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By John Banville
Published by Picador

John Banville, and his work, would seem to be out of favour at the moment, especially among the young. (That is the first time I’ve written that collective noun, and not felt that it somehow included me.) Even when it is only the work that is criticised negatively, one cannot help but feel that this is mostly a consequence of the behaviour of the author, or of a dislike of the persona he chooses to project publicly, rather than simply a comment on the work itself. The smartest kid on the block isn’t going to make himself very popular with his peers if he doesn’t come out to play sometimes, i.e. hold forth - on the national airwaves in preference to in the print medium - on nationalism, revisionism, post-colonialism, feminism, or whatever other -ism is in fashion that season. But, as any genuine artist knows, none of these abstract concepts has very much to do with making works of art. They come afterwards, if at all, rather than being starting points for writing fiction or painting pictures. Not that there haven’t been excellent politically engage writers and artists. Picasso’s Guernica and Orwell’s 1984 spring to mind, as works reacting to actual historical events or commenting on specific political and social tendencies, although neither of them are directly representational. On the other hand, the work of Nadine Gordimer illustrates that the even the Nobel Prize for Literature isn’t always awarded on the basis of excellence of prose style. But, for me, art comes out of art and imagination, just as much, if not more so, as it comes from life and experience; and form, style and expression are just as important, if not more so, as theme, subject matter and content. One doesn’t conceal the other, it contains it. Trouble is, deflationary Dublin wit is so all-pervasive (slagging, as it’s called in the local parlance), and everyone is so worried about being accused of being ‘pretentious’ these days, and art is increasingly being made to earn its keep by serving some social function or other, plus all Ireland is such a goldfish bowl, that it is proving increasingly difficult for artists to maintain their independence and not to get drawn into such debates. It makes for good copy, after all, and does raise the personal profile. However, Joyce and Beckett managed to concentrate on their art, rather than letting themselves get co-opted into movements, even if they did have to get out of the goldfish bowl to do it. Now, they’re the best ‘Irish’ writers that ever chanced to pop into the world on this tiny island, right? So maybe we should appreciate someone who is trying to follow their lead, while at the same time making it even more difficult for himself by remaining in that transparent glass bowl.




The backlash against Banville runs deeper than his perceived aloofness and indifference to matters local and national, though. He is at the receiving end of a type of criticism that has been levelled against another formally rigorous and fastidiously inventive word-conjurer, poet Paul Muldoon, by no less an influential personage than Harvard academic and critic Helen Vendler, specifically that: ‘There is a hole at the heart of the poem, where the feeling should be’. There is a feeling abroad that Banville is more concerned with how the words bump up against each other, at the expense of any emotion they might convey while doing so. In short, he is ‘too clever’ for his own good. To argue thus is a variation on the ‘inarticulacy as badge of sincerity’ pose, as patented by actors like James Dean, and stretching back in American letters to Hemingway, and beyond. But all poetry and prose are made primarily of words, before they are made of ideas, plot, character, emotion, or anything else. There is a necessary insincerity involved in making art, which can embrace both articulacy and inarticulacy. That’s what makes art sincere. Besides, just because some writing doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have a heart.
It would be foolish to think John Banville is not aware of these apparent shortcomings as applied to his work. In Eclipse, his latest in a long line of central characters who are alienated outsiders, Alexander Cleave - who, as his name suggests, both clings to and violently breaks away from his past, from life, from himself - tells us:

"It is at moments such as this, fraught and uncertain, that I understand myself least, seem a farrago of delusions, false desires, fantastical misconceptions, all muted and made manageable by some sort of natural anaesthetic, an endorphin that soothes not the nerves but the emotions. Is it possible I have lived all my life in this state? Is it possible to be in pain without suffering? Do people look at me and detect a slight peculiarity in my bearing, as one notices the stiff jaw and faintly drooping eye of a person lately risen from the dentist’s chair? But no, what has been done to me is deeper than dentistry. I am a heart patient. There may even be a name for my complaint.
‘Mr Cleave, harrumph harrumph, I’m afraid it’s what we doctors call anaesthesia cordis, and the prognosis is not good.’"

(I can just hear the average waggish Dublin wiseacre, on being quoted the above passage, making a hole in his pint and inquiring of the bar: ‘Who does his think he is, Vladimir Nabokov?’ It’s all right to have a mandarin prose style if you’re not Irish, or if you’re dead, or preferably both, just as it’s okay to write in French if you go live in Paris, or are dead, or preferably both.) Do not think I am naively confusing the writer and his creation. ‘Conflate’ would be a better word, although not exactly the right one either. For, as with Beckett, and with Warhol, the authority for the supposed effacement of the author’s voice in Banville is none other than the author’s voice itself. In the interplay between author and character, autobiography and fiction, face and mask, there is room for much slight of hand and self-reflexive metaphysical topspin.
It’s all heightened a bit more this time though, because Alex is not an historian, a mathematician, a murderer, or even a spy. No, he’s an actor. Worse still, he’s an actor who has corpsed on stage, whose mask has fallen. If Banville the writer is only acting (and even that’s a highly ambiguous verb), Alex is in many ways his ideal fictional alter ego.
After his fall from grace, Alex retreats to his childhood home, abandoning his wife Lydia for the time being, and lives reclusively, brooding about his past, particularly his troubled daughter Cass. In the house he meets Quirke, a local solicitor’s clerk, and his daughter Lily, and later discovers that they have taken up residence. He is also haunted by ghostly apparitions, indeed the amorphous Ghosts is his previous novel that this one most resembles.
Some other reviewers have declared themselves stumped when it comes to saying what Eclipse is actually about. But, apart from touching on traditional Irish themes such as the burden of the past and the presence of ghosts, this novel is ultimately about the nature of consciousness itself, or more exactly, self-consciousness. I was continually reminded while reading this of one of E. M. Cioran’s aphorisms: ‘We should have been excused from lugging a body; the burden of the self was enough.’

"When the collapse came, I was the only one who was not surprised. For months I had been beset by bouts of crippling self-consciousness. I would involuntarily fix on a bit of myself, a finger, a foot, and gape at it in a kind of horror, paralysed, unable to understand how it made its movements, what force was guiding it. In the street I would catch sight of my reflection in a shop window, skulking along with head down and shoulders up and my elbows pressed into my sides, like a felon bearing a body away, and I would falter, and almost fall, breathless as if from a blow, overwhelmed by the inescapable predicament of being what I was. It was this at last that took me by the throat on stage that night and throttled the words as I was speaking them, this hideous awareness, this insupportable excess of self.

Although Alex writes elsewhere of taking ‘my place in the lower ranks of the high consistory of which she was an adept of long standing’, the above passage is enough to make you wonder who was madder, him or his daughter Cass. The final act of this tragedy (and this is a five-part book that echoes the classical five acts of drama), presses this question home even further. He has been a neglectful father, so wrapped up in himself that he has not noticed that Cass may well have been a notable scholar: ‘...I should have paid more attention to what I always winced at when I heard her refer to it as her work. I could never believe it was anything more than an elaborate pastime, like thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, or Chinese patience, something dull but demanding that would soothe her frantic mind.’
Ironies abound, not least of which is the fact that the line Alex fluffed, ‘Who if not I, then, is Amphitryon?’, from Moliere’s Amphitryon, concerns loss of identity. The story goes that Zeus assumed the likeness of Amphitryon, in order to visit his wife Alcmena, and gave a banquet; but Amphitryon came home and claimed the honour of being master of the house. However, as far as the servants and guests were concerned, ‘The real Amphitryon is the Amphitryon who provides the feast’. Also check out Alex’s and Lydia’s subtly rendered almost diametrically opposed versions of Alex’s life, on p.141.
There are some echoes of Banville’s previous books, for example the aforementioned phantoms put one in mind of Ghosts, while Alex’s confession that he is a secret stalker is reminiscent of the passage in The Book of Evidence where Freddie starts following people in the street, plus a circus comes to town here, just like it did in Birchwood.
If I have any criticisms of Eclipse they are that there are perhaps too many similarities to Beckett’s prose style and, as a corollary, to his worldview: ‘If the lodgers led unreal lives, so too did we, the permanent inhabitants, so called.’(p 49) and ‘How intricate they are, human relations, so called.’ (p 140), both echo ‘ so-called virile member...’ and ‘...the alleged joys of so-called self-abuse.’ from Molloy. Then there’s the long paragraphs, of course, and the sparse dialogue. It is also worth hinting that perhaps it might be time for a change of style and perspective for Banville. Since the end of his ‘science’ tetralogy, we have had a series of five novels (the first three of which form a loose trilogy themselves), all first person narratives by broadly similar characters in fairly similar circumstances. He may be trying to get more purity and intensity, but maybe another big panoramic novel like Doctor Copernicus or Kepler would not go amiss, or alternatively a novel narrated by a less disenchanted central character.
In short, for unashamed Banville fans like me, who have read all his previous books, this is more of the same, and they will be very pleased with getting their fix. On the other hand, it is not going to answer any of those callow criticisms (some of them emanating from, of all places, the local campuses) about his aestheticism and elitism, of the order of ‘Banville never went to university, and we’ve all been suffering ever since.’, or ‘It’s all only words, he doesn’t really mean it.’, or ‘He’s more concerned with structure than character’, or (the kiss of death) ‘He’s a writer’s writer’. But from the perspective of someone who is just beginning to call themselves a writer, it seems to me that in terms of both quantity and quality, the competition is still only biting on his dust.

First published in Books Ireland













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