The Case of Isabel Archer

John Banville
John Banville; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

It is twenty-seven years since John Bayley, writing in these pages about John Banville’s seventh novel, The Book of Evidence, noted that the author “does not quite coordinate pace with expectation in the reader’s itiind; his felicities are apt to hold him up, so that the reader wants to read faster than the author is doing the writing.” In the novels that have followed, Banville has done little to assist the reader who feels held up in the tight curves of his prose. There is a willfulness about his method, with its seeming disregard for the niceties of story line. As Bayley intimates, the reader is often anxious to push on, to cease drifting aimlessly in a rapture of thickly laid-on articulation; in other words, to get to the point. But Banville is a fiercely defiant author whose substantial body of work suggests that he expects his readers to submit to the more subtle drama of lush language being pressed and squeezed, as opposed to stooping to feed at the banal table of plot.

In Banville’s other writing life as the detective novelist “Benjamin Black”—there have been ten books since 2006—he is free to indulge in action and create fictions that trip along at a pace that John Banville would no doubt regard as vulgar. But once he casts Black to one side he is able to return to his contemplative meandering. The high literary performance of Beckett or Nabokov clearly represents a guiding light for Banville, but the same self-conscious elegance informs the work of another in his firmament of masters: Henry James. However, James’s grace seldom militates against his desire to keep the story moving forward. Banville’s decision to write Mrs. Osmond—a sequel to James’s The Portrait of a Lady—suggests a comfortable meeting of literary temperaments in a shared affinity for decorative language, but raises some questions as to their compatibility with regard to narrative architecture.

Isabel Archer, the heroine of The Portrait of a Lady, was born in Albany, New York, and largely raised by her widowed father. As a girl she frequently travels back and forth to Europe, but she is barely out of her teens when her father dies. She is free-spirited and has few female friends, and James lets us know that she is not yet the finished article:

It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; impulsively, she often admired herself.

After her father’s death Isabel is determined to live a life of independence and she journeys again to Europe, this time in the company of her Aunt Lydia, who is married and settled in England. Like many Jamesian heroines before and after, Isabel imagines that time spent traveling in…

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