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 a Stevenson rather than a Scott no doubt, but with some of the former’s powers of excitement and vividness. Who, having read them, does not recall forever Alan Breck in the roundhouse in Kidnapped, and the fishes in Treasure Island whipping past the bald head of O’Brien, as it lies across the chest of his drowned murderer, the Cox’n? Banville’s books are also full of equally dazzling splinters of descriptive insight, suddenly lancing into the motionless world of the past or into the almost equally unmoved and unmoving world of Irish country houses, pubs, conversations, and mythologies. Whether in any of his books this quite adds up to a complete picture, a composed experience, is another matter.
Banville, as it happens, is particularly good on pictures. The Book of Evidence turns on the attempted theft of A Portrait of a Woman with Gloves. A woman the narrator has known as looking beautiful and distinguished fifteen years back has now hardened and shriveled into her ornaments, “fixed inside a coarser outline, like one of Klimt’s gemencrusted lovers.” But his insights into history have much more than aesthetic precision. His visions of Kepler and of Copernicus, two giants in the astronomic heaven, show us weary, harassed men, struggling in the maelstrom of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century politics, wars, and intrigues, enmeshed in domestic difficulties, dying of insecurity and hard work. Their labors among the movements of the stars show them sunk in the actual and sullen contingencies of living. “Kepler scratched his head and absently inspected his fingernails. He had lice again.” On a night out drinking in the Prague pubs, with a whore just sitting down on his lap, an equally disheveled idea stumbles into his mind. The principle of uniform velocity is false. Yes, no doubt that is how such truths may arrive in the world. I was reminded of that equally enchanting book by Banville’s fellow countryman J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur, in which the collector of the beleaguered English, with mutinous sepoys rushing from all sides, suddenly has the odd thought that fish design their own eyes, a thought that would certainly have made him famous in 1850, if only he had remembered it afterward and written it down. Kepler is more fortunate, although at the time the idea struck him as wonderfully absurd, as he laughs and “vomits absent-mindedly into a drain.”
Moments of great vividness, in words as beautifully crafted as Klimt’s jewel-encrusted portraits; and not only moments and pictures but human beings too: the Emperor Rudolf who startled Kepler by confiding that he “did not care for this world,” or the distant cousin of Copernicus, who turns up at his lodgings one evening, abandoned with her children by a spouse who stole all she had and went off to the wars. She stays as his housekeeper for twenty years or more and shares his bed two or three times. That is the note of history and the human condition, perhaps a shadowy footnote to some learned pages in Braudel. It gives a clue to the way in which Banville has brought the historical novel up to date in these rich inconsequent pages, in which things happen, people come and go. This is something more than “fine writing,” for though the words do not create Scott’s inimitable appearance of a complete world, they reveal in a more piercing way the merciless incongruities of the past—like the account of the great Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, exiled from his island kingdom in the Baltic, dying in Prague of a burst bladder because he had been too proud to get up for a piss during the long hours of an imperial banquet.
Arthur Koestler himself was full of admiration for the way in which Banville had brought “the shadowy figure of Copernicus alive.” Koestler, who memorably ended Darkness at Noon, his own novel of contemporary history and ideology, with “a shrug of eternity,” as his hero dies under an Ogpu man’s pistol, must have appreciated the ways in which Banville intuits, in these great investigators and discoverers of history, a final pessimism; an unconscious premonition, even in the midst of their pursuit of truth, of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Dr Copernicus (the son of respectable tradesmen called Koppernigk) dies in a delirium in which his wastrel elder brother seems to mock him with the knowledge that nothing, in the heavens or on earth, is true; nothing matters.
In the haunting nouvelle The Newton Letter, the hero, trying to complete a long overdue book on Isaac Newton, comes more and more to the belief that the great man had become utterly disillusioned with science and learning; and that when his little dog Diamond upset a candle and burnt a life’s work of precious speculation Newton must have felt a kind of relief. It doesn’t matter. Death was coming and in the meantime he would bury himself in life’s commonplace. This view of how knowledge has and will always be embedded in the humble conditions of life, which will stifle it in the end, makes a wry contrast with Victorian optimism—exemplified by Browning’s indomitable grammarian—and goes with our contemporary disillusionment about science and its limits, ending in every generation with a new vision of nothingness.
In his quietly stylish way Banville’s view of things is very bleak indeed, much more convincingly so than seems the case with young writers who flourish the black flag, as Martin Amis does. The Book of Evidence has been compared by its publishers and reviewers with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Camus’s L’Etranger. It lacks their hypnotic force and totally confident clarity of outline, but in a way is more disconcerting than either of them, if only because it possesses something of the aesthetic force of both but the moral dimension of neither. The narrator, a good-looking upper-class Irishman in his late thirties, whose father owned a sizeable estate near Dublin and prided himself on being a “castle Catholic”—a potent phrase in the old Ascendancy world—makes a good start in computerology, which takes him to Berkeley and marriage, and a subsequent version of the Good Life in resorts and Mediterranean islands. Short of cash he becomes involved in drugs, and goes back alone to Ireland to try to raise money on his parents’ crumbling property and picture collection. Attempting to get back a picture they have sold he commits a particularly disgusting and meaningless murder. He tells us his story while in prison awaiting trial.
How much of it are we to believe? The unreliable narrator is becoming a venerable device, almost a cliché, but Banville reanimates it with great skill, using it to cover up the more improbable aspects of his narrative (the drug business that starts the trouble is particularly unconvincing) and also—much more subtly—to deprive his hero of the personality he lays before us, and depends on having created. (Like all good modern heroes he exists only insofar as he can write himself, or be written.) The book is more compressed and less fantastic than Banville’s previous novel set in modern Ireland, Mefisto, but it has the same unnervingly matter-of-fact and at the same time poetic quality which has always distinguished the very best Anglo-Irish fiction—Somerville and Ross’s The Real Charlotte, the novels of Elizabeth Bowen. The friendly unsentimental detachment of the hero’s wife, who occasionally drifts in to visit him in jail, is marvelously described, reminding me of a country house in Somerville and Ross where the son sits watching his father die with an equally friendly unfeeling interest, and Bowen’s Anna in The Death of the Heart, feeding resolutely on an old love and refusing to be sorry for herself or for others. The atmosphere of Anglo-Ireland was very tough indeed, very chilling, but very bracing too.
Banville has wonderful moments—the hero’s mother and her horrible ponies, and the devotion to her of the shy raw girl who looks after them—but his excellent writing never quite begins to generate what seems a wholly spontaneous and unself-conscious dimension, as happens with stylists like Nabokov and Evelyn Waugh. In spite of all the fuss about anal rubies in cars’ rear ends and so forth, Nabokov’s worlds are essentially homely, funny, three-dimensional, ultimately more Scott than Stevenson; and Waugh’s heartless world too comes to seem, in his precise, tailored sentences, the only one we can be living in. Banville has not yet acquired a comparable mastery, but may well come to do so, for his talent and way with words seem no less formidable than theirs. At the moment, though, he does not quite coordinate pace with expectation in the reader’s mind: his felicities are apt to hold him up, so that the reader wants to read faster than the author is doing the writing.
But those brief scenes and glimpses—they are really quite something. In the preparations that lead to the murder, and the doing of the deed itself, I was reminded of Stevenson’s story “Markheim,” which is about the murder of an antique dealer among all the precious jumble of his wares. Banville’s narrator visits a superbly Irish hardware store, where “all’s accustomed, ceremonious,” as Yeats would say.
Gloom, a smell of paraffin and linseed oil, and clusters of things pendent overhead. A short, stout, elderly, balding man was sweeping the floor. He wore carpet slippers, and a cinnamon-colored shopcoat such as I had not seen since I was a child. He smiled and nodded at me, and put aside his brush. He would not speak, however—professional etiquette, no doubt—until he had taken up position behind the counter, leaning forward on his arms with his head cocked to one side…. I liked him straight away. Good day to you, sir, he said in a cheery, hand-rubbing sort of voice. I felt better already. He was polite to just the correct degree, without undue subservience, or any hint of nosiness.
The narrator makes certain purchases, he hardly knows why.
I had little notion of what I intended to do with these things…. I didn’t care. It was years—decades!—since I had experienced such simple, greedy pleasure. The shopman placed my purchases lovingly before me on the counter, crooning a little under his breath, smiling, pursing his lips approvingly…. In this pretend-world I could have anything I wanted…. That white enamelled bucket, with a delicate, flesh-blue shadow down one side…. Then I spotted the hammer. One moulded, polished piece of stainless steel, like a bone from the thigh of some swift animal, with a velvety, black rubber grip and a blued head and claw. I am utterly unhandy, I do not think I could drive a nail straight, but I confess I had always harboured a secret desire to have a hammer like that…. For the first time my fairy-godfather hesitated. There are other models he ventured, less—a hurried, breathy whisper—less expensive, sir. But no, no, I could not resist it. I must have it. That one. Yes, that one, there, with the tag on it. Exhibit A, in other words.
We know what will be done with that hammer. The strange thing is that the book is not at all like a detective story, with its buildup, ready-made psychology, the careful selection of detail. This is the real thing, whether because of the chill of the atmosphere (Elizabeth Bowen has a memorable sentence about an “unkind Celtic mask” hanging in the air, wreathed in cigarette smoke) or the sheer skill of the author, who has managed to avoid any of the merely vivid banalities that are the stock in trade of sensationalist and murder fiction. What he has not altogether avoided—and who can altogether these days?—is the curse of the television screen, with its empty visual triumphs and well-shot moments, the whole to be wiped away and adding up to nothing after the picture is over. Banville in his variety of novels adds up to a great deal. But I could not help being reminded of Virginia Woolf’s words. Scott lived and created in all the innocence of the pre-television age; but Stevenson, one cannot help thinking, would have taken to television like a duck to water.
May 17, 1990