An inversion of the world, phrase by phrase
The anthology is made up for the most part of extracts from Banville’s 15 novels to date, from Nightspawn (1971) through to his most recent, Ancient Light (2012). These are collected in a section titled “Revelations”. (The titles, like Bell’s preface and notes, are on the grandiloquent side, but then this seems little harm in a Banville anthology, and I mean that as a compliment.) Early fictions, meanwhile, including The Party and an extract from Banville’s first book, the short-story collection Long Lankin (1970), are “Firstlings”. “Playing Parts” presents plays, including the Celan-meets-Heidegger thought experiment Conversation in the Mountains (2006); “A Blest World” presents essays, lectures and reviews. “Fidgets of Remembrance” comprises two fragments of memoir, one relating to Rosslare and one to Prague. Lastly, the manuscript pages are “Banville’s Begettings”.
Banville’s “evil twin”, as he has referred to his crime-writing pseudonym, Benjamin Black, is nowhere to be seen.
Essays and reviews
Possessed of a Past defines itself as A John Banville Reader, suggesting the existence of an academic discipline called Banville studies, with this 500-page volume perched atop the freshman reading list, but the book is presumably aimed at two groups: those curious about Banville and keen to get a first sense of his work, and those already familiar with some of his oeuvre but curious to trace the themes and resonances that Bell, with his selections and his framings of those selections, has set out for perusal. And although three essays on Banville’s own process are very interesting, it is his writing on other writers that provides the true key to the driving philosophies, his ruling moods, at work in his own fiction and drama. His essays and reviews make clear what it is that he heeds and what he seeks. We see, from essays on Joyce and Beckett, Celan and Joyce, what matters to Banville as a writer. His essay on Beckett (Beckett’s Last Words), for example, is a marvellous engagement with that author’s late prose, driven by a clear love for the work without ever slipping from its own high stylistic standards; coolly objective yet noticeably warm; steeped in biographical detail yet true to the text as text, to its language, to its form.
That it is more difficult to work up enthusiasm for the novel excerpts in Bell’s reader is no real reflection on the prose itself. The prose is rich, wry, headily allusive, and an intense authority of voice is in evidence from the early novels on. “The cluster of bruised flowers came slowly asunder” (Birchwood, 1973); “The past was gathering ever more thickly around me, I waded through it numbly like a greased swimmer, waiting to feel the chill and the treacherous undertow” (Ghosts, 1993); “Spring winds flow through the streets like weightless water” (The Infinities, 2009): these snatches of his fiction reveal a writer who sits down to language every morning and knows full well what to do with it. There is grim bluntness, too: “I thought: I am not human” (The Book of Evidence, 1989); “He had the look of a man who knew something damaging about everyone in the room” (The Untouchable, 1997); “Tell me this world is not the strangest place, stranger even than what the gods would have invented, did they exist” (Shroud, 2002).