I’ve spent the last couple of weeks having a John Banville-fest. I’d never really taken much notice of the Booker Prize-winning author until I heard him being interviewed on RTE radio last month. He was actually talking about his crime-writer alter ego Benjamin Black and his new novel The Lemur. He gave an interesting insight into how he operates as a writer, saying that in the time it takes ‘John Banville’ to write a sentence ‘Benjamin Black’ would have finished a page.
The Lemur was my first port of call and it was a quick, unchallenging read. During his interview Banville said it had been commissioned as a 15-intallment series by The New York Times. His Irish journalist narrator John Glass – a washed-out, chain-smoking hack – is just the most blatant cliché in this novel. Glass’s artist lover lives in Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village and his father-in-law is a domineering, former CIA man and self-made billionaire. Glass eats in swish Manhattan restaurants, works in mirror-windowed skyscrapers and lives in a plush apartment.
The plot centres on the murder of an internet sleuth hired by Glass - and who he nicknames the Lemur - to help him research a biography he has been commissioned to write about his father-in-law. Again the clichés come thick and fast - Captain Ambrose of the NYPD who is investigating the killing is an archetype who has appeared in a thousand New York cop novels, TV shows and movies, while the portrayal of a black journalist is dangerously close to racial stereotyping.
What I am wondering here is – did Banville set out to write a New York crime novel ‘in the style of a New York crime novel’? Is he purposely loading all these clichés on top of one another as a sort of literary tribute act? A knowing nod to a school of writing that will bring an appreciative smile to other aficionados?
On the other hand is he just ripping the arse out of the genre and thinking ‘sure this will do?’
I picked up two Banville novels – Eclipse and The Book of Evidence – in a second-hand bookshop a few days after finishing The Lemur. The gear shift in writing was immediately evident in Eclipse. It is dense, stream-of-consciousness prose that had me constantly reaching from my dictionary. It is self-consciously literary and not afraid of being so.
Eclipse tells of an actor who has suddenly been stricken by stage fright, who leaves his wife to live in his abandoned parental home where he thinks he sees ghosts. The ghosts are not the bit that stretch the credulity, it is the father and daughter who are squatting there and who the narrator does not notice until about half way through the novel that caused me to go ‘oh come on’. There are constant references to the narrator’s own mentally-fragile daughter and dark intimations of the fate that awaits her.
However, the flimsy plot is a subservient vehicle whose sole purpose is to provide a washing line on which Banville can hang out his meticulously laundered prose. That is not a bad thing. Banville’s writing is something that, if you’re in the mood for it, is worthwhile submitting to and letting yourself be carried along by. I read a review somewhere comparing him to Samuel Beckett and that rang true. Murphy, Molloy and Malone Dies all sketch out fragile scenarios that are launching pads for philosophical musings and ponderings on the meaning of existence. Beckett kicked the ball 60 years ago and Banville is happy to keep dribbling it. That is not a criticism for he does it very well.
I bought a new copy of The Sea, which won Banville the Booker in 2005 (The Book of Evidence remains unread at this point). Different scenario, different wife and daughter but essentially the same narrative voice carried over from Eclipse. Max, an art historian whose wife has just died, returns to a seaside town where he spent a childhood holiday and became infatuated with a girl of his own age and her mother.
The emotions are definitely rawer here than in Eclipse. The inability of Max’s wife to come to terms with her terminal illness, the feeling that her body has somehow betrayed her has a horrible authenticity while Max can only bumble ineffectually and fears to say anything in case it is the wrong thing. Memories of his childhood 50 years earlier, his more recent past, during his wife’s illness, and the present intermingle and are often only separated by a full stop or hyphen. Banville clearly relishes words and can bring you up short with a sentence because it articulates something you might have once have thought about but were never really able to find the words to say.
Describing Max’s youthful relationship with Chloe, Banville writes: ‘In her I had my first experience of the absoluteness of other people… And if she was real, so, suddenly was I. She was I believe the true origin in me of self-consciousness.’ (pp168).
‘Memory dislikes motion, preferring to hold things still, and as with so many of these remembered scenes I see this one as a tableau.’ (pp221).
Plot-wise The Sea is much more accomplished than Eclipse and there is a nice twist in the last couple of pages that I didn’t see coming, probably because I was too busy waiting for other ones which of course didn’t materialise. Still I think I think I’m out-Banvilled for now and I’ll leave The Book of Evidence on the shelf for a while yet. I think I need to brace myself for more Banville, take a deep breath before submitting to his unsettling and occasionally annoying style of writing.