An inversion of the world, phrase by phrase

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

And, of course, sex: a child watching as “a woman’s pale hands clutched and loosed in languorous spasm a pale white arse bare below a hiked-up shirttail” (Birchwood); a boy remembering how he and his lover “took off our clothes in the fish-coloured marine light, and she clambered all over me, lithe and quick as a minnow, nosing into cracks and crevices as if in search of some elusive tidbit” (Shroud, 2002); “My hands still tingled from a certain cool roughness along her flanks” (Ancient Light, 2012).

An aloof chorus

Each novel excerpt is a display cabinet of such glinting moments, and the excerpts do offer a sense of the many voices Banville has created, and of the hardnesses and strangenesses that link those voices.

Together they comprise an aloof chorus, interested above all in their own dubious wisdoms. But, as excerpts, they occupy an awkward interstitial space; Banville’s novels are such self-contained universes that it seems counterproductive to slice out individual dimensions, and nor do they offer, as the editor’s preface promises they might, “the satisfactions of a short story, without being one”. The short story and the novel are altogether different forms, a difference presumably taken quite seriously by Banville, given that there has been no follow-up collection to Long Lankin.

The value of the excerpts in this context is in the light they cast on the other writings, on the reviews, the memoir, the imaginings for radio and for theatre – and in the light that is refracted their way in return. Bell has chosen well, and gathered assiduously; whether readers are discovering Banville through these pages, or delving still deeper into his world, they will find themselves, like his most recent protagonist, transfixed at some point by what reveals itself to be a kind of camera obscura, inverting the world, transforming it, in a manner that is baffling and unnerving and consoling all at once.

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