An inversion of the world, phrase by phrase

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

ANTHOLOGY:In a new collection of John Banville’s work, it’s his writing about other writers that reveals the most

Possessed of a Past: A John Banville Reader, Edited by Raymond Bell, Picador 502pp, £14.99

John Banville’s first published piece of fiction – a short story called The Party, written when he was 17 and published four years later in a 1966 issue of the Kilkenny Magazine – depicts a young man going to a party despite his deep foreboding about the enterprise, his crippling self-consciousness about any form of social engagement. He gets ready too early and ends up pacing his one-room digs to kill time. He worries that the sole of one shoe will give way on the walk to Rathmines. He frets that in fact he has not been invited, that a cruel trick has been played on him, that no party is going on in this house at all.

Once inside, he blinks at the coloured light and grimaces at the couples kissing in a corner. Studying the unattractive girlfriend of a colleague, he contemplates the strangeness of life, with its countless transitory encounters. Sitting down, he narrowly escapes being hit by a door.

Hours pass. Still, he holds out; maybe, somehow, it will be a good night. “Something will surely happen. I kept saying that to myself, but it was only words, all the hope was gone.”

Nothing does happen, except that, in an echo of the Joyce story Banville must surely have read as a beginning writer, his partygoer stands next to a girl on the sill of a bay window and stares out at the Dublin night. He feels melancholic, adrift, a deep cynicism fixing its lens on to his perspective on the world; he is, in other words, the classic Banville protagonist as a young man, and it is fascinating to make his acquaintance in Raymond Bell’s new selection of the author’s prose, essays and playscripts.

Juvenilia should not be judged alongside mature work, so even the summary above risks crossing a critical line, but, for what it’s worth, Banville’s precise, introspective “firstling” – a term he coined himself in a 1994 essay on his first novel, 1971’s Nightspawn – is a nose ahead of most; indeed, a nose ahead of most secondlings and thirdlings. The editor does well to include it, and the same can be said of the other previously unpublished pieces in this volume, among them two recent works for radio about the scientists who were some of Banville’s earliest subjects (Copernicus, Kepler and Newton) and a clutch of facsimile pages from the notebook for The Infinities (2009, with the pages themselves dating from 2006). The latter afford a close look not only at the sabre-tipped calligraphy in which Banville lays down his words but also at the highly evolved code by which he composes, folding revised and alternative phrasings into lines apparently even as they emerge.

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).

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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