John Banville’s ‘The Book of Evidence’ and Anglo-Irish nostalgia
Every time I read a John Banville novel, I wish that it were the first time that I was reading a John Banville novel because, taken in a vacuum, each one is a work of great invention. Banville has a capacity to infuse into his high narratives of failed epistemology features of non-high literature (an impulse that Banville now channels into his Benjamin Black persona), and his post-Nabokovian reveries are surely among the most compelling of their kind but, having read about four them, a pattern begins to stand out and here we come to the less appealing aspects of his writing.
- The perpetually waning, ethereal, always-described-relative-to-their-physical-features female ‘characters.’
- The aging, reprehensibly lecherous but aesthetically-atuned middle-aged or old men at each of the novel’s centres.
- The deconstruction of the novel’s artifice every page or so.
- Four or five points at which it is suggested that the plot in its entirety is contrived.
- The quiet twist in the text’s last four or five pages.
I could go on, and say a lot of other things that annoy me but the London Review of Books pretty well covered it in its review of his most recent novel The Blue Guitar. So I’ll just say that The Infinities featuring an omniscient God-narrator rather rather than a mortal one, allowed the usual course of his writings to be unsettled and re-vitalised in a way. Still a shame about Helen Godley, as sketchily characterised as she is attractive. Similarly, Banville remains a good sentencer, with a firm grasp on underplayed humour and The Book of Evidence had more than the average amount of good phrases and the momentary diversions of his baroque prose style is generally enough to get me through one of his books.
However, there was more than just this to keep my interest throughout The Book of Evidence, and that was the main character’s apparent nostalgia for the departed world of Georgian Dublin, through the prism of the Anglo-Irish ruling class. Freddie Montgomery is of upper-middle class Catholic stock, though his household, when he returns to Ireland, seems to have Gone Down, as big houses in Irish books will do. Montgomery remembers his father’s attitude to modern Irish history in the following terms: ‘the world, the only worthwhile world, had ended with the last viceroy’s departure from these shores. After that it was all just a wrangle among peasants.’ He even calls Dún Laoghaire Kingstown. This nostalgic treatment of seventeenth-century Ireland is familiar within Irish literature, as one can see from the works of W.B. Yeats and Elizabeth Bowen. One can perhaps just about glimpse the emergent rhythms of Banville’s prose style in the following quote from Bowen’s Court:
The great bold rooms, the high doors imposed an order on life. Sun blazed in at the windows, fires roared in the grates. There was a sweet, fresh-paned smell from the floors. Life still kept a touch of colonial vigour; at the same time, because of the glory of everything, it was bound up in the quality of a dream.
Some of Banville’s thematic preoccupations seem to be gestured towards here also, the faint oscillation of unreality beneath appearance, the intensity of things just in their raw being-ness and the wealth on the backs of colonial subjects without the compromising fact of their existence relates to Banville’s capacity to keep his distance from the interiority of others, and perhaps from the interiority of protagonists themselves. We see also an attraction to surface and a repudiation of tacky actualness.
Roy Foster sees the eighteenth-century pursuit of a high-style in all things from buildings, public works and overwrought, intricate furbelows in their neo-classical architecture as a try-hard pathology in response to their self-perception, a recognition of their colonial status with the attempt to construct a better capital with better public buildings than the English. Foster writes that many contemporary visitors to Dublin expected a provincial town and were confronted with a totally inappropriate level of architectural and civic grandeur. One, in a mode that is not entirely un-Banvillean mode writes that visiting Dublin was like being ‘at table with a man who serves me Burgundy, but whose attendant is a bailiff disguised in livery.’ This pretentiousness emerges from Georgian Dublin’s precarious sense of itself and relates meaningfully to Banville’s high style, as a compensation for the insufficiency of one’s identity. Montgomery’s dreams, his notions, his self are even more dream like, than they at first seem, as they are constructed on a misinterpretation of history.