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."