Which Banville Shall We Choose?

Vengeance

by Benjamin Black
Henry Holt, 304 pp., $26.00
baxter_12-122012.jpg
Douglas Banville; Barry McCall
John Banville, from the dust jacket of Ancient Light, and Banville as Benjamin Black, from the dust jacket of Vengeance

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s praise for the work of other writers is almost undetectable, especially those from whom he had learned some elements of style—Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson in particular. Early in his memoir, however, Hemingway singles out a novelist whose books provide what he calls “after-work” pleasures that will fill “that empty time of day or night.” The pleasures he is referring to involve light reading, entertainment, and escapism; and the woman whose books have given him this variety of after-hours relief is none other than Marie Belloc Lowndes, author of The Lodger. About The Lodger and another Belloc Lowndes novel Hemingway displays a rare (for him) critical enthusiasm: “the people credible and the action and the terror never false. They were perfect for reading after you had worked….” This is patronizing, but it is still praise.

The Lodger is remembered today, when it is remembered at all, as the source for Alfred Hitchcock’s third silent movie, which the director described as “the first Hitchcock film.” More to the point, however, Hemingway did not discover The Lodger on his own. Gertrude Stein recommended it to him. He had announced to her that he had been reading the novels of Aldous Huxley, and Stein disapproved. “Huxley is a dead man,” she told him. “You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad.” Work from the middle range, what Dwight Macdonald would later call “mid-cult,” she frowned upon. It is unclear whether she thought The Lodger was frankly bad, but she certainly liked it. Katherine Anne Porter, who was not sympathetic to Stein, noticed that Stein typically enjoyed the accumulation of dead bodies in stories:

These early passions exhausted her; in later life she swam in the relaxing bath of detective and murder mysteries, because she liked somebody being dead in a story, and of them all Dashiell Hammett killed them off most to her taste.

Stein was not alone among the modernists in having a happy response to literary mayhem. T.S. Eliot enjoyed detective stories. Faulkner repeatedly tried his hand at the genre for the money. Borges set his sleuths to work on metaphysical errands and mysteries. Even Henry James made one attempt at a potboiler with a ghastly murder in it, The Other House. Then there is the example of Graham Greene, who (as is well known) for many years separated his books into two categories, novels and entertainments, the fun-filled entertainments powered by violent action and suspenseful plots, the novels weighed down with spiritual matters. But with Greene, who was carrying on a tradition from Joseph Conrad, there was often a bleed-through in the membrane between action and thought: the events of Brighton Rock, for example, contained various religio-spiritual obsessions right in the midst of episodes of acid being thrown into people’s faces …

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