Half a century of John Banville’s universes
Writers and critics assess the leading author for the Brazilian Journal for Irish Studies
John Banville: his writing has “a twentieth-century rage and a nineteenth-century decorum”, says Colum McCann. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
ABEI, the Brazilian Journal for Irish Studies, is one of the many manifestations of the vibrant activity in Irish Studies in that vast country. Since the WB Yeats Chair was inaugurated at the University of São Paulo in 2009, Irish studies received a big boost.
2020 was again a special year: half a century of John Banville’s universes – time to dedicate a special issue to this leading author. As Banville is a writer’s writer, and as Irish Studies is unique in its co-operation between the creative and the critical community, the editors decided to have three sections in the issue: not just the usual scholarly contributions and a spotlight on a South-American artist/author, but we also invited Irish authors’ comments on Banville’s work. We got responses from poets, fiction writers, playwrights and filmmakers, English and Irish speakers, from (Northern) Ireland and from the American diaspora, North and South.
Colum McCann sets the tone when he notices “a twentieth-century rage and a nineteenth-century decorum” in the “great psychological power” of Banville’s writing, which focuses on “that Faulknerian notion of the human heart in conflict with itself”. Alan Gilsenan, who based many of his films on literature, observes that “there is something haunted about the writing of Banville”. And because he thought The Book of Evidence full of “dramatic potential”, representing “our worst side, our own dark possibilities” he adapted it for stage and screen.
Author and lawyer John O’Donnell is interested in the same novel because “such stories reveal to us something inside ourselves we are afraid of”. To him Banville’s writing is more “a whydunnit rather than a whodunit”. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin loves Banville-Black’s crime novels because they do not gradually reveal, only “enhance the sense of how little we can know of our own life and character”; “opacity is a real condition”.
Rosemary Jenkinson focuses on the “arcane, gothic sensibility” she sees in Banville’s and Paul Auster’s work: “the disconnection from society, the narrator as spy and actor, the precariousness of language, human instinct for survival, the bending of time and space, reality in fiction”. Neil Hegarty too notices how people “sense their way” in all the unsaid which forms “the rejection and the attraction that charge an existence”.
Because of the multifarious stumblings and blunderings, the many chromatic tones in emotionality, Banvillean characters use “more a form of evasion rather than of communication”, Juan José Delaney observes. Though born and bred in Argentina, this Irishman abroad feels close to Banville, noticing how “We write in English in a unique way”; “although the Irish lost their original language, there is a kind of deep grammar in their brains”.
Patrick Holloway, an Irish writer and scholar living in Brazil, agrees: like Beckett, he only “saw” himself when approaching himself from another language (ie Portuguese). Teaching the first PhD in creative writing in English, he tells the Brazilian students there is no end to the benefits of learning foreign languages.
For Ní Chuilleanáin Banville’s universes are not a matter of just two languages: his characters are surrounded “with a cloud of language”, so that “people are indistinctly seen”. To Billy O’Callaghan this language treatment is like a massage to the senses. Feeling “under-read” as a teenager he could “bask” in Banville’s style and admire his “tremendous sleight of hand” while listening to the “rare symphonic quality”, a “deep and careful attention to some internal tuning fork”. Jenkinson too uses the image of the “prestidigitator”, an art in which Banville outdoes Auster, “conjuring interlocking scarves of soaring similes from his top hat”. Yet contrary to the “sorcery” O’Callaghan relishes, others like O’Donnell feel that Banville’s “arcane words”, with an explicit reference to the dictionary, constantly rupture the fourth wall; and while Jenkinson admits that the master’s prose “can’t be decried as purple prose”, she deems it “violently violet”. Holloway uses more solemn imagery, when mentioning Yeats, Patrick McCabe and Banville as his great examples, he feels: “They stand behind us like Easter Island Statues”.
Be that as it may, writers like Jessica Traynor finds the “safety net of fiction” important in “our processing the risks that surround us”. Yet this comes at a cost. “Banville’s mastery of the English sentence is both an act of repair and a language of progress”, says Ní Churreáin, quoting the author’s “The sentence is what make us human”.
Yet other contributors quote Banville’s turning up the other side of the coin the writer’s “essential cruelty”: “we are cannibals. We’d always sell our children for a phrase. We are ruthless”. When Ní Churreáin discusses A Dublin Memoir: An Ode To The Act of Dreaming she observes how Banville, as “an adoptee of Dublin”, beautifully interweaves his past with his present, but “there is always a dream-cost: poverty, violence and addiction seem under-explored”.
Banville definitely focuses more on the unknown parts of the psyche than on social realities, yet as McCann remarks, his prose is “properly concerned with … the music of what happens”. And this also offers fun, as in the scene where Hegarty thinks of reading Banville while watching children at play in a rich autumnal landscape, “filling their small fists with golden leaves”, and “throwing the leaves into the air, to fall where they would”.
In the section Critical Dialogues, experienced scholars and early researchers discuss Banville’s recurrent themes, such as the idea of the self, doubleness, the use of language and different temporalities. Adel Cheong addresses a withdrawal to the past in Eclipse and The Sea compared to McCormack’s Solar Bones. Infinities is examined by Cody Jarman, raising issues of identity, form and content, while Hedwig Schwall analyses the protagonists’ relations through Lacanian theory to see how the affects of the unconscious “infuse the identity formations with new energy”.
Another perspective of approaching the same novel is through Einstein’s and Bergson’s theory of time by Nicholas Taylor-Collins. Mrs Osmond is examined as a postmodern pastiche by Aurora Piñeiro while Catherine Toal observes a “misanthropy of form”. Kersti Tarien Powell’s interest is in the analysis of Banville’s manuscripts of Mefisto and Hedda Friberg-Harnesk compares Banville’s explorations in Love in the Wars with Baudrillard’s “envisioned universe”.
Joakim Wrethed looks at Banville’s long career “as a hermeneutic process of eternal recurrence of tropes in the form of a spiral as it is a constant journey of surpassing, of becoming, in an ethic and aesthetic dimension.”
To complete the imaginary travel through Banville’s universes, Neil Murphy refers to Ghosts as the author’s “most radically inventive novel, replete as it is with multi-layered ontological levels”, in “communion with other artistic forms – music, paintings, statues, as well as a narrative saturation with other literary antecedents that exceeds anything found elsewhere in his work”.
Thus, Banville’s concern with the use of language, literary and mythical sources, painting and other arts, has its counterpart in Voices from South America. Taken to an extreme utopian attempt to create a Latin American brotherhood, the Argentine avant-garde linguist and painter Xul Solar (1887-1963) invented a neo-creole language, a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. Jorge Luis Borges, his main interlocutor, wrote several lectures on the painter whose effort was to represent through his brushstrokes esoteric concepts of Kabbalah, the invention of a duodecimal system and the impulse to permanent change looking for perfection.
ABEI Journal ends with a review by David Clark of The Secret Guests; Adel Cheong’s critique of Neil Murphy’s John Banville; and Mehdi Ghassemi’s of Hedda Friberg-Harnesk’s Reading John Banville Through Jean Baudrillard .
Word Upon World: Half a Century of John Banville’s Universes was guest edited by Laura PZ Izarra, Hedwig Schwall and Nicholas Taylor-Collins