Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Elegy for April by Benjamin Black

The weather is like a character in this novel, lingering in the background and occasionally being given a few lines. Fog seems to permeate the streets of 1950s Dublin, swirling like an ominous, omnipresent deity, its tendrils creeping along pavements and under doors to invade the sanctity of homes.
Benjamin Black is almost Joycean in his delineation of the city’s geography, name-checking streets, bridges, buildings, hotels, bars, parks, canals, and rivers. His strength is in creating an atmosphere. There is a real sense of time and place as dray horses pull carts loaded with Guinness and tinkerwomen dressed in tartan shawls beg for money on the pavements. Even the poet Patrick Kavanagh makes a cameo appearance.
Elegy for April is the third Benjamin Black novel to feature the alcoholic pathologist Quirke, his daughter Phoebe, and a number of other ensemble characters.
April Latimer, a wayward friend of Phoebe’s has disappeared, and no one from her estranged and influential family—which includes an uncle who is a government minister and a brother who is a senior surgeon—cares.
Phoebe urges Quirke, who is drying out, to get involved. As in the previous two novels in which he appears, Christine Falls and The Silver Swan, Quirke doesn’t really do that much detective work.
If there is a flaw with Benjamin Black’s novels it is the lack of plot. The narrative tends to meander along on the back of a series of set-pieces, vignettes, and character sketches. There is no skilful drawing together of carefully placed pieces of information from earlier chapters to jerk the reader into a sudden realization of what has been happening all along.
Instead, about 15 pages from the end a character simply explains everything, telling us exactly who the baddie was and why he did it. Aside from that flaw, there is a shocking dénouement that has the reader’s eye tripping over the pages to get to the next line.
Benjamin Black is, of course, the crime-writing alter ego of Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville, possibly modern-day Ireland’s most accomplished novelist who is to Irish fiction what Seamus Heaney is to poetry.
I went to hear Banville reading last year. He speaks in the third person when talking about his writing and said that in the time it takes “John Banville” to write a sentence “Benjamin Black” would have finished a page. Despite the languorous pace of the writing of it, a Benjamin Black page still has the feel of a well-crafted artifact, if not the intricately carved art of a John Banville paragraph.
This review was written for the New York Journal of Books

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño

On page 66 of this slim novel, a character called Bolaño is quoted as saying: “Tell that stupid Arnold Bennet that all his rules about plot only apply to novels that are copies of other novels.” Perhaps the author inserted this line into the mouth of his eponymous character as a justification for the total lack of plot in Antwerp.
This 78-page book is described by the publisher as an early novel by the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003 aged 50, as one that contains in embryonic form all that the would later write.
Make no mistake, Bolaño would go on to produce a whole range of excellent works of fiction ranging from the gigantic Savage Detectives and 2666 to shorter novels and short stories—translated into English from Spanish.
And yes, in Antwerp you can see the gestation of the themes, writing style, and narrative voice that Bolaño would go on to develop, but it is like watching a long distance runner warming up on the track with a few leg stretches and maybe a short jog.
Anyone who has heard all the hype about Bolaño but never read him before should not go near this because they will certainly conclude that he is a fraud and wonder what all the fuss is about.
However, those who have read Bolaño and become obsessed by him and want to read everything that he ever wrote (and this reviewer counts himself among them) should indulge themselves.
The outcast living on the fringes of society who reincarnates in various guises in Bolaño’s more mature fiction can be seen hovering in the shadows. The gnarled, staccato prose that often aspires to poetry is already fully formed.
But Antwerp’s 56 “chapters”—never running to more than two pages, and sometimes filling just half a page—are really just a series of vignettes with a very loose detective/murder theme running through them.
Most writers will have something similar tucked away in an envelope: the sketches and outlines of a first novel that got sidelined by more structured and fully realized works.
Most of those fragmentary first stirrings will never be published unless their authors also become publishing sensations with a readership hungry for more. It is presumably that audience at whom this stylishly bound little volume is aimed.
(This review was written for an published on The New York Journal of Books.