Chekhov used to say that one had to be a god to distinguish between success and failure. While John Banville has won Britain’s major literary awards—the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Doctor Copernicus in 1976 and the Guardian Fiction Prize for Kepler in 1981, as well as the real plum, the Man Booker for The Sea (2005)—and while he has been widely (and rightly) acclaimed for his linguistic inventiveness and artistic intelligence, his novels have tended to be more admired than loved. My impression from reading reviews and talking to readers is that his books, for all their virtuosity and precision, are seen by many as slightly forbidding and emotionally cold, their tone arch, their humor nastily black.
Banville’s novels are unquestionably talky, most of them first-person récits, often the confessions of deviant or troubled geniuses, whether magus-like scientists, notable scholars, or paradigm-shattering mathematicians. Sometimes they echo or reflect earlier works of art. In Ghosts (1993), for instance, a group of tourists is shipwrecked on an island, The Tempest providing the plot’s outline. But covert literary references run throughout Banville’s work, even in his sentences.
For instance, at the beginning of The Book of Evidence (1989) its protagonist describes prison life: “Oh, my dear! I said, the noise!—and the people!” This facetious observation reproduces Ernest Thesiger’s deliberately camp description of the front during World War I. Near the end of the same book, the narrator—who reappears in Ghosts and its companion volume Athena (1996)—remarks, “I have looked for so long into the abyss, I feel sometimes it is the abyss that is looking into me.” Nietzsche said this first. Now unidentified quotations obviously provide a tickle of learned amusement to those who pick up on the references, and they are a mark of a refined sensibility and a good education, appropriate to Banville’s highly cultivated characters. But readers who merely register that sly literary games are going on, and don’t quite know what they are, may feel excluded and mildly condescended to.
Consequently, Banville is most appealing to those who appreciate style, who relish the music of exquisite diction and imagery, who regard the novel as a controlled performance. Banville’s masters are writers like Beckett and Nabokov, and similar worshipers of the creative, rather than merely representative, power of language. Such imaginations aren’t bounded by the real, but by the imaginable, by literature itself. More often than not, their works—self-contained worlds of words—take on a distinct tinge of the fantastic.
The Infinities, in particular, could reasonably be viewed as an addition to the school of Irish fantasy, its forebears including Lord Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan, James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold, Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey, and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. In all these finely written books, their authors mingle the mythological and pagan with the real and familial. Banville’s enchanting The …