Tag Archives: vladimir nabokov

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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Anne Enright Sesh 7: ‘The Forgotten Waltz’

The Forgotten Waltz is narrated by one Gina Moynihan, writing about an affair she embarks on with Seán, a man she meets both through her sister and in her ‘in IT, sort of’ job. Most reviewers have this pegged as a sort of post-Celtic Tiger novel, narrated as it is in the first person in the winter of 2009 in retrospect, when ‘things’ had well and truly ‘slowed down’ and there was a lot of bad snow and the guy slipped on the news.

From Gina’s stately viewpoint, the era of the Celtic Tiger becomes a time of lost innocence. Each chapter is named after a saccharine, nostalgia infused ballads from the fifties, ‘There Will be Peace in the Valley,’ ‘Love is Like a Cigarette,’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow.’

There is a kind of irony in this proscribed soundtrack, not least because Gina’s acerbic tone is present throughout, (despite her professed love for Seán, she never seems to have fallen for him), because the Celtic Tiger doesn’t usually get represented as a bygone day of innocence, so much as a tacky era of indulgence and reckless deregulation for which deserved punishment was received. ‘We all partied,’ etc.

With a Bret Easton-Ellis-esque turn, designer label names are sprinkled throughout. Gina’s sister Fiona notices the brand of shoe a lawyer is wearing and Seán’s wife is at one point referred to as ‘Missus Issey Miyake.’ I panicked when I read it as I remembered no character named something so distinctive.

Another thing to notice is how prevalent alcoholism is. In a recent interview, with Miriam O’Callaghan, Enright, speaking on the past quarter-century, says that she hopes that the Irish will one day develop a grown-up view of themselves. I reckon that the prevalence of booze in  The Forgotten Waltz bears this at least partially adolescent quality to Irish society out. No matter how fancy the shoes, tiled kitchens and holiday homes in Ballymoney get, alcohol as hobby remains. It is generally fancy, European booze though, like Campari, Krug and ‘Canadian ice-wine.’ When people drink at the time in the book that I presume in the eighties, it’s just generic naggins of gin or vodka. Guinness never appears, which is progress, I suppose.

Published as The Forgotten Waltz was between The Gathering and The Green Road, its content straddles both. Like The Gathering it takes the form of a sort of an extended justification or witness statement, with the same narratorial self-consciousness that Veronica has. Gina sees the world a lot like Veronica does, but interacts with it very differently. I can’t see Veronica ever saying “Those mango slices are a crime!” at a New Year’s party or anywhere else.

Scenes like the party at Fiona’s house are new territory for Enright, a movement into less claustrophobic environs, from the tortured Nabokovian first person, to third-person comedy set-piece, like the Christmas dinner in The Green Road and its fallout.

Anne Enright Sesh Part 5: ‘Yesterday’s Weather’ and the shortness of the short story

Critical categorising, academic quibbling over short stories tends to discomfit me more often than not. Convincing sociological explanations for novels proliferate endlessly, but seem a little more paltry when it comes to the short story, which unfortunately seems to depend a bit too often on essentialism and even worse, on national essentialism. It is an obligation, it seems, for authors on the publicity trail of a new short story collection to have to answer some vague, abstract, mealy sort of question about why they think people like short stories, which prompts some vague, abstract mealy sort of response, which rarely defers to more obvious reasons, that people like short stories because they like stories, and perhaps their shortness has something to do with it also.

Descriptions of Irish short stories discomfit me in similar ways, all too often there are things like ‘the Bardic tradition,’ mentioned, seanchaí and, god help us all, Frank O’Connor’s ‘lonely voice in the wilderness,’ as if submerging population groups are less likely to write short stories than the population groups that they submerge. Such delineations were invented, I think, to fluff out the xiii or so required pages to not another anthology of Irish writing.

So, synecdoches of the short story form are essentialising constructs that serve the ends of marketeers, hack critics and writers. Fine. With that in mind, I’m going to try to encapsulate what it is that Enright does with her short stories, based on my reading of Yesterday’s Weather which collects stories from Taking Pictures, The Portable Virgin and one or two that appear in neither.

Enright arranges them in reverse chronological order, as a kind of overt piss-take: “I may be the only one who is laughing, but it is a great and private joke to see myself getting younger – shedding pounds and wrinkles, gaining in innocence and affectation – as the pages turn.” So there is already a kind of retrospective, reverse-lens quality to the collection, even without the title being what it is. As the writing continues, it’s fascinating to watch the style increasingly de-stabilised, as the Nabokovian subversion of artifice, usually kept on the margins of Enright’s overtones, come into conflict with her usual mode, before overwhelming it altogether in the final story, ‘Felix,’ a writing against Lolita: “Felix, my secret, my angel boy, my dark felicity. Felix: the sibilant hiss of the final x a teasing breath on the tip of the tongue…You can always count on a suicide for a clichéd prose style.” That final sentence is a nice touch also, considering The Gathering, written eighteen years later, is about a suicide and is anything but clichéd.

‘Yesterday’s Weather,’ the story this time, not the collection, describes a young couple, Hazel and John, with a newborn. “John. Divorce! Now,’ Hazel, not really joking, jokes at one point. Hazel’s tendency to anticipate the behaviour, thoughts and potential danger the baby (who I think stays unnamed) may end up in all serve as preludes to an argument which ultimately defines their blurry, anxious weekend in Clonmel with John’s parents.

The final paragraph has them making peace: “John drove as though the road could feel his tyres; the tyres could feel the road. The whole world seemed as tender as they were. At Monasterevin, he reached this hand to touch her cheek, and she held it there with the flat of her own hand while, in the back of the car, the baby still slept.” Peace of a sort. I say so because of the baby’s ominous presence, such moments of tranquillity and contemplation are evidently rare and arguments are likely to erupt again once that changes. Such is early parenthood. I think. Hazel and John will only be born ceaselessly forwards, and it in this case that the short story’s shortness serves an imperative function. At ten pages long, it is hyper-compressed to the kind of length that people as harried as Hazel and John are could feasibly assimilate, a moment of stock-taking and retrospection, within the context of the short story: “She tried to think of a number she could ring, or a site online, but there was nowhere she could find out what she needed to know. It was all about tomorrow: warm fronts, cold snaps, showers expected. No one ever stopped to describe yesterday’s weather.”