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John Banville: Exploring Fictions

(Contemporary Irish Writers and Filmmakers Series)

By Derek Hand

This is one of the first volumes in what promises to be an ongoing series, with Eugene O'Brien of Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, as general editor. As well as the John Banville opus, studies of Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Jim Sheridan, William Trevor and Conor McPherson have already appeared. Further books on Roddy Doyle, Neil Jordan, Jennifer Johnston, Brian Moore, Maeve Binchy, John McGahern and Colm Toibin are in the pipeline.

Derek Hand's doctoral thesis dealt with the image of the Big House in Yeats, Bowen and Banville, and here he sets himself the task of reclaiming Banville for Irish Studies by demonstrating the writer's relevance to Irish themes and concerns, mostly historical and sociological. The two texts he concentrates on as most readily fitting this agenda are Birchwood and The Newton Letter, presumably because they are first and foremost set in Ireland, rather than Greece or medieval Mitteleuropa, and so the given environment would be rather hard to avoid. The task of reclamation is deemed necessary by Hand partly because, 'John Banville himself has repeatedly downplayed the importance of his being Irish to engaging with his work: "I stay in this country but I'm not going to be an Irish writer. I'm not going to do the Irish thing." ', partly because, 'Perhaps Banville has been influenced by one of his foremost critics, Rudiger Imhof, who believes that, 'the Ireland of his (JB's) art is merely a convenient backdrop to the more serious and interesting postmodern concerns being dealt with in the foreground.', and partly because, with reference to Gerry Smyth's The Novel and the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction as an example, of 'how difficult it is to categorise Banville's writing with reference to Irish writing/literature in general'.

What is odd about this introduction is that, rather than setting out to celebrate a great writer, or encouraging more people to read him because of the beauty and profundity of his work, it is already on the defensive, to the extent that it is almost apologising on the writer's behalf, not only for the much vaunted (and greatly exaggerated) difficulty of said oeuvre, but also for his not being 'Irish' enough.

Hand takes Imhof to task for stating that, 'Irish fiction in the twentieth century has been quite conventional in subject matter and technique, despite Joyce and Beckett and in spite of what has been going on elsewhere in the world.', by countering that '…it is more accurate to say that most writing fails to take up where James Joyce and Samuel Beckett left off. The majority of writing today is "conventional" and traditional, presenting itself in the mould of "cosy realism". It is as if the vistas opened up by Joyce and Beckett are too terrible to contemplate and writers - everywhere - retreat in the face of such formalistic and thematic experimentation. It is unfair, consequently, to single out Irish writing as having failed to learn the lessons of Joyce and Beckett, when almost everyone else has too.' What we are encountering here is a specific example of the general vice of over-specialisation, of which the Irish Studies phenomenon is a particularly virulent strain. Hand's riposte conveniently ignores much of the greatest writing of the second half of the last century, and the beginning of this one, most glaringly that of Americans like Faulkner, Burroughs, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barthelme, Barth, Coover, Gass, De Lillo, Acker, Wallace or Franzen; but also that of French nouveau roman writers like Camus, Sartre, Genet, Celine, Robbe-Grillet, Butor, Sarraute, Duras, Simon or Pinget, whose work rejected the plots, characters, linear chronologies and omniscient narrators of the nineteenth-century tradition, which had expressed that century's belief in a knowable, representable world of which man was the centre and purpose, and that of the Oulipo writers such as Queneau and Perec who followed them and who, while they did not discover the idea that formal constraints stimulate rather than obstruct creative writing, took it to far greater lengths than before, thus simultaneously reaffirming the capacity of language to create texts from within its own operations and thereby shape our perceptions of reality, and freeing the writer from the obligation to create politically or philosophically committed literature; to say nothing of that of contemporary Scottish writers like Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Ali Smith, Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Gordon Legge and Laura Hird, whose work contains much political anger, stylistic experiment and formal trickery; and that of mavericks, who it is even more senseless to classify by nationality, as diverse as Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Elias Cannetti, Malcolm Lowry, Vladimir Nabokov, Gertrude Stein, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Anthony Burgess, B. S. Johnson, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson or Jenni Diski; or the magic realists of Eastern Europe and South America, such as Kundera or Marquez; or discursive, meditative works like those of Claudio Magris, Roberto Callaso or W. G. Sebald. By the standards of many of the aforementioned, the majority of Banville's work looks decidedly tame and even conventional in comparison. As I argued in my own Irish Literary Supplement review of Imhof's book, John Banville: A Critical Introduction, way back in 1990, 'In a review of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, written in 1973 for Hibernia magazine, Banville complained about this "broth of a boy" who had written "a fat, bad book", thus missing entirely the point that Pynchon's book is concerned with the same chance/necessity conundrum which informs his own work, except that Pynchon accepts chaos, takes it as given, while Banville still struggles valiantly to impose order.' While I would now acknowledge that Banville is the better stylist, I still submit that Pynchon knows more about the science, and has a firmer grip on the pulse of the zeitgeist. More importantly, nowhere does Hand's introduction address the issue of Banville's perceived lack of acceptance in the country of his birth, and explore what underlying reasons may be adduced for it, nor justify why, in the face of such relative indifference on the part of both author and audience, it is then necessary to emphasis his nationality as central to understanding his work. The obvious irony that the first full-length study of Banville to appear was written by a German rather than a Irish person is never highlighted. Also, while Hand may be urging us, a la D. H. Lawrence, to 'trust the tale, not the teller', it seems ludicrous to suggest that Banville has been influenced by one of his foremost critics in his own pronouncements on the unimportance of his being Irish to engaging with his work.

Admittedly, following Richard Kearney's terminology, Hand points to 'John Banville's position of being caught between a modern and a postmodern perspective - both he and his characters wavering between desiring order and meaning while simultaneously recognising its absence, both looking forward and backward at the same time', thus acknowledging that he is a transitional figure who feels the loss of 'unifying, grand visions, which had the potential to order and give meaning to the world and man's place in the world' much more so than more playfully free-falling, fully-fledged postmodern writers and metafictionists. This dilemma is further located between 'the artistic sure-footedness of high modernism epitomised by Joyce' and Beckett's 'questioning the actual possibility of creating or saying anything.' But to argue then that this 'radical "in-betweenness" - his being neither a Joycean modernist nor a Beckettian postmodernist but an amalgamation of both; his desiring a word or words that can grasp the real, yet simultaneously despairing that such a language is possible; his many characters' relentless search for a true authentic self that always end with the pessimistic conclusion that aching hollowness is perhaps all there is - is best understood within an Irish context' is far-fetched and ill-founded, amounting to saying nothing more than, 'Being Irish is central to understanding Banville's work because to be Irish is to be at an angle to the mainstream and he is at an angle to the mainstream, and to be human is to be at an angle to the mainstream, so to be Irish is to be human, and John Banville is Irish, so he is therefore human.'

'We're modern because we're Irish, and Ireland is like everywhere else' is undoubtedly a viable argument, but it seems slight of hand (sorry) then to claim that modernity or postmodernity are thrown into sharp relief in the Irish situation, since that would make us 'not like everywhere else' all over again. It is also an odd way of claiming Banville for Irish Studies, since as a syllogism it would read: 'Banville writes about modern universal concerns/Ireland is part of the modern universe/Therefore he is an Irish writer'. One does not need the mind of Aristotle, schooled in non-contradiction and excluded middles, to spot the flaw in that line of reasoning. It also fails to explain why the Irish Studies crew still have such a problem with accepting Banville's work, or why the majority of work produced in Ireland is still formally conservative or in the mode of cosy realism.

Of course, from the opposite perspective, while everywhere is like everywhere else, it is also true that nowhere is like anywhere else. Hand wisely recognises, with reference to the character of Victor Maskell in The Untouchable, 'how complicated and protean a thing is Irish identity. Despite the insistent use of labels such as Protestant and Catholic, Anglo-Irish and Gaelic-Irish, there terms - as in the case of Victor Maskell - conceal as well as reveal'. But what makes the advocates of Irish Studies think that Irish complexity is any more fascinating than Nigerian, or Cuban, or Japanese complexity, to throw out some random examples? Ireland is an environment, nothing more, nothing less. We may love every flea in our birth mattress as much as the Nigerians, Cubans or Japanese love theirs, but that's only because it's our mattress. They think their flea-ridden mattresses are the most loveable in the world too. Even the use of terms like 'we', 'our' and 'us' with reference to national identity is unsustainable, since they imply the existence of a level playing field and a strong sense of community, with no internal social inequalities and divisions and power relations. But Hand is smart enough to know this, since he remarks on how Maskell's easy acceptance into upper class life, 'highlights how fluid and non-essential racial identity actually is.' This recognition does tend to undermine the argument put forward in the rest of his book, though.

Hand also falls for the romantic distinction between head and heart, mentioning with reference to Nightspawn and in his conclusion that, 'A common criticism consequently levelled at John Banville's work is that, perhaps because of this perceived lack of interest in storytelling, it is far too intellectual and cleverly playful for its own good…In other words, real emotion is replaced by a cold, calculating desire to engage only with abstract intellectual concerns.' While he makes an eloquent plea for the real feeling in Banville's articulation of the postmodern dilemma, he might have taken issue with the currently popular employment of the word 'clever' as a term of critical abuse, which employment usually amounts to nothing more than indicating that the writer under review is possessed of a fully functioning, fairly useful mind, or that the critic does not understand the book. For, while intellect can be a bar to understanding, it is interesting to follow the trajectory of how an independent mind works things out, or fails to do so. Cleverness and wisdom are not mutually exclusive. Besides, it is not as though Irish writing (or, given pervasive global dumbing down, writing anywhere), is exactly coming down with cleverness (or, to use a slightly less pejoratively loaded term, intelligence) at the present time.

Hand's contention that The Newton Letter, '…is, or as near as it is possible to be, quite perfect and perhaps his best piece of writing' is one with which I would concur. However, a critic no less than a writer is revealed by his blind spots, and Hand is hard on Athena, the only one of Banville's mature novels he does not deal with in detail, opining that, '…it is one book too many, stretching whatever interest a reader might have in Freddie as a character almost to breaking point.' This does not recognise the fact that 'Freddie as a character' is perhaps not what we are supposed to be most interested in. And Beckett, one of Banville's greatest artistic mentors, knew more than enough about stretching things almost to breaking point, the quality of excruciation being one of the chief characteristics of his work. In truth, Athena continues The Book of Evidence's and Ghosts' thorough investigation of the authenticity, or lack thereof, of the self. Following Bataille, it explores the notion of the extinction of selfhood in extreme erotic experience (another first in 'Irish' writing!), a path in many ways as onerous as that of the mystic.

While not as comprehensive (up to The Book of Evidence) as Joseph McMinn's John Banville: A Critical Introduction, and not as justifiably polemical and illuminating as Imhof's book, Hand's volume is worth a read for Banville enthusiasts. But general readers (at whom it is also obviously aimed, given the otioseness of phrases like, 'James Joyce, in his great novel Ulysses’), should be wary of the amount of special pleading it contains.

Perhaps the solution to the solipsism of 'Irish Studies' (and 'Hispanic Studies' and 'Women's Studies' and all the other 'Studies') is a championing of good old-fashioned Comparative Literature, where material is organised thematically, rather than nationally, so crossing all geographical borders. Of course, most academicians want art to be about society, not about words, images, styles etc, that is, about its own materiality. For my part, I doubt that John Banville devotes many of his waking hours to ruminating on Irish identity and what it means to be Irish. He may think that violence in Northern Ireland is a bad thing, but then so do most of us. Indeed, when asked in the recent Reading The Future interview with Mike Murphy, 'So people saying that you are an Irish writer doesn't mean anything to you really, does it?', he replied, 'No, no, I don't think it does to anybody. Certain Irish writers beat the Irish drum, but that's a way of doing things.' However, the Irish Studies industry, as currently constructed, needs new blood and fresh perspectives, and it does give us all something to talk about and write about and argue about, if and when we cannot stand to stop and listen to the underlying, ever-present silence.

First published in Ropes 11, NUI Galway



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