The global reach of John Banville’s imagination
Although regarded as a quintessentially European writer, his imagination has occasionally crossed the Atlantic. Exile of one kind or another is a favoured theme
French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thébault (left) toasts John Banville after he was named as a Knight in the Ordre des Arts et Lettres at a reception in the French embassy in Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Ancient Light (2012) might appear on first glance to be one of the more untypical John Banville novels. For a writer frequently categorised as a European postmodernist, here is a story that instead keeps firmly to the well-established realism of much recent Irish writing: a retrospective exploration of a young boy’s sexual awakening in the drab, provincial, repressed Catholic Ireland of the 1950s. The mid-twentieth-century Wexford of the novel echoes Banville’s own youthful memory of the town, which he has described as “an unremarkable place, in an unremarkable, mean-spirited time” in a society that was “monolithic, impregnable, eternal”.
Yet there is a more global dimension to Ancient Light. The novel’s narrator, Alexander Cleave, is a small-town boy turned international film actor; as his story unfolds the geographical co-ordinates of the novel expand, taking in London, Italy and America. For Cleave, now a late middle-aged citizen of the world, Wexford is an imaginary home, a formative space of desire and longing existent only in defective memory, illumined only by wonder at its near-permanent fading.
Cleave’s is not dissimilar to Banville’s own artistic journey. In a sense, both are cultural and intellectual migrants who managed to escape Ireland for richer opportunities the outside world might offer. And although Banville continues to live in Ireland, it was initially towards Europe that the young writer looked to broaden his aesthetic horizons.
Greek mythology has been a constant presence in his writing, but Greece itself is the first overseas location in Banville’s writing. The short story Island from Long Lankin (1970) is set on the island of Delos, while the action of his first published novel, the highly innovative Nightspawn (1971), takes places in Greece against the backdrop of the military coup in 1967.
European locations would dominate Banville’s writing until the early 1980s. In the years following Nightspawn, Banville wrote two novels, Doctor Copernicus (1976) and Kepler (1981), exploring the lives of those eponymous scientists who were born in what are now modern-day Poland and Germany respectively. It was not simply, or even, a matter of Banville deciding to write historical novels (which they are not). Nightspawn and the science novels, with their “high, cold heroes”, enabled him to not only circumvent writing about Ireland in the 1970s, but also to avoid the generic conventions of twentieth-century Irish literature in favour of more innovative forms of writing found within the broader aesthetic traditions of European modernism and postmodernism.
Banville’s most influential Irish precursor, Samuel Beckett, found the cultural climate in Ireland inhospitable to the avant-garde. For Banville, designations such as “Irish writing” and “national literature” were incompatible with literary experimentation. However, unlike Beckett, who left Ireland and settled in France, Banville’s “exile” was achieved primarily through the intellect. Both writers share a refusal to be defined by place, so that all specific locations are secondary to the life of the mind, and are most frequently warped by the imagination out of recognition.
Early Banville works set outside Ireland such as Nightspawn, Doctor Copernicus, Kepler and Shroud are primarily explorations of language, truth, existence, authenticity and art that draw on aesthetic and philosophical traditions traditionally external to Irish culture. Even when his work is set in Ireland, Banville leads us towards the European intellectual space, whether that is via classical mythology, Dutch art or continental philosophy. While we may be superficially reading a Big House novel such as Birchwood (1973), we are really engaging a discourse on human subjectivity that originates in the philosophical traditions of France and Germany.
Of these two countries, Germany has a stronger presence in his work. The radio play, for instance, Conversation in the Mountains (2008), set in the Black Forest, is an imagining of the mystery-shrouded 1967 meeting between the Jewish poet Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger, the philosopher and member of the Nazi party.
Then there is a novel such as Mefisto (1986). Ostensibly set in Wexford and Dublin, it is in many other respects a German novel; the plot is modelled on the Faust legend, the story filled with Germanic characters, while Nietzsche provides the novel’s philosophical underpinning.
For Banville, the specificity of place is a slippery concept continually at the mercy of the imagination: Prague Pictures (2003), a beautiful paean to that Czech city loosely disguised as a travelogue, aims not to offer a single impression because “there as many Pragues as there are eyes to look at it”. In fact, there are more versions of the city than Banville can muster: there is an “infinity of Pragues”.
Although Banville is regarded as a quintessentially European writer, his imagination has occasionally crossed the Atlantic. It was in Iowa that Banville partly wrote the splendid novella The Newton Letter (1982), which is narrated by an historian temporarily working somewhere in Scandinavia. The Booker Prize nominated The Book of Evidence (1989) is partly set in California, where the protagonist Freddie Montgomery has once held a university post as a science lecturer. New York provides the partial setting for Shroud (2002), a philosophically complex novel based on the controversial Belgian academic Paul de Man.
While these books are, in a loose sense, transatlantic novels, they also might be classified as world novels that traverse the European and American historical and geographical space. The Book of Evidence is also partly set on an island of the Mediterranean Sea, while the coast of Italy features significantly in the novels interlinked by the tragic character of Cass Cleave, Alexander’s daughter: the melancholy Eclipse (2000), Shroud and Ancient Light. These three latter novels, encompassing Ireland, Italy, Belgium and America, illustrate the global reach of Banville’s imagination.
The worldliness of Banville’s writing ironically emphasises individual homelessness, and exile of one kind or another – existential, intellectual, national – is one of his favoured themes. There is probably no more recognisable diasporic character in Irish culture than the lonely and isolated Irishman in London, such as Alexander Cleave, or the Wildean, homosexual Victor Maskell in the wartime spy thriller The Untouchable (1997). Maskell, partly based on Louis MacNeice, is one of Banville’s most brilliantly drawn Irish exiles living amidst the elite of London society: Protestant Northern Irish with ancestral Catholic blood, he is a truly culturally homeless Irishman, classically occupying the space of being neither Irish in Ireland nor British in Britain.
And it is not only the Irish who are exiled: we find in Banville’s “Irish” novels mis-fitting and otherworldly Americans, British, Dutch and Germans. Although the true location of all Banville’s work is the Republic of Ideas, his writing, because it searches unremittingly beyond Ireland, has much to say about how Irish writers have engaged with the world, stretches the geographical boundaries of the Irish literary tradition, and continues to redefine the limits of what we think of as Irish writing.
Eoghan Smith is the author of John Banville: Art and Authenticity. He lectures in modern Irish writing at Carlow College