It is funny the way countries excessively proud of their national character often have literatures mired in questions of falsehood. Fabulation, in this way, may be considered both the curse and the glory of Irish writing. “They have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood,” wrote Jonathan Swift of those super-rational creatures the Houyhnhnms, but we might laugh out loud at that, seeing how fakery, phoniness, the counterfeit, and the sham have long established themselves as watchwords of self-consciousness in the land of Swift’s birth. “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and forever in good stead,” wrote Joyce. And let’s not even get started on Oscar Wilde.
John Banville has spent more than thirty years adding to the stock of truths about lies in his own way, but the wonder of Irishness can be no easy matter with him, and one suspects his heart is with Samuel Beckett, not islanded with native concerns and identity-mongering, but somehow modern, European, alive to the exertions of individual conscience, the light-changings of moral meaning. Banville is a writer devoted to creating stories which speak with authority of people who are adrift and hungry for selfhood amid the world’s strangeness. His interests are science, Hiberno-Englishness, performance, duplicity, hero worship, duty, the meaning of love and knowledge, but there aren’t many novelists so attentive as he (at the same time) to the small domestic features of life, to the materiality of trees, clouds, shadows, and shoes, conveyed again and again by Banville in voices we feel we must know. And that is where you come to with this novelist: relative to truth, relative to human experience and its changing shapes, Banville is a contemporary maestro of smoke and mirrors, everything given to language, to the drama of honed words and the solitary voices who speak them.
Language itself is a character in Banville’s work. You see the words coming toward you, you know their face, their literary provenance, and yet their action surprises you. He is committed to this sort of play, and favors the vaulting, self-conscious antics of speech over the weathered dignities of John McGahern.
In each of his books, barring the first two, which are unsteady, you witness a sometimes thrilling, sometimes impossible, acrobatics of chosenness, where beautiful, clever words in tinsel socks swing back and forth overhead and stretch out their hands to catch one another on a flying trapeze, making death-defying sentences. The audience is never less than thrilled and the applause is deserved, supremely earned. Once in a while, his glad-handing metaphors fail to connect, and one of his bodies loses its grip to plunge down, past an arena of open mouths, to thud horribly into the sand. Yet only a fool would make too much of Banville’s casualties. Many novelists spend their whole careers in pursuit of a safe writerly tone, and wish never to test,…
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