John Banville World Literature Analysis - Essay

John Banville World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A master of intricacy, Banville is highly regarded for his experimental, precise—some would say detached—prose style that has been described by critics as beautiful, lyric, innovative, original, haunting, dazzling, acute, clear-running, and flawlessly flowing. He often presents a series of interwoven narratives, instead of the more traditional chronological linear form, to unravel an intricate plot line that invariably has an unpredictable ending; for this reason, Banville has been compared to such illustrious Irish authors as Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. His plot structures are evocative of complex paintings wherein one must look beyond the surface time and time again to decipher the meaning. Indeed, many of Banville’s characters are in some way connected with painting, a metaphor Banville uses as one of his numerous intertextual repetitions from novel to novel. For example, Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence becomes an art thief obsessed with a seventeenth century Dutch painting, Victor Maskell in The Untouchable is an art curator, and Morrow in Athena is an art historian, as is Max Morden in The Sea.

Banville, whose novels thematically deal with deep personal loss, destructive love, and the excruciating psychic pain that accompanies freedom, has been called a postmodern writer for his play on words, his chronologically inconsistent narration, and his unnerving blurring of the truth. He insists that his writings have a greater chance of being fully understood if they are treated as a form of metafiction in the style of Beckett, the existentialist Irish author who haunts Banville’s works. A master of irony, above all Banville is concerned with the relationship between fiction and reality. Although at times the reader can believe what Banville’s first-person narrators are telling them, they are later jerked back into the reality that they are reading a work of fiction, and that the narrator is not only unreliable but quite possibly mad, or at least in a state of deep denial.

Like Beckett, Banville remains fluid in his evocative descriptions of landscapes and flows throughout a variety of settings and historical times that initially seem to be unrelated. As in the work of Beckett, everything is unpredictable and often what is passed off as narrative truth is distorted, or indeed a lie. One of the author’s overarching concerns is the idea that despite readers’ belief that everything they read is indeed real, they simultaneously understand that fiction is also “a parcel of lies.” In this regard, readers learn quickly not to trust Banville because what he confides in his readers is not necessarily the truth, and the truth is something they may not learn until they turn the last page of the book.

Banville has often been compared to the novelist Vladimir Nabokov for his depiction of darkly introspective protagonists, similar to Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), who kidnaps his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter and inadvertently gets tangled up in a murder. Instead of being heroes, Banville’s protagonists tend to be dark, brooding antiheroes who almost invariably appreciate art. For instance, in The Book of Evidence, Freddie Montgomery is a failed scientist without a conscience who abandons his wife and child in Greece and murders a woman simply because she got in his way. Max Morden in The Sea, whose name is reminiscent of the word “mordant,” is caustic, conceited, and downright mean.

Banville’s works are dense in literary and philosophical allusions, with the author paying particular homage to Marcel Proust, Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevski, and the philosopher Immanuel Kant. For example, in The Book of Evidence, Freddie Montgomery catalogs the things that bother him about prison, in particular the smell and the food. In this, Banville hails the French writer and philosopher Proust, who wrote about the interplay of meditation on the relationship between memory and imagination in À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; (Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981). The restless wandering Freddie describes is evocative of Ulysses returning home to Ithaca, and, one removal from that allusion, Leopold Bloom’s wandering around Dublin in Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The murder scene and Freddie’s subsequent descent into madness are evocative of Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; (Crime and Punishment, 1886), in which Raskolnikov murders the old...

(The entire section is 1862 words.)