John Banville 1945–
Irish novelist, short story writer, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Banville's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 46.
One of the foremost contemporary authors to experiment with the format of the traditional Irish novel, Banville makes extensive use of metaphors, literary allusions, and elements from various genres to create complex aesthetic effects. His narratives are usually enigmatic and ambiguous, reflecting his belief that reality cannot be accurately mirrored by the conventional realistic novel.
Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, on December 8, 1945. He was educated at the Christian Brothers primary school and St. Peter's College secondary school. Instead of attending university, Banville became a clerk at Aer Lingus for a brief period of years. Banville's initial artistic interest was painting, but after moving to London with his wife, he began writing short stories. After publishing his stories in several periodicals, Banville published his first book, a collection of short stories called Lord Lankin, in 1970. Shortly afterward, Banville moved just outside Dublin, where he became chief sub-editor for the Irish Press. Banville worked at the Irish Press until 1983, when he left to pursue writing full time. When he found that his fiction writing did not pay the bills, he returned to the Irish Press as literary editor in 1986. Throughout his career Banville has won numerous awards, including the Allied Irish Banks prize for Birchwood (1973), an Irish Arts Council Macauley Fellowship, the Irish-American Foundation Literary Award in 1976, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Dr. Copernicus in 1976.
Banville's fiction studies the relationship between reality and art, and departs from a traditional focus in Irish fiction on historical and social concerns. Banville is also more concerned with the aesthetic aspects of fiction than his Irish literary predecessors. Each of his novels has a first-person narrative voice; Long Lankin is his only work with a third-person narrator, and it is his only collection of short stories. The stories present different stages of life in the nouveau riche contemporary suburbs of Dublin, including childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The stories present the common conflicts which arise from personal relationships and address such topics as guilt, loss, destructive love, and the pain inherent in attaining freedom. Nightspawn (1971) is a parody of several genres in which Banville endeavors to expose the limitations of the traditional novel through an intentionally chaotic narrative in which he merges the narrator, protagonist, and writer. Set on a Greek island, the story involves a potential military coup, a highly sought-after document, a plenitude of sex, and a murder. Birchwood, a modern-day Gothic novel about a decaying Irish estate and a disturbed family, centers on Gabriel Godkin, the son and heir, who gains independence and maturity through his involvement in a circus and a revolutionary coup. Next Banville produced novels toward a proposed tetralogy influenced by The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe, Arthur Koestler's study of notable astronomers. In the tetralogy, Banville analyzes the relationship between creation and reality by presenting the lives and scientific quests of several famous intellectuals, including Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in Dr. Copernicus, German astronomer Johannes Kepler in Kepler (1983), and Isaac Newton in The Newton Letter (1987). The Book of Evidence (1990) is the first of a trilogy which centers on the mind of narrator Freddie Montgomery. Montgomery becomes enamored with a painting in the home of a friend and impulsively steals it. When a maid catches him in the act, he forces her to leave with him and eventually kills her with a hammer. The book is his confession of the crime to police. Ghosts (1993) again takes up the story of Freddie Montgomery as he re-enters life after serving a ten-year prison sentence. He finds a job on an island as an apprentice to an art historian. Athena (1995) completes the Montgomery trilogy. Montgomery, now called Morrow, has become an authority on art and is called upon to authenticate pictures stolen from the same house in which he stumbled into his own criminal life. Banville tackled another genre with The Untouchable (1997) which charts the world of espionage during the 1930s by fictionalizing the story of Russian spy Anthony Blunt. The novel is unique because it lacks the romantic excess of most spy novels and instead delineates the day-to-day minutia of its characters' lives.
Critics often refer to the Nabokovian influences in Banville's fiction. Many commentators praise his lavish prose style; Erica Abeel calls him "a landscape painter with language." Others, however, are critical of the self-conscious impulses of his language and his use of obscure vocabulary. Paul Driver asserts that Mefisto (1986) is "massively overwritten" and states, "There is so much verbal flesh on the book that its moral backbone is difficult to discern." Reviewers point out Banville's preoccupation with the relationship between art and reality. Most note Banville's tendency to celebrate the unreality of the fictional world. Philip MacCann states, "Banville's art eschews the vulgar artificiality of life in favor of the stylish artificiality of art itself." Banville is generally respected for his well-researched and erudite books, and critics have credited him for his influence on contemporary Irish literature. Valentine Cunningham posits that Banville is "one of the most important writers now at work in English—a key thinker, in fact, in fiction."
Long Lankin (short stories) 1970
Nightspawn (novel) 1971
Birchwood (novel) 1973
Doctor Copernicus (novel) 1976
Kepler (novel) 1983
Mefisto (novel) 1986
The Newton Letter (novel) 1987
The Book of Evidence (novel) 1990
Ghosts (novel) 1993
The Broken Jug (play) 1994
Athena (novel) 1995
The Untouchable (novel) 1997
(The entire section is 35 words.)
SOURCE: "'Be Assured I Am Inventing': The Fiction of John Banville," in Cahiers-Irlandais, Vols. 4-5, 1976, pp. 329-39.
[In the following essay, Deane, a well-known poet, discusses Banville's awareness that the world he creates in his books is fictive.]
John Banville has so far produced three books: Long Lankin, Nightspawn, and the prizewinning Birchwood. In each one of them he shows himself to be very conscious of the fact that he is writing fiction, and this lends to his work both a literary and an introverted humour which relieves him from the accusations of monotony, plagiarism and preciousness which could otherwise be justifiably levelled against him. He is a litterateur who has a horror of producing 'literature'. This horror is equalled only by his amusement at the notion that literature might (by accident or innate capacity) reproduce life. He rejects mimetic realism by practising it in the avowed consciousness of its incompetence. Various authors betray their influence on his writings—Nabokov, Henry Green, Hermann Hesse—and, in addition, he makes his relationship to the reader as quizzically autocratic as does John Barth, Borges or even Richard Brautigan. He favours his sensibility as something so electrically endowed that it can only be glimpsed in its movements with the help of modern, high-speed, novelistic lenses. Like some of those authors mentioned, he joyfully...
(The entire section is 4031 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Newton Letter, in Books and Bookmen, No. 328, January, 1983, p. 32.
[In the following review, Stanford states, "Mr Banville's surface technique [in The Newton Letter] presents no difficulties and few idiosyncrasies whilst nevertheless leaving us with a feeling of experience steeped in all its local habitation"]
C. P. Snow once opined that "James Joyce led novels up a blind alley" (and Finnegan's Wake is clearly sign-posted "No thoroughfare for most fiction readers"). Mr Banville's surface technique presents no difficulties and few idiosyncrasies whilst nevertheless leaving us with a feeling of experience steeped in all its local habitation (a lodge cottage and half ruined 'great house' in the deep country of the south of Ireland). By frequently using short chapters or sections, he guards against our ever getting satiated with the atmosphere each so differingly conveys. That was a ploy the de Goncourt brothers first introduced into the novel; and Mr Banville uses it with the greatest effect.
The under-surface structure of The Newton Letter can be likened to a concerto, with the solo instrument becoming fainter and fainter until, at the end, it returns more emphatically. Although there are no needless games with the chronology of the action, the story progresses by episodic development. Which means that the 'plot' also operates in a...
(The entire section is 428 words.)
SOURCE: "Liza Jarrett's Hard Life," in London Review of Books, December 4, 1986, pp. 24, 26.
[In the following excerpt, Driver complains that Banville's Mefisto "is massively overwritten with a distinctly Irish lyrical imperative and studious lexicality."]
… Mefisto is the most ambitious of these five works, yet in some ways the least successful. It is massively overwritten with a distinctly Irish lyrical imperative and studious lexicality. Rare words are preferred: 'auscultating', 'exsanguinated', 'incarnadined', 'labiate', 'vermiform', 'psittacine', 'rufous', 'lentor', 'strabismic', 'gibbous', 'snathed'. There are too many descriptions like 'a flash of opalescent silk' or 'the air a sheen of damp pearl', and there is too much seasonal reference of the 'It was a hot, hazy day, one of the first of summer' kind. Its ambition is roughly to be a sort of Beckettian comedy of drabness, to maintain a firm hold of childhood perceptions, but not to scruple to render death, disfigurement, indigence and despair. The book's scope is too wide, in fact, and one is never properly sure what kind of novel one is in.
Apart from the narrator when he is young—and a mathematical prodigy—and his immediate kin, the characters (Mephistophelean, spivish Felix, the deaf-mute Sophie, the mine-owner and mathematician Mr Kasperl, et al.) are only elusively real—shadows on an indeterminate...
(The entire section is 680 words.)
SOURCE: "Stereotypical Images of Ireland in John Banville's Fiction," in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 94-102.
[In the following essay, McMinn analyzes the way Banville portrays Ireland and its people in his fiction.]
To examine the imaginative role which Ireland plays in the novels of John Banville might seem like missing the point of a fiction which shows little regard for historical fact and less faith in the narrative manoeuvres of realism. Like the young Gabriel Godkin in Birchwood, who learned geography from his Aunt Martha, "not its facts but its poetry," Banville employs images of Ireland as metaphors for emotion and perception. Some of these images—such as the Big House—are almost institutionalised literary fictions. This is precisely why Banville likes them: they are fictional counters to play with in his own self-enclosed literary design. The wealth of literary cliché and stereotype in Irish literature has a special attraction for this writer who wishes to forge a style answerable to imagination not fact. It provides ammunition for the literary parodist—indeed, an ironic token of freedom from tradition—and concentrates the task of the novelist on the refinement of language itself.
The self-conscious interaction between Irish identity and the English language, an important literary fiction since Stephen Daedalus's conversation with the Dean...
(The entire section is 3524 words.)
SOURCE: "He Killed Her Because He Could," in New York Times Book Review, April 15, 1990, p. 11.
[In the following review, Abeel asserts that in The Book of Evidence "Mr. Banville has gambled that he could write a mesmerizing tale about a monster—and he has won."]
Here is an astonishing, disturbing little novel [The Book of Evidence] that might have been coughed up from hell. A first-person narrator confesses to a murder. It's soon apparent, though, that the crime was not inspired by greed, revenge or any other discernible motive. The narrator is a sort of accidental killer—Everyman as monster.
Freddie Montgomery, a gifted scientist, presents his confession as he sits in jail awaiting trial. He imagines his ruminations as a courtroom statement and posits his readers as judge and jury. John Banville, the author of Doctor Copernicus, Kepler and other novels, has made his Freddie a thoroughly bad apple, who has spent the last 10 years drifting about on various southerly islands, wife and child in tow. He gets into a scrape with some island lowlifes and returns to Ireland (leaving his wife as hostage) to raise some cash. There he stages an absurdly clumsy theft, stealing a painting from a friend's estate in daylight and in view of some dozen people. During the getaway, he kills a maid. The homages to illustrious predecessors in The Book of Evidence are...
(The entire section is 1131 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Book of Evidence, in Bloomsbury Review, May/June, 1990, pp. 2-3.
[In the following review, Sattler asserts that The Book of Evidence is about the disintegration of its protagonist Freddie Montgomery.]
"Well, Well, That's the advantage of jail, one has the time and leisure really to get to the heart of things," says Freddie Montgomery at one point during his confession of murder which comprises The Book of Evidence. Through this sometimes seemingly random rambling, characterized by minute expansion on a relatively simple string of events, emerges the substance of Freddie's life.
Freddie, a thirty-eight-year-old husband, father, failed son, and onetime scientist, travels aimlessly, never losing a sense of alienation. He imagines that a cosmic mistake placed humans on the earth and put the real earthlings somewhere else: "No, they would have become extinct long ago. How could they survive, these gentle earthlings, in a world that was made to contain us?" While vacationing on an island in the Mediterranean he borrows money from the "wrong people" and must return home to Ireland to try to get the money from his widowed mother. His wife and daughter are left behind under the watchful eyes of the local crime organization.
Freddie finds little comfort or hope of assistance at home, with his mother fed up with his profligacy. A row...
(The entire section is 1107 words.)
SOURCE: "Reconstructing Artistic and Scientific Paradigms: John Banville's The Newton Letter," in Mosaic, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 121-33.
[In the following essay, McIlroy examines the connection between scientific and literary pursuits in Banville's The Newton Letter, and asserts that it "is an ingenious exploration of how conceptual frames, both artistic and scientific, are imagined and reimagined to produce new syntheses."]
John Banville's The Newton Letter is the third volume in the contemporary Irish novelist's scientific tetralogy, which includes Doctor Copernicus, Kepler and Mefisto. Attempts to coordinate the four works have thus far taken the form of noting their intertextuality or their Irish themes. As I see it, a stronger case for their coherence can be made by focusing on their collective concern with what literary and scientific pursuits have in common. My specific focus on The Newton Letter derives from the way that this novella seems best to illustrate Banville's artistry in dramatizing this connection.
The narrator of The Newton Letter is a nameless Dublin historian who is attempting to write a biography of this great scientist. Frustrated in completing his chapter on Newton's breakdown in 1693, and looking for inspiration, the narrator moves from Dublin to Fern House, a country-house estate in the south of...
(The entire section is 6151 words.)
SOURCE: "Shadow Plays," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 6, No. 248, April 16, 1993, p. 41.
[In the following review, Whiteside praises Banville's Ghosts, but calls it a difficult book.]
It's fair to say that anyone approaching this dense, elusive, richly allusive novel without prior knowledge of John Banville's work will be at something of a disadvantage. Readers of the darkly ironic Book of Evidence will remember Freddie Montgomery, the empty soul who stole a portrait and dashed in the brains of a hapless maidservant before racking his own in vain to find out why he had done it. Here is Freddie again, named once only, his narratorial voice unmistakable. But Ghosts is altogether more difficult of access than that other novel, and marks a return to the more metaphysical speculations of Banville's earlier works, particularly his reworkings of Goethe in The Newton Letter and Mefisto.
"It was like hiding inside a head," said Gabriel Swan in Mefisto of a room with two windows. Reading Ghosts is a little like hiding inside a head as well, although it's not always clear whose head. Here, on an oak-wooded island off the south coast of Ireland, a troupe of mismatched, shipwrecked commedia dell'arte figures make their way to the house of Professor Kreutznaer, superannuated scholar of the painter Vaublin, whose amanuensis Montgomery has...
(The entire section is 630 words.)
SOURCE: "A Whole Lot of Faking," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 8, April 22, 1993, pp. 10-1.
[In the following review, Cunningham discusses the interrogative nature of Banville's Ghosts and asserts that, "It's at the centre of his power that his mood, his people's mood, the mood of his writing, is interrogative. And in best Modernist fashion, these interrogations don't have straight answers."]
'The philosopher asks: Can the style of an evil man have any unity?' It's a wonderfully sharp question, marrying morals to aesthetics in a challenging new-old fashion. And it's a question, as ever with John Banville, within other questions. Who, for instance, you're made to wonder at this point in Ghosts, is actually asking? Some anonymous narrator? The author? The novel's own enigmatic 'evil man', the one who does so much of its telling and, it turns out, has a lot morally to answer for? You never know. It's hard to tell; it's always hard to tell with this author. It's at the centre of his power that his mood, his people's mood, the mood of his writing, is interrogative. And in best Modernist fashion, these interrogations don't have straight answers.
So can the style of an evil man—those fallen aestheticians Banville is drawn to, the compulsive counters and writers, the book-keepers and keepers of the books, notes, novels, those custodians of black books, Big...
(The entire section is 2875 words.)
SOURCE: "Raskolnikov on the Couch," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 7, 1993, pp. 3, 12.
[In the following review, Eder complains of the flat characterization in Banville's Ghosts.]
Call me Ishmael.
It's not that Melville needs us to say "yes" right at the start, so that he and we can get on with Moby Dick. "Maybe" or "let's see" will do; the "yes" can take its time. "I" in a first-person narrative invites us to a game and must charm, puzzle, annoy or even terrify us into wanting to play; but not immediately. What would stop things dead is a "no." The invitation extended by the narrator of Ghosts is all too easy for the reader to turn down.
The ghost in John Banville's novel about the aftermath of a gratuitous crime is the criminal. He is not literally dead but his sense of self is so shattered that even serving out his punishment—10 years in jail—did not restore him. Perhaps it is because he cannot really repent; repentance belonging to a pre-therapeutic era when the chief import of a transgression was what it did to others, not its disorienting effect on oneself. The nameless narrator, an art expert who impulsively removed a valuable painting from the wall of his host's country house and killed the maid who found him at it, is Raskolnikov on a couch. Even if jail might seem to be the narrator's redemptive equivalent of...
(The entire section is 1144 words.)
SOURCE: "John Banville," in Publishers Weekly, November 15, 1993, pp. 55-6.
[In the following interview, Banville talks about his career and his approach to literature.]
John Banville's narrators despair over the intractable chaos of life. They worry that chance and incongruity weave the patternless patterns of existence. Each of his eight novels tells a story from the point of view of a tormented, agonized soul.
In Nightspawn, Birchwood and Doctor Copernicus, all published here by Norton: in Kepler, The Newton Letter and Mefisto, all published by Godine; and in The Book of Evidence and Ghosts, the new novel just out from Knopf, Banville's characters float in a sea of grandiose shame.
The Irish author of this melancholic philosophizing, however, comes across as comparatively cheerful and unassuming, resembling none of his self-loathing narrators. A compact, graceful man, the 47-year-old Banville has the air of a somber pixie.
Over a leisurely lunch in Cork City, Banville, who is down for the day from Dublin, where he is the literary editor at the Irish Times, talks with PW about these voices and the recurring themes and images that link his books.
"We all have those darkest thoughts that come unbidden, those thoughts you would never tell anybody about," he says in a soft,...
(The entire section is 1998 words.)
SOURCE: "Violently Obsessed With Art," in New York Times Book Review, November 28, 1993, p. 1.
[In the following review, Lesser discusses the narrator which appears in both The Book of Evidence and Ghosts, and asserts that, "Where the narrator in The Book of Evidence was always striving for effect, the narrator in Ghosts quietly achieves it."]
The latest novel by the Irish writer John Banville, [Ghosts,] is a bit like a Peter Greenaway film: the visual elements are entrancing, the mystery plot is intricate and obscure, and the characters are all faintly (sometimes aggressively) threatening oddballs. Like Mr. Greenaway, Mr. Banville is particularly interested in humankind's strange mixture of passions for the beautiful and the violent, especially in combination. But while we have come to expect this mixture in movies (think of Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma), it is less common to come across it in a novel. Mr. Banville has made it his turf. In his previous novel, The Book of Evidence, published in 1989, he gave us a main character who set out to steal a privately owned portrait of a young woman (it sounded, from the description, like a Vermeer) and ended up murdering her flesh-and-blood counterpart, a maid who worked for the portrait's owner. Now, in Ghosts, Mr. Banville offers us a houseful of eccentric, mainly...
(The entire section is 1247 words.)
SOURCE: "A World Elsewhere," in Washington Post Book World, December 12, 1993, p. 3.
[In the following review, Norfolk calls Banville's Ghosts "a strange and austere book."]
[In John Banville's Ghosts, a] drunken captain runs his boat aground, stranding seven passengers on an island. They are watched, wading ashore; Croke, "an old boy in a boater," Felix, "a thin lithe sallow man with bad teeth and hair dyed black," Flora, "a pretty young woman," Sophie, "in a black skirt with a black leather jacket" who totes cameras with the purpose of capturing what she terms "tableaux morts," and three children: Pound, Hatch, Alice.
The unmagical Prospero of this island is Professor Silas Kreutznaer, an art historian specializing in the work of "Vaublin," who is served by two lackluster Calibans: Licht, a graceless and insecure factotum, and another, who watches, comments and dribbles out the events of the life which brought him here. The "other" is the narrator and principal subject of this new novel from John Banville, literary editor of the Irish Times and author of The Book of Evidence and Doctor Copernicus, among other books.
This unnamed observer reports, twice-weekly, to one Sgt. Toner, which suggests some former wrongdoing. Later, we learn of a 10-year stretch in prison, and later still the nature of the crime—the murder of a young girl....
(The entire section is 859 words.)
SOURCE: "Profoundly Superficial," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 340, February 17, 1995, pp. 38-9.
[In the following review, MacCann discusses Banville's Athena and concludes that "At the heart of his writing appears to be a fear of uglification by the ordinary."]
Joyce described respectable society in Dublin as suffering from a particular unreality: perhaps colonial mimicry, perhaps also the result of a great literary tradition, disproportionately dominant for such a small culture. In Ireland there is a sense in which one's every gesture is a literary cliché; there are more scenes in books than things to do.
A major theme in Irish (and much other) literature is the threat of lifeless conformity and overfamiliar material to individual imagination. For this reason some Irish writers still exile themselves. A few have looked to the vibrant working-class culture, previously excluded from the canon and thus free from literary self-consciousness. John Banville, who along with William Trevor occupies the pinnacle of contemporary Irish writing, has his own solution. He transforms the Ireland around him into the unfamiliar world of stylised art. You won't recognise an Irish pub scene or pervy priest in Banville. At the heart of his writing appears to be a fear of uglification by the ordinary.
To some, this appears European. For others, Banville is Irish in...
(The entire section is 758 words.)
SOURCE: "This is Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On," in The Spectator, Vol. 274, No. 8693, pp. 30-1.
[In the following review, Craig discusses the dream-like quality of Banville's Athena.]
I've always likened writing a novel to a very powerful dream that you know is going to haunt you for days. If you sit down at the breakfast table and start to try to explain the dream to someone, they yawn and look at you and they can't understand what you're on about.
If—John Banville goes on in an Irish Times interview with Fintan O'Toole in 1989—if you try to imagine an author sitting down with such a dream for three years or so, refining and refining it into an elaborate work of fiction, 'then you're close to the impulse of my novels'. It's an illuminating analogy. The supercharged realism and lucidity of Banville's prose do not preclude a sense of somnambular unreality.
The events of Athena, in particular, are set out like the bits and pieces of a dream, a dream with a rational outline superimposed on top of it, but retaining an essential strangeness and perplexity. It proceeds—in Banville's phrase—'in a fog of ambiguity and dissimulation'. It continues the story of Freddie Montgomery of The Book of Evidence—Banville's ex-thief and murderer last met in Ghosts, and now appearing under a different name...
(The entire section is 761 words.)
SOURCE: "Irish Baroque," in New York Times Book Review, May 21, 1995, p. 15.
[In the following review, Gorra describes the mood of Banville's Athena and states that, "Plot counts for nothing here, or seems not to, and mood becomes all—a mood sustained by a prose of idiosyncratic and appalling charm."]
Murder as sex, sex as murder, murder instead of sex—why do so many recent Irish novels worry away at the relation between the big death and the little one? John Banville writes with his eyes on a European past, and not a narrowly national one; writes without the customary parade of politics and priests. But murder and sex, those he does share with his contemporaries, with writers like Bernard MacLaverty, Patrick McCabe and William Trevor. Mr. Banville's peculiar genius is to bleed this promising material dry, draining it of suspense; reading him, you never taste the stomach-turning urge to know what's going to happen that so flavors Mr. Trevor's recent novel, Felicia's Journey. Plot counts for nothing here, or seems not to, and mood becomes all—a mood sustained by a prose of idiosyncratic and appalling charm.
Athena concludes the trilogy Mr. Banville began with the jailhouse gibbering of his first-person narrator Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence. In that novel Freddie, overeducated, underachieving, the Irishman as Eurotrash, abandons his wife on...
(The entire section is 983 words.)
SOURCE: "Irish Eyes Unsmiling," in Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1995, p. 3.
[In the following review, Glover asserts that Banville's Athena has a much more conventional plot than his earlier novels.]
John Banville is an Irish author singularly unafraid of the stigma of hyperbole and baroque excess. His novels are littered with incestuous, decaying families, waifish women inviting the whip or the hammer, and drunken, ineffectual male orphans (real or figurative) who move through a fog of decadence, drift and dread worthy of the great Gothic masters.
Known best in America for his historical novels Kepler and Dr. Copernicus, Banville has lately been mining a vein of contemporary Irish grotesquerie centered on a serial character called Freddie Montgomery. In The Book of Evidence, Freddie, drinking too much and down on his luck, tried to steal a painting from a squire's country house and ended by murdering the maid with a hammer. In Ghosts, free after serving 10 years in prison (a life sentence in Ireland), Freddie turned up on a sparsely populated island where he had been hired as secretary to an aging professor whose specialty was a little known Parisian painter named Vaublin.
If there can be said to be a conventional plot in Ghosts, it turned on Freddie's abortive love affair with a young woman dropped ashore by a drunken ferryboat...
(The entire section is 999 words.)
SOURCE: "The Broken Lights of Irish Myth," in Irish Literary Supplement, Fall, 1995, p. 18.
[In the following review. Tracy praises Banville's adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's The Broken Jug as "funnier and grimmer" than the original.]
Der Zerbrochene Krug/The Broken Jug (1807), by Heinrich von Kleist, is a renowned classic of German drama, which means that, like Goethe's Faust or Schiller's Die Räuber, it is virtually unknown to the English-speaking playgoer. John Banville's lively adaptation employs a subtly colloquial verse line, and transfers the action from the Netherlands in 1700 to "Ballybog … in the West of Ireland, in August, 1846," making the play accessible at least to Irish playgoers.
As adapted by Banville and directed by Ben Barnes at the Peacock Theatre, The Broken Jug is in many respects a version of the German original. But Banville has also localized—Hibernicized—the play, making it at once funnier and grimmer. "If … all men had green glasses," Kleist once remarked, "they would have to conclude that the objects which they perceived through them were green." In a slightly different sense, Banville makes us see the play through green glasses, as an Irish tragicomedy mocking certain sacred cows—and bulls.
Kleist's plot is comic and reassuring. Judge Adam is a local magistrate, ignorant and corrupt. We...
(The entire section is 993 words.)
SOURCE: "An Elegy for the Lost World of Espionage," in New Statesman, Vol. 126, No. 4334, May 16, 1997, p. 46.
[In the following review, Emck lauds Banville's The Untouchable saying, "Banville's achievement is to show the tragic consequences of Maskell's detachment while making him an appealingly human, even noble, figure."]
Victor Maskell, anti-hero of John Banville's The Untouchable, is based on Anthony Blunt, the Fourth Man: he is curator of the Queen's art collection, a spy of culture and owner of a painting by Poussin. This portrait of Seneca's "fortitude and dignity" when forced to commit suicide for conspiracy is symbolic of Maskell's own fate. On the one hand, the painting suggests the traitor is a man of noble resolve. On the other, it suggests he is just an aesthete, a collector of objets d'art without a heart.
John Banville embellishes brilliantly on the facts of Blunt's life in this poignant meditation on loyalty, love and identity. Maskell is divided on every conceivable level. He is a closet homosexual as well as a married man; a communist but also an Irish Protestant and a personal friend of the Queen; but also a man with an emblematically seedy sex life. This, paradoxically, gives him a peculiar and moving capacity for the truth. Maskell's "all-corroding scepticism" burns away the debris of cliché.
At the same time Maskell is an...
(The entire section is 675 words.)
SOURCE: "The Double Life," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 9, May 29, 1997, pp. 17-8.
[In the following review, Bayley delineates the major theme of Banville's The Untouchable and observes that Banville's hooks provide "a joyful and durable source of aesthetic satisfaction."]
John Banville occupies a very definite and indeed almost unique place among contemporary novelists. He is not fashionable. Indeed he disregards fashion, even the extent to which most novelists, however independent in their natures and talents, keep an eye on what is "in" or "out," and are often insensibly influenced by this awareness. He shows no interest in discovering in his fiction who he "really is"; nor does he consciously explore the predicament of a class or a society. Social indignation, or powerful statements about the inner life, are not for him: nor is the fantasy projection of the self that goes with magic realism.
Instead he has thoroughly learned what Henry James called "the Lesson of Balzac." It was a lesson which James himself mastered, and used with the greatest skill. The novelist, like the scientist, picks his theme, and lets nothing about it be lost upon him. He explores it coolly but imaginatively, without recourse to plotting devices or adventitious effect. The subject may be the natural history of a murder, as in Banville's The Book of Evidence. It might be the...
(The entire section is 3779 words.)
SOURCE: "Gossip," in London Review of Books, Vol. 19, No. 11, June 5, 1997, p. 23.
[In the following review, Kermode discusses Banville's The Untouchable and asserts, "As to plot and scene and dialogue all is competent, even, at times, rich or funny. But again and again one feels that the writing is more assured when the story reaches a pause…."]
[Banville's Untouchable] ought to be a good novel, for it is by a good writer and deals intelligently with a bit of British history that continues to interest us. And it certainly gives pleasure; so it seems a shade ungrateful to be asking what's wrong with it. Is this all? Is this the best a lively imagination can make of the plight of the virtuous spy, whether wild or sober, dedicated or not, Blunt or Burgess?
There is nothing much here to conflict with the stereotypical idea of the Thirties, the afternoon men in their Soho clubs and hideouts, their lust for working-classboys, their not wonderfully well-informed Marxism, and their easy way of arranging matters to suit themselves, whether in the choice of wartime careers, say at Bletchley, or perhaps in some other establishment where scraps of secret could be salvaged to keep their Russian contacts happy.
As to plot and scene and dialogue all is competent, even, at times, rich or funny. But again and again one feels that the writing is more assured when the...
(The entire section is 1624 words.)
SOURCE: "The Fourth Man," in New York Times Book Review, June 8, 1997, p. 10.
[In the following review, McGrath lauds Banville's The Untouchable and concludes, "Contemporary fiction gets no better than this."]
A leitmotif in the recent fiction of John Banville has been the elusive and unstable nature of identity. It's apt, then, that in The Untouchable, his 11th novel, he should seize upon the historical figure of Anthony Blunt as his point of departure. Blunt, a homosexual esthete of the 1930's generation at Cambridge, was a distinguished English art historian, an expert on Poussin, curator of the Queen's art collection and director of the Courtauld Institute of Art. He was also a spy. Blunt worked for the Kremlin from the 1930's to the 1960's. In 1979, he was exposed in Parliament by Margaret Thatcher and publicly disgraced as the fourth of the "Cambridge spies" (the others, of course, being Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby). He died of a heart attack in 1983. Refracted through the novelist's imagination, Blunt becomes Victor Maskell, the untouchable of the book's title.
In his recent fiction, Mr. Banville has explored various themes suggested by the study of art: the relationship of painting to the real world, the process of restoration, the distinction between the fake and the authentic, the futility of representation, its compensatory pleasures and so on....
(The entire section is 1832 words.)
SOURCE: "Science, Art, and the Shipwreck of Knowledge: The Novels of John Banville," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 38, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 510-33.
[In the following essay, Jackson traces one of Banville's major themes: "the situation of living everyday life in the context of postmodern understandings of knowledge and truth."]
The novels of Irish writer John Banville make for uncommonly rich reading. His fictional fabrics are always finely textured, often movingly poetic, threading together various narrative styles and genres. Because he is a very literate writer (he is the literary editor of the Irish Times), his pages abound with allusions to other great literature. At times his writing is straightforwardly realistic, at times surreal, at all times extremely well crafted: repeated visits to his books only increase our awareness of the subtle and complex figures woven into the mesh of his stories. There are many interpretive considerations that could be (and no doubt will be) made of Banville's work. Here I will examine one of the major concerns in his last several novels: the situation of living everyday life in the context of postmodern understandings of knowledge and truth.
The term "postmodernism" can be defined in many ways. For my purposes here it has to do with certain ideas about knowledge, truth, and desire that have become common in the twentieth century in...
(The entire section is 9207 words.)
Black, Campbell. "To Act or Not." New Statesman 81, No. 2082 (12 February 1971): 217-18.
Compares Banville's Nightspawn to a nightmare.
Levin, Martin. A review of Birchwood, by John Banville. New York Times Book Review (17 June 1973): 28.
Asserts that in Birchwood Banville has employed "an unusual poetic style that makes his book fairly glow in the dark."
Prescott, Peter S. "Ultimate Designs." Newsweek CI, No. 18 (2 May 1983): 78.
Asserts that Banville's Kepler is more of a novel than a biography, although it is historically accurate.
Walters, Margaret. "Middle Distance Man." Observer Review (14 September 1986): 27.
Complains that in Mefisto Banville "seems to be working much too hard at his melodramas and mysteries."
(The entire section is 130 words.)