John Banville Essay - Critical Essays

John Banville Long Fiction Analysis

John Banville’s subject matter and methods of artistic execution form the basis of his reputation for originality. In the context of contemporary fiction, Banville is notable for his commitment, for his felicity of phrase, and for his relationship to an important fictional genre, the historical novel. He has communicated, through both his artistic strategies and his choices of material, some of the main questions faced by contemporary fiction—communicated them perhaps too conspicuously and with an ease and self-possession uncharacteristic of many contemporary writers. Some readers may find that Banville’s manner is paradoxically at odds with his central themes.

Banville’s short stories, his novella The Newton Letter, and his novels constitute a remarkably unified and consistent body of work. From the outset of his career, he has shown immense artistic self-possession and an equally assured possession of his themes. Over the years, his style, while not remaining constant, has undergone comparatively little change. It is therefore possible to speak of Banville in terms of a completeness and typicality that most novelists of his age are still in the process of discovering.

The unity and integrity that are the most striking features of Banville’s career and oeuvre become more striking still by virtue of their being so thematically important in his work. Fascination with the spectacle of the mind in the act of creation is a major concern of this author, and his career may be described in terms of an increasingly deliberate and far-reaching series of attempts to articulate this subject. This preoccupation has given his work a range, ambition, and commitment to large concepts that are extremely rare in modern Irish fiction and only slightly less rare in contemporary fiction generally.

In addition, the manner in which Banville elaborates his interest in humanity’s creative dimension commands more critical attention than it has received. For example, his fiction is suffused with hints suggesting links among artistic strategies, scientific inquiry, and historical actuality. From these, it is possible to detect a rudimentary, though sustained, critique of traditional epistemological procedures. To complement this critique, the typical Banville protagonist either discovers unsuspected modes of perception or believes that he has no choice but to set out deliberately to discover them.

Together with the intellectual commitment implicit in such concerns, Banville’s work possesses a typically complete and essentially unchanging aesthetic apparatus through which ideas and fiction’s critique may be perceived. Since it is central to Banville’s artistic vision that fiction’s critique of conceptual thinking be considered inevitable and unavoidable, his novels’ aesthetic apparatus is largely premised on techniques of doubleness, repetition, echoes, and mirrors. Protagonists often have problematic brothers or missing twins. Personal experience finds its counterpart in historical events. The result is a paradox: The duplicitous character of experience, which renders humanity’s possession of its existence so frail and tentative, impels people, precisely because of that very frailty, to anchor themselves in the presumed security of defined abstractions.

Despite the presence of these thematic concerns throughout Banville’s output, and despite the fact that his treatment of them has always been marked more by an ironic playfulness than by earnest sermonizing, his first two works of fiction are somewhat callow. In particular, Nightspawn, the story of an Irish writer’s adventures in Greece on the eve of the colonels’ coup, treats the material with a kind of relentless playfulness that is both tiresome in itself and in questionable taste. Despite the author’s admitted—though not uncritical—affection for this novel, and despite its containing in embryonic form the concerns that beset all of his work, Nightspawn, as perhaps its title suggests, is an example of a young writer allowing his wonderfully fertile imagination to run to baroque lengths.


It is more appropriate, therefore, to begin a detailed consideration of John Banville’s fiction with his second novel, Birchwood. Like Nightspawn, this novel is written in the first person—arguably Banville’s preferrednarrative mode. In Birchwood, Gabriel Godkin, the protagonist, tells in retrospect the story of his dark heritage and his efforts to escape it. Again, as in Nightspawn, much of the material has baroque potential, which the novel’s middle section, depicting Gabriel’s adventures with the circus of a certain Prospero, accentuates rather than dispels.

The circus escapade shines in the novel like a good deed in an evil world. While Gabriel is within the protected ring of the circus troupe, he seems to be essentially immune from the troubles of his past and from the state of famine and unrest that consumes the country through which the circus travels. Thanks to Prospero, he is islanded and becalmed in the surrounding tempest. Even under such conditions of childish play, however, the world is not a safe place. Adult imperfections continually intrude. Crimes are committed in the name of love; futile and obsessive hostilities break out. Innocent Gabriel flees the disintegrating circle—it seems appropriate to think of the circus in etymological terms, since circle and ring possess strong connotations of unity and completeness.

Gabriel forsakes the circus in a state of rather paranoid distress and finds himself, still more distressingly, to have come full circle, back to where he started. Now, however, he finds himself compelled to face his origins, which lie in the house of doom that gives this novel its title. The first part of the novel gives the history of the Godkin family. Like the circus sequence, this opening section of Birchwood owes more to imagination than it does to actuality. Many readers will be reminded of both Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner by Banville’s combination of brooding atmosphere and theme of cultural decay on which this section is premised. Banville’s farcical tone, however, without prejudicing young Gabriel’s sensitivity, prevents the heavy-handedness and extravagance to which the gothic nature of his material is in danger of giving rise. The seriousness with which the elder Godkins take their insecurities is rendered laughable by the incompetence that ensues from their transparent intensity.

Gabriel, however, for all of his alienation from his heritage’s inadequacies, finds it impossible to do other than to confront them. In a novel that satirically articulates the cultural shibboleth of bad blood, Gabriel feels compelled to carry out an act of blood that will purge his house of the usurper. The usurper in question is Gabriel’s twin brother, Michael. The novel ends with Gabriel in sole possession of Birchwood.

This turn of events, however, does not mean that Gabriel is able, or intends, to restore the house to its former glory, a glory in which he never participated. As a writer, he seems to have the objective of reclaiming the house as it really was rather than imagining it as something other, something that imaginative treatment would make easier to assimilate. In this objective, students of Irish literature may see a critique of the lofty status often accorded the Big House in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. An appreciation of Banville’s fiction does not require that he be seen as a defacer of the cultural icons of a previous generation. Nevertheless, the status of the Big House in Birchwood, coupled with themes of survival, inheritance, and artistic expression, offers a sense of the oblique manner in which this author regards his own cultural heritage while at the same time situating his regard in the wider, more generic contexts of such concerns as individuality, history, the role of the artist, and the nature of the real.

Given the significant, if problematic, status of the Big House in modern Irish literature (Big House being the generic name given to the imposing mansions of the socially dominant, landowning Anglo-Irish class), the degree to which Birchwood avoids a specific historical context is noteworthy. The work provides a sufficient number of clues (the famine and unrest already mentioned, the frequent mention of “rebels” in the first part of the novel) to suggest that the locale is Ireland. A larger historical context is obviated, however, by the obsessive, and more psychologically archetypal, quality of Gabriel’s sense of his personal history. The result is a novel that is ultimately too reflexive, private, and inward looking to be entirely satisfactory.

Doctor Copernicus

It may be that the author himself reached the same conclusion, given that in his next two novels, Doctor Copernicus and Kepler, a specific and detailed sense of history is an important dimension of events. Doctor Copernicus inaugurates Banville’s most important and ambitious project, and the one on which his long-term international reputation will probably be based. This project consists of four books dealing with the nature of the creative personality, conceived of in terms of the scientific imagination. A subtitle for the series might be “The Scientist as Artist,” meaning that Banville considers the accomplishments of Copernicus, Kepler, and Isaac Newton (subject of The Newton Letter) in the field of scientific inquiry to be comparable to what an artist might produce. The series concludes with Mefisto, which both crystallizes and challenges the assumptions of its predecessors. The most fundamental link joining the four books is chronological, Mefisto being set in contemporary Ireland. Although other, more sophisticated connections may be made among the four novels, each may also be read independently.

Doctor Copernicus is a fictionalized biography of the astronomer who revolutionized humanity’s sense of its place in the order of creation. The biography is presented in such a way as to dramatize the crucial tensions between Copernicus and the history of his time. Beginning with the astronomer’s unhappy childhood, the novel details the essentially flawed, anticlimactic, unfulfilling (and unfulfillable) nature of human existence as Copernicus experiences it. The protagonist’s character is conceived in terms of his inability to give himself fully to the world of men and women and affairs, whether the affairs are those of state or of the heart.

Sojourning in Italy as a young man, Copernicus has a homosexual affair that temporarily makes him happy. He lacks the self-confidence and will to believe in his happiness, however, and rejects it in an attack of spleen and confusion. Later in his career, he is required to take a political role, negotiating with Lutheran enemies of the Catholic Church and administering Church properties. Although he discharges his obligations in a responsible manner, it is perfectly clear that, given the choice between being a man of his time or being a student of the stars in their eternal courses, Copernicus prefers the latter isolated, impersonal service. The imperfections of the world—not only in the aggregate, demonstrated by the machinations of history, but also intimately, embodied by the astronomer’s syphilitic brother, Andreas—prove emotionally insupportable, philosophically unjustifiable, and morally anesthetizing. Finding no basis for unity and completeness in the sorry state of mortal...

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