John Banville Banville, John - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Seamus Deane (essay date 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 commits technical narcissism over and over again, photographing every mutation of the self in the act of mutation, reproducing in words a wordless process, recording for ever a fugitive experience:

Only here, in these sinister pages, can time be vanquished. These little keys on which I dance transfix eternity with every tap.

The three books are all interlocked in their sets of characters and preoccupations. Each is an odyssey of a writer for whom the act of writing is itself the only Ithaca and the only Penelope his Muse or his memory. (The fact that Nightspawn and Birchwood are both told in the first person and in the past tense is a trite but important one. The pastness of that which is written about is the source of much of the writing's grief.) There is a good deal of Gothic glare, and glamour—exotic parties and exotic parts, revolutions, Greek and Irish, famine, circus, arcane relationships, codes, puns and riddles—but, basically, Mr. Banville writes about writing and the relation of the thing written to the thing written about. Like many modern novelists, he is a scholastic, one of the cymini sectores, splitting atom-sized distinctions. watching the flight and disappearance of neutron sensations in the quantum world of the self and yet always aware of the fact that the self and its sensations are always determined by the very act of watching. Consciousness is, for his heroes, a burden and it creates other burdens which are in direct proportion to its own mass. The plot of his fictions is Sisyphean, repetitive. Their structure, which in its inner parts is largely a matter of consequential images, is outwardly (and sometimes pretentiously), that of a myth.

It is difficult to describe Banville's stylism. Take for instance, the opening of Nightspawn (and admitting the heavy Dostoievskian overtones):

I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I think my life is diseased. Only a flood of spleen could cauterize my wounds.

Or, the opening of Birchwood:

I am, therefore I think. That seems inescapable. In this lawless house I spend the nights poring over my memories, fingering them, like an impotent casanova his old love letters, sniffing the dusty scent of violets.

Compare these openings with those of novels like Robbe-Grillet's Dans Le Labyrinthe or Michel Butor's La Modification:

Vous avez le pied gauche sur la rainure de cuivre, et de votre épaule droite vous essayez en vain de pousser un peu plus le panneau coulissant

The comparison (which can be extended far beyond these openings) is useful because its shows, I think, how aggressively solipsistic Banville is and also how incompletely so. For the 'vous' of Butor creates a wider chasm than the 'I' of Banville. Banville's gap is between himself and his reader; Butor's gap is between himself and what he has written. The 'vous' is an 'I' that has become, not self-reflexive and therefore the centre of its own panoramic world, but merely observed as something living in a world of silent objects. 'To restore silence is the role of objects' says Beckett's Molloy and the kinds of silence we meet with in Robbe-Grillet and Butor exemplifies this submission of the subjective self to the foreignness and inexhaustibility of the phenomenal world. One major form of the Romantic imagination has always believed in possessing the world entirely, consuming everything in the flames of self; another has always believed in itself as essentially foreign to all that the world contains, Banville begins by belonging to the first opinion and gradually seems to come towards the latter. In Long Lankin and Nightspawn even the oddity of the world is, we are persuaded, really a function of the perceiver's brilliant eccentricity. The observed world becomes (especially when written about, since writing is a form of re-observation) a dream locked in the mind of the observer. Or the dream perhaps constitutes a perception about the world which it exceeds the power of mere observation to command. Symbolism outmatches realism. But then, Mr. Banville will not allow us this either, because he creates and hunts for his own symbols and leaves the critic (or a chosen version of the critic anyway) without a job or at least without self-respect:

Sweaty pencils poised, panting hunters of the symbol?
There is wealth in store.

Given such warnings, who would dare pant, especially when the author does it so well himself? He wishes to be as much as possible his own critic, since criticism too is a satisfactory kind of authorship, being in effect a stance whereby one can watch oneself being someone other than oneself, even though that other is one's own creation. And by pretending to be a critic one can save oneself from the grosser defects of the symbolic method by committing them and then pointing them out. The varieties of narcissism are, as I have already mentioned, irresistible to Mr. Banville, but they can also be very usefully defensive too.

So, all this is very obviously a kind of fiction that is no longer either strange or new in itself. Anyone who has read John Fowles' The Magus would not find Nightspawn unique or incomprehensible; similarly, to have read Steppenwolf and/or Henry Green's Loving is to have been prepared for Birchwood. The Banville novels are clearly more Nabokovian than any of these others; Nabokov seems to be as much of a genre indeed as an influence for this author. Yet, although Mr. Banville's dependence on other writers might at times appear irritating or even parasitical, his work is not, nevertheless, mere pastiche. Its experimentalism is of a curious kind. If we except the nine short stories that make up Part I of Long Lankin, everything this author has written strikes me as being a prolegomena to a fiction, rather than a fiction itself. Even those nine stories lose some of their stability when seen in the retrospect of The Possessed, the novella which comprises Part II of that volume, and which in one sense completes them while it in another sense opens the way for the next book, Nightspawn. Mr. Banville is not really a writer of novels tout court. He is a writer working in a medium by testing its possibilities to the point of exhaustion. His fiction is dominated by his fascination with the nature of fiction. The impedimenta we meet with there from other writers, obtrusive as they sometimes are, is part of this fascination. We could put it more clearly perhaps by saying that Mr. Banville cannot write a novel until he sees what a novel is and that he cannot see what a novel is until he writes one. The preoccupation with the act of writing itself, both in its formal and in its philosophical aspects, is scarcely exaggerated, I believe, by this kind of statement. But there are, of course, other considerations which make this interest less professionally barren than I have so far given any ground to expect.

In this respect, the epigraph to The Possessed, (Part II of Long Lankin) is worth quoting; it is taken from Gide's L'Immoraliste:

Take me away from here and give me some reason for living. I have none left. I have freed myself. That may be. But what does it signify? This objectless liberty is a burden to me.

Mr. Banville often seems to conceive of the imagination as a faculty which allows the creation of such a complete and purposeless liberty. Against that kind of freedom, there is lodged the world of necessity, the world of time, in which man is constantly reminded of minor and major loss, nostalgia and death. One passage, from Birchwood, gives us the effect of the imagination operating on the world of fact:

Such scenes as this I see, or imagine I see, no difference, through a glass sharply. The light is lucid, steady and does not glance in spikes or stars from bright things, but shines in cool cubes, planes and violet lines and lines within planes, as light, trapped in polished crystal will...

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Derek Stanford (review date January 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Driver (review date 4 December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joe McMinn (essay date Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Erica Abeel (review date 15 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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James Sattler (review date May/June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brian McIlroy (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Shaun Whiteside (review date 16 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Valentine Cunningham (review date 22 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 7 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Banville with Katharine Weber (interview date 15 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Wendy Lesser (review date 28 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lawrence Norfolk (review date 12 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Philip MacCann (review date 17 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patricia Craig (review date 18 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Gorra (review date 21 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Douglas Glover (review date 9 July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Tracy (review date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Katy Emck (review date 16 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Bayley (review date 29 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Kermode (review date 5 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patrick McGrath (review date 8 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tony E. Jackson (essay date Fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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