun examination of how our supposed free society offers more in the way of paralysis and frustration than fulfilment. His more recently published novel Purity, presumably qualifies too, but I haven’t read it yet. So.

I’m reliably informed that Milan Kundera’s Ignorance counts too, aswell as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. William S. Burroughs’ Junky may well also, it all depends on whether or not Burroughs acts the social diagnostician in it and says something in the way of all people being, in some way, junkies. Michel de Houellebecq’s Submission also springs to mind.

No

As fun as it would be to discuss in this regard, Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey don’t qualify, simply because of the presence of the definite article, bringing their total word counts to two and two respectively. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, John McGahern’s The Barracks and many, many others don’t qualify for the same reason.

Paul Auster’s Invisible doesn’t count, the title is a bit too specific, but if it was called Invisibility, it could have, seeing as much of it is concerned with the general flightiness of the phenomenal world and the fundamental unknowability of all human beings, how their inner lives are rendered invisible to us.

The less said about John Williams’ Stoner and Philip Roth’s Everyman the better, they were two novels that I had been looking forward to reading for a long time and as such read them back-to-back. They turned out to be so disappointing I tapped out in the last fifty to seventy pages. That was a bad week. However, Roth deserves an honourable mention for engaging in the kind of thematising that these titles should encourage; the title is pilfered from a morality play about exactly these same kind of Big Questions about The Human Condition. However, it provides interesting takes of none of these and depicts instead the life of a highly successful businessman who realises that he should have stayed with his first, gently aged but of course still quite attractive wife Phoebe, rather than the supermodel that he ended up with. In both we’re supposed to be gently swept along in the unearned melancholic nostalgia and believe that they hold some kind of significance for the ‘everyman.’ Bilge.

Will Self’s Umbrella and Emma Donoghue’s Room are unfortunately not included for their quite literal object titles. Though one could no doubt mount an argument to the contrary James Joyce’s Dubliners, Ulysses must be disallowed also, again because of specificity.

War and Peace is a near miss, Tolstoy should have chosen one or the other.

Maybe/Haven’t Read Yet

I haven’t read A.S. Byatt’s doorstopper Possession yet, so I am unsure whether is qualifies. If the novel says Something Important about how the human mind can be overtaken or become obsessed with something outside of itself, it might well do. Updates when they become available. Ditto John Banville’s Athena (though I’m dubious, if the novel is concerned with any of the things that the goddess Athena supposedly embodies, wisdom, courage, etc, it could get through on a technicality), Paul Auster’s Leviathan and John McGahern’s Memoir (if it deals with the nature of Memoiring, yes, if it’s an Irish misery narrative, no).

So what does Coetzee’s novel say about the nature of disgrace? Even after two readings, I’m not quite sure. Reading the book always makes me look up the defintion of disgrace and internally flit between the book and The Compact OED. A disgrace is the disfavour of one in a powerful and an exalted position, “with the withdrawal of honour…which accompanies it.” Archaic definitions also involve deformities, this will be important later.

The novel depicts David Lurie, a lecturer in romantic poetry in a South African university. He begins an affair with one of his students and when this is found out, he becomes a shamed public figure. Lurie refuses the mandatory media narrative of public apology, contrition and rehabilitation and maintains that he was only being true to himself. His stubborn commitment Nietzschean ethics ultimately loses him his job and he retreats to his daughter’s farm.

While Lurie is staying at the smallholding, helping out with various menial tasks, the farm is attacked. Lucy is raped and Lurie is disfigured. To Lurie’s horror, Lucy keeps her farm, intends to keep the child that she has conceived and marry Petrus, a man who is implicated in the attack. Lucy explains that she intends to live this life ‘with no cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity,’ and Lurie’s gloss on her decision is as follows: “Like a dog.” “Yes,” she replies. “Like a dog.”

One can see why it is difficult to know what to make of this, when the only recourse against the trials that life submits one to is to abandon one’s dignity altogether. Lurie casting himself as a Byronic hero, as a “servant of eros” is unconvincing at best, self-indulgent at worst, a lecturer on poetry hopped up on his own iambs, ignoring the very real power relations present in his affair with his student Melanie. It is also his luxury to do so, and to plead the cause of his own individuality. In order to Lucy to continue to eke out an existence on her farm, she has no other choice.

Lurie’s own rationalisation is that: “It was history speaking through them. A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors.” We must submit ourselves, Coetzee seems to be saying, if not strictly to disgrace and hopefully, not to what Lucy undergoes, but to the ways in which life humbles us. what life humbles us with. It’s not a consolation, but anyone who’s read the ending will know that isn’t what this book is for.