In the 1970’s, John Banville (BAN-vihl) emerged as one of Ireland’s most important modern writers. Born in the town of Wexford in the southern part of Ireland, Banville was educated near his home, first at the Christian Brothers School and later at St. Peter’s College. He did not go on to attend a university. From 1966 to 1967, he lived in Greece. He later moved to Dublin, where in 1969 he married Janet Dunham. The following year, he began working as a copy editor for The Irish Press, a job he continued to hold even after his reputation as a writer was well established.
Banville’s first book, Long Lankin, was published that same year. A collection of short stories and a novella set in modern-day Dublin, the book offers an interwoven portrait of characters trapped in the confusion and bleakness of modern life. Casting a dark shadow over the stories is the English ballad that provides the book with its name; Long Lankin is a haunting tale of love and death that serves as the thematic basis for Banville’s characters and their lives. The book was greeted with praise from literary critics, who pointed to Banville’s fictional debut as a work of exceptional talent and promise.
Banville’s first novel appeared in 1971. Nightspawn draws on the author’s own sojourn in Greece for its setting and its depiction of the events leading up to that country’s 1967 military coup. Its central figure and narrator is Ben White, a character who figured prominently in the Long Lankin stories, making Nightspawn in some ways a sequel to Banville’s earlier work. Ostensibly a thriller, the book blends mythic images with historical events as it explores the functions and limitations of modern literature. The book drew a mixed critical reaction, receiving praise for the beauty of its language and criticism for its convoluted plotting.
In his second novel, Birchwood, Banville takes on the traditions of Irish literature with a modern slant. The work is set in a large country house peopled with eccentric, sharply drawn characters. Banville gives this setting a contemporary twist, as the book’s narrator chronicles his childhood in such a house and his subsequent experiences with a traveling circus, which he joins on his quest for his perhaps imaginary sister. An examination of truth and memory, the story is filled with strange happenings—a death by spontaneous combustion, a band of transvestite revolutionaries—all set against the backdrop of the great potato famine and related with what even Banville’s critics admitted was startling originality. The year of the book’s publication, Banville received both the Allied Irish Banks prize and the Arts Council of Ireland and Macaulay Fellowship.
In 1976, Banville wrote the first of three novels inspired by Arthur Koestler’s 1959 book The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, a study of several famous astronomers. Doctor Copernicus offers a vivid portrait of the chaotic late fifteenth-early sixteenth century world in which the great astronomer lived and worked, blending fiction and fact as it explores the relationship between the Polish scientist’s theories and the society which shaped him. Central to Banville’s novel are the ties he finds between science and art, with Copernicus’s theories helping him to express and define himself. The book received both the Irish-American Foundation Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Banville followed Doctor Copernicus five years later with Kepler , the second of the Koestler-inspired novels. Perhaps the most accessible of Banville’s novels, the book is nevertheless cleverly structured in accordance with its subject’s theories of planetary orbits. Banville posits a relationship between Kepler’s often unhappy and disjointed personal life and his passion for searching out order in the cosmos. Caught on the cusp between the medieval and modern worlds, Kepler is both superstitious and insightful (one of his tasks is to devise...
(The entire section is 1,299 words.)