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 Infinities includes fairies at the bottom of the garden—or at least the Greek gods, who move invisibly among the human characters, interfering with their lives, pulling their chains, saving the appearances.
At the same time, The Infinities makes sly, sometimes humorous gestures toward yet another literary subgenre: the alternate history. As its visionary mathematician Adam Godley reminds us: “The world has many worlds, as who should know better than I, each one stranger, more various and for all I know more farcical than the last. Anything is possible.” In the time-stream of The Infinities, as in Keith Roberts’s Pavane and Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration, Britain never rejected Catholicism. Early on, Banville mentions “one of the more reform-minded English pontiffs”; and since there has been only one English pope—Nicholas Breakspear—that plural gives the first alert that we have moved just slightly beyond the fields we know. This is made certain when we learn about the glorious reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (and the beheading of “the upstart and treasonous Elizabeth Tudor”), recognize that Schrödinger’s cat has now become Schrosteinberg’s, and discover that Wallace’s theory of evolution has been overturned, along with the relativity hoax, and that cars are now powered by seawater.
In this alternate world and time, Sweden, instead of Germany, is repeatedly on the warpath, in “expansionary struggle with her encircling neighbours,” and J. Robert Oppenheimer “failed to build the bomb he boasted so much of.” Not least, Goethe is viewed as a minor writer, “entirely forgotten now but in his day there were those who would have ranked him above the sublime Kleist!” The latter is one of Banville’s favorite authors, and his play Amphitryon—in which Zeus seduces the virtuous Alcmene by taking on the guise of her husband—provides a partial model for The Infinities.
What is most interesting, of course, is how none of this newfangled science and history really matters—people are still fundamentally the same. While speculative novelists and historians occasionally imagine the serious “what if” consequences of Napoleon winning the Battle of Waterloo or Hitler conquering England, Banville seems to simply delight in his inventiveness and wit. Like Zeus, he too is a world-builder, amused by his creation and its creatures.
While much of Banville’s earlier work conveys a hothouse intensity and closeness, The Infinities hurries along with a quicksilver lightness and airy gaiety, as if it were a daytime version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Banville’s chief narrator is the droll, long-suffering Hermes, though we are also privy to the thoughts and memories of the stricken Adam. All the action takes place between dawn and sundown, one day in one place—the three unities, no less—and everything ends happily.
The book starts with Hermes pronouncing a slightly tongue-in-cheek yet still sonorously beautiful paean to sunrise:
Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally. It is a spectacle we immortals enjoy, this minor daily resurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day. What a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy.
This tone might be Sarastro’s, as the high priest solemnly intones the words that open The Magic Flute.
Soon, Hermes asks us to focus our attention on a young man, not yet thirty, named Adam Godley. He has returned to his family’s country house because his mathematician father, also named Adam, is upstairs dying. With him has come his beautiful actress wife Helen. Soon we discover that Adam’s unhappy mother Ursula secretly drinks; while his skinny, intense sister Petra has trouble meeting anyone’s eye. She is, in one of Banville’s sly puns, “another stone dropped into Ursula’s already heavy heart.” The household is served by a skivvy named Ivy Blount, assisted by a cow-man named Adrian Duffy. This last is a rather Joycean figure:
A fellow in an old black coat and corduroy trousers that are bald on the knees comes out of the church gate with a spade over his shoulder. Without stopping he leans sideways and shuts one nostril with a finger pressed along the side of it and from the other expertly ejects a bolus of snot.
During the day, two acquaintances arrive to pay their respects. The debonair and epicene Roddy Wagstaff is sometimes regarded as a potential young man for Petra, but really wishes to be appointed the authorized biographer of the famous mathematician. “Pieces by him,” we are told of Roddy,
appear occasionally in the pages of broadsheet newspapers and in the glossier magazines, on abstruse subjects—Byzantine ceramics, American vernacular furniture of the nineteenth century, contemporary monastic life on Mount Athos—but these can hardly provide an income sufficient to keep him in the Turkish cigarettes and silk foulards to which he is so partial.
Having stuck him with a porn-star name, Banville never lets up on his remorseless fun with poor Roddy, who “has a way of saying things as if they had been written down on prompt-cards and practised many times.”
The other visitor is Benny Grace, in fact none other than Dionysus, aka “the great god Pan.” The roly-poly Benny, whose goatish feet don’t quite fit his shoes, has long been the old Adam’s daemonic companion. “When I think of him now,” says the dying mathematician, “I hear again the music of the past, raucous and discordant but sweet, too, the sad sweet music of being young.”
The actual action of the novel is minimal: as in the story of Amphitryon, the randy Zeus assumes the form of young Adam to make love to the beauteous Helen. Meanwhile, the “old Adam”—theologically, the fallen sensual self—remembers his past, his first wife, his affairs, and his adventures with Benny Grace. Over the course of the day, Helen finds herself strangely drawn to the unctuous Roddy. Hermes plays matchmaker with Ivy and Duffy; Petra and Ursula suffer from their respective fears and desires. Only the old dog Rex perceives the gods as they move among the humans. Which may not be a bad thing. As Hermes says of Zeus:
How glad I am that only I can see him, in the preposterous get-up he insists on as the father of the gods come to earth, the gold sandals, the ankle- length, cloud-white robe held by a clasp at one shoulder, the brass hair and wavy beard and lips as pink as a nereid’s nipples. Honestly.
Neither god nor dog can see himself for what he is. Consider Rex’s worldview:
Rex the dog is a keen observer of the ways of the human beings. He has been attached to this family all his life, or for as long as he has known himself to be alive, the past for him being a doubtful, shapeless place, peopled with shadows and rustling with uncertain intimations, indistinct spectres. These people are in his care. They are not difficult to manage. Obligingly he eats the food it pleases them to put before him, the mush and kibble and the odd ham bone when Ivy Blount remembers to save one for him; he has accustomed himself to this fare, though in his dreams he hunts down quick hot creatures and feasts on their smoking flesh. He has his duties, the guarding of the gate, the routing of itinerants and beggars, the vigilance against foxes, and he attends to them with scruple, despite his increasing years. Before old Adam…refused to wake up and come down again, it was Rex’s task to take him for a walk each day, sometimes twice a day, if the weather was particularly fine, and for his sake even pretended to like nothing better than chasing a stick or a tennis ball when it was thrown for him.
Charming in itself, this passage underscores a recurrent motif in The Infinities: the contrast between how things or people appear and what they truly are. Hermes offers an especially amusing paragraph about how hard the gods worked to fool human beings about the nature of the cosmos:
But what attention we lavished on the making of this poor place! The lengths we went to, the pains we took, that it should be plausible in every detail—planting in the rocks the fossils of outlandish creatures that never existed, distributing fake dark matter throughout the universe, even setting up in the cosmos the faintest of faint hums to mimic the reverberations of the initiating shot that is supposed to have set the whole shooting-match going. And to what end was all this craft, this labour, this scrupulous dissembling—to what end? So that the mud men that Prometheus and Athene between them made might think themselves the lords of creation. We have been good to you, giving you what you thought you wanted—yes, and look what you have done with it.
Those so inclined may recognize in Hermes an avatar of the author or perhaps wonder if there might be too much farcical staginess to The Infinities. But those who read for pleasure will pause, as always, over Banville’s striking similes and descriptions: “Granny Godley was dying of a damaged heart and grimly turned over each new day like a playing card from a steadily diminishing deck….” Old Adam hires a courtesan in Venice, who is “of an impossibly delicate paleness—Adam thinks of ice, of breathed-on glass, of the cool hard creamy-silver sheen of a pearl.” (Appropriately, her name is Alba, i.e., Dawn.) Wit abounds throughout: “Gently I disengaged from her, feeling like a young lady of genteel upbringing who has just been invited by a fat old madam to come for a try-out at the brothel.”
Like his creator, Hermes can almost never resist wordplay, once referring to sex as a “mess of frottage” and later giving a neat twist to the notion of Zeus as a “dying god”: “Ah, mortals, have a care and look to your souls, for if he goes, everything goes with him, bang, crash and done with at last, his Liebestod become a Götterdämmerung.” In a less Wagnerian mood, Banville can softly evoke a dying man’s sense of the world’s beauty:
It must have been the sound of the rain that had set me brooding bitterly on all that I will shortly lose, all that I shall be parted from, this frightful and exquisite world and everything in it, light, days, certain faces, the limpid air of summer, and rain itself, a thing I have never become accustomed to, this miracle of water falling out of the sky, a free and absurdly lavish, indiscriminate benison.
In 2006 John Banville published his first mystery under the name Benjamin Black. There have now been four of these, three of them focusing on a forensic pathologist named Quirke, his extended family, and Dublin in the 1950s: Christine Falls (2006), The Silver Swan (2008), and now Elegy for April. These, according to Banville, were partly inspired by his discovery of Georges Simenon’s romans durs (hard novels), that is, those non–Inspector Maigret books that plunge the reader into the morbid psychology and environment of their usually criminal protagonists. Like Simenon’s Paris, Banville’s Dublin is gray, dank, desperate. People smoke a lot—Woodbines, Gold Flakes, Passing Clouds—and they wrap themselves in heavy woolen coats. The crimes themselves derive from those typically Irish obsessions: the family, sex, drink, and the Church.
If the Quirke novels share an overriding theme it is that of “hiding the damage.” The books focus—like The Infinities, like all mysteries—on the distinction between appearance and reality, on what we show and what we hide. As Quirke says in Elegy for April:
The source of his itch to know was that the world…was never what it seemed, was always more than it appeared to be. He had learned that early on. To take reality as it presented itself was to miss an entirely other reality hidden behind.
In interviews Banville has sometimes dismissed his mysteries as popular entertainment, craft rather than art. He’s said that he might produce a hundred or so words a day when writing as Banville, but that he can crank out a couple of thousand as Black. This implication of slumming, that he slightly disdains the crime novels, has earned him some enmity from mystery fans. It shouldn’t. Banville has noted that he’s proud of his work as Black but that he “loathes” all his other novels. Each of them falls short of its conception, fails to satisfy its author’s ambitions. As Beckett enjoined, a serious writer can only strive to “fail better.”
While Elegy for April may be appreciated for itself, the characters refer back repeatedly to events in the first two Quirke books. Banville avoids obvious giveaways, but at least one exchange essentially reveals the “villain” in Christine Falls. In short, it’s best to take up the series in publication order. And not just because the three clearly form part of a developing saga, but also because Elegy for April simply isn’t as good as the others.
In Christine Falls we learn that forty-something Quirke was brought up in an orphanage, later adopted by an influential judge, and that he and his adoptive brother Malachy married a pair of sisters. Long ago, after his wife died in childbirth, Quirke gave away her baby to his sister-in-law Sarah, the woman he really loved all along. When the story opens, Phoebe is nearly twenty and doesn’t yet know the truth about her parentage.
If this genealogy sounds complicated enough to be something out of Faulkner, the plot is just beginning to unfold. Quirke discovers that Malachy—an obstetrician—has been mucking around with documents relating to a woman named Christine Falls, who died in childbirth. Why? The answer to that question leads this “troubled, difficult man”—as the delightful and shrewd Inspector Hackett calls him—to the discovery of a bizarre, only-in-Ireland kind of conspiracy, one that involves the people the pathologist most cares about, as well as some rich relations in America. The longest of the three Quirke novels so far, Christine Falls is worthy of Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries nearly always reveal the family as the root of all crime and evil.
The Silver Swan takes place two years later. One of the major characters in Christine Falls has died, Phoebe has lost her anchors in life and feels alienated from everyone, and Quirke is fighting off his urge to drink. The action begins when Billy Hunt, a former classmate from medical school who is now a pharmaceutical salesman, asks Quirke to skip doing a postmortem. Hunt’s wife Deirdre has apparently committed suicide by drowning, and the grieving husband can’t bear the thought of her being further mutilated by an autopsy. Quirke reluctantly acquiesces—until he notices a needle puncture in the dead woman’s arm. From then on, “Quirke was aware of the old itch to cut into the quick of things, to delve into the dark of what was hidden—to know.”
As The Silver Swan progresses, Banville shifts between the past and the present, revealing more and more about the secret life of Deirdre Hunt, also known as Laura Swan. While Christine Falls was largely about family and Catholicism, this far more sordid book focuses on Deirdre’s corruption, involving drugs, “spiritual healing,” pornography, and blackmail. Aspects of the plot clearly recall Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
Both Christine Falls and The Silver Swan are shocking, well-plotted books, but Elegy for April feels tired and unfocused by comparison. In some ways, it reprises, less successfully, the themes of Christine Falls, as Quirke looks into the apparent disappearance of Phoebe’s friend April Latimer, the black-sheep daughter of a prominent Irish family. Before long, the action again embraces doctors, childbirth, a terrible secret, and an endangered Phoebe. One subplot does involve Quirke’s acquisition of an expensive car, and I expect that Banville—whose father worked in a garage—drew on personal memories for these wanly comic interludes. The best moment arises when a madman, apparently intent on murder, grows enraged at the pathologist’s automotive incompetence: “Really, Quirke, for Heaven’s sake!… That light was red! You’ll kill the lot of us if you keep on like this—where did you learn to drive?”
More than ever, Quirke—who has been regularly drying out, with only intermittent success—calls to mind those redoubtable 1940s and 1950s Irish-drunk writers, such as Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh (who in this volume is glimpsed reading at Parson’s bookshop), and Flann O’Brien, aka Myles na gCopaleen:
He had looked up and found himself confronting his reflection in the pockmarked mirror behind the bar, hardly recognizing the bleared and bloodshot, gray-faced hulk, slumped there with his hat clamped on the back of his head, with his fags and rolled-up newspaper and his ball of malt, the drinker’s drinker….
Myles to the life.
To the usual Irish mix, Elegy for April adds racism, since one of the main characters is a Nigerian medical student irresistibly attractive to Phoebe and her female friends. In his turn, Quirke—who denounced intergenerational liaisons in earlier books—takes up with a woman just a bit older than his own daughter. Were one to look for the presiding spirit behind this latest Benjamin Black novel, it would be that of Ruth Rendell, whose intricate plots frequently turn on sexual prohibitions. As the most admirable character in Banville’s mysteries, the rich American widow Rose Crawford, once said: “I so hate your Irish mealy-mouthedness, the way you treat your women. You either make saints of them and put them on a pedestal or they’re witches out to torment and destroy you.”
Are there links between the Banville novels and the Black mysteries? The theme of obsession, most obviously. In the case of The Infinities and Elegy for April, both books also deal with the disjunction between appearance and reality. They might be viewed, too, as a diptych, with positive and negative pictures of family life and of its sexual dynamics in particular. “To belong to a family like mine,” says April Latimer’s brother, “is like being a member of a secret society—no, a secret tribe, one that has accepted all that’s demanded of it by the invading mercenaries and missionaries but on the quiet still keeps to its own ways, its own customs, its own gods—especially its own gods.”
In the end, there’s no real question about it: Benjamin Black is a fine mystery novelist, who tells a good story while also criticizing the more hidebound aspects of Irish culture. But John Banville, even in a lighthearted book like The Infinities, is far more—one of the best writers of our time.
November 25, 2010