The Real Thing

The Book of Evidence

by John Banville
Scribner's, 220 pp., $17.95

In one of her Common Reader pieces Virginia Woolf makes a comparison between Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Scott, she says, writes badly; his language rarely rises above the commonplace; but as we read on the leisurely, even slovenly, manner disappears as a complete new world comes into being. Stevenson, on the other hand, writes like an angel; his style is as fresh as a daisy and his phrases never put a foot wrong. But even as we admire his “dapper little adjectives” (Virginia Woolf’s typically cruel description) we realize that the writing is everything: we are not stepping into what seems a new and spacious reality, independent of the words.

It may be unfair, it may even be untrue, but nonetheless I often think of her verdict when reading a modern novel. In modernism and postmodernism the writing is everything; that comfortable, verbally unself-conscious world created by Victorian writers soaked in Scott has disappeared, replaced by the mechanisms of writers who have been equally soaked in Joyce. This is obvious, but the effects can still surprise us—if we look back into a nineteenth-century novel—by having produced so total a transformation. English novelists like Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt, whose talents were formed by old novels, struggle to retain their atmosphere, pausing, for example, to ask the reader how he is getting on and what he thinks of the people in the book; but this sort of appeal (in all senses) has become mildly embarrassing. We know too much about the verbal construct. Other highly thought of younger novelists—Martin Amis, Ian McEwen—specialize in a horror world of impeccable brilliance, whose existence seems an extrusion of a verbal personality in no way resembling the daily self.

I thought of both these authors when reading John Banville’s new novel, The Book of Evidence. I had not, as it happens, come across Banville before, but I began exploring his earlier work with increasing interest and admiration. Most are available in paperback under the Godine imprint, the most recent, Mefisto (1989) is a Godine hardback; while The Book of Evidence, appearing close on its heels, comes from Scribner’s. The novels have won a number of prizes over the years, and The Book of Evidence was short-listed for the most important English literary award, the Booker Prize. John Banville’s first book, Long Lankin, came out in 1970, and was followed by two others, Nightspawn and Birchwood, which won the author a fellowship from the Irish Arts Council. Doctor Copernicus, a highly original historical novel, appeared in 1976, with two successors, Kepler and The Newton Letter, investigating in different ways the same genre. The highly prolific Mr Banville is also literary editor of The Irish Times, and lives in Dublin.

After his first three novels, which are all in a very recognizable Irish, or Anglo-Irish, tradition, Banville seems to have broken new ground in his presentation in literary form of events and personalities in the past. How would Virginia Woolf have judged him? As…

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