In an interview with Charlie Rose, John Banville, the Irish novelist, revealed that the greatest influence on his writing was the nineteenth-century novelist, Henry James. It’s not a surprise then that Banville’s latest novel assumes the character of Isabel Archer – the heroine of James’ The Portrait of a Lady – and provides answers for those who were frustrated with the book’s ending ambiguity.
Banville begins Mrs. Osmond on the train after the events that end James’ book. But if readers are concerned that they won’t be able to read Mrs.Osmond without having first read James, in the first few chapters, through careful dialogue, Isabel Archer explains to friends she has gone to see what has happened in London, thus bringing them to a point where they can read the book without knowing the backstory. Readers shouldn’t be surprised if Banville’s evocation of Isabel doesn’t immediately make them want to read James to spend more time with the remarkable character. His affection for his character is obvious, and it makes for lovely reading.
Mrs. Osmond presents a certain change for Banville. In a number of his previous books, he has assumed the voices of male characters who are reflecting back on lives in which their actions have had deleterious effects on others. Banville is fascinated with the ways in which human beings attempt to justify the actions of their younger selves, work that seems even more timely given the spate of “apologies” in the news from people who have been confronted with how their harassment has affected young lives.
Reading The Book of Evidence brought to mind a book by Russell Banks – Relation of my Imprisonment – in which Banks assumed the voice of a seventeenth-century Puritan divine who had been imprisoned for his religious views. Banville’s protagonist, Freddie Montgomery, is far from being divine, but as the story reveals how he ended up in prison (accused of murder), readers may be struck by how calm and assured Montgomery is that he has done the right thing. Montgomery is a character who has played his life close to the line of criminality while presenting himself as an urbane and witty observer of life. A man who appears all too conscious of others’ foibles, the narrative he tells that lead up to the fateful day he encountered the woman he bludgeoned will leave readers wondering how Montgomery can appear so sanguine.
But in Banville’s skilled hands, we learn about Montgomery not in the things he tells us, but rather in the ways he reveals his reaction to the quotidian aspects of life. In one memorable scene, he awakes “with a shriek fading in my ears,” only to be greeted by a “darkness [that] drummed,” and his amazement at “the blue innocence of sea and sky.” It may remind readers of how Camus conveyed Meursault’s character by his evocation of the Algerian streets in which Meursault moved.
The Infinities is perhaps Banville’s most mischievous book. While the book is an account of the activities of the family of Adam Godley—who lays dying—the narrators for much of the book, and who interrupt the other characters’ stories at will, are the Greek pantheon of gods. Hermes acts as the main narrator, and he goes back and forth between telling readers of the activities of Zeus, who stalks the women of the house, and the dying Adam.
And while Hermes goes to great pains to explain the actions of both humans and gods, he does it with a certain degree of resentment, and provides Banville with a literary tool in which he may assume the voice of a god without implying a writer’s godlike ego. As Hermes explains, he speaks in the language of humankind, because if he were to speak as a god, we would not be able to understand him. He even goes so far as to reject the names that humans have given to the inhabitants of Olympus. “We address each other, as it were, only as air, as light, as something like the quality of that deep, transparent blue you see when you peer into the highest vault of the empyrean.” And, just as the reader contemplates what true divinity must be like, Hermes mocks the reader—mudmen—with his ability to do things we cannot even dream of doing.
Like the Greeks, Banville gives to his gods the role of mischief-makers, creating mayhem for humans who are trying to figure out how to go forward. The result is a book that contains much to laugh at, even as Banville writes of the pain of mortal life.
Athena operates on a number of levels. It tells the story of Morrow, an art historian, who is an expert on Flemish art. Interspersed in the chapters are critiques that he has penned about various paintings he has been asked to evaluate. But as Morrow’s love affair with the mysterious “A.” develops, those critiques become less objective as Morrow uses them to express his emotions about his own life. Banville offers a cheeky critique of criticism in general, forcing readers to ask how much of criticism is dictated by the personal prejudices of critics.
Readers who have previously read The Book of Evidence will also notice that the man who calls himself “Morrow” bears a resemblance to Freddie Montgomery. One of the ways that Banville plays with his readers is to continue the stories of previous characters even while not necessarily disclosing that he has written a sequel. And “sequel” is itself the wrong word—it’s as if Banville takes characters with whom he is not quite finished and explores some other aspect of their lives that illuminate shadows he left dark in previous work.
Athena is a heady, destructive romance, in which boundaries will be violated and morals will be forsaken in the pursuit of convulsive love. And as the story of A. continues, the role that muses play in the creation of art is complicated by Banville’s exploration of what is and isn’t a part of the artist’s imagination.
As any reader of John LeCarre or other British spy fiction is aware, Great Britain’s intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, were compromised and embarrassed in the 1960s when it was revealed that a number of their operatives—all Cambridge-educated in the 1930s—had been moles for the Soviets.
In The Untouchable, Banville places himself inside the head of Victor Maskell, whose role as a Soviet mole has recently come to light. Watching Maskell twist and turn in his attempts to explain himself in his journal, which he has agreed to give to a potential biographer, is to gain an understanding of how a man could love his country while being angry enough to try to destroy it. And, as his story progresses, it becomes apparent that Maskell is a man of many identities, some of which he doesn’t seem certain of, as he paints pictures of past times at English manor houses where his insecurities about his Irish commoner beginnings constantly force him onto a back foot. Maskell will infuriate readers, even as they struggle to understand why he betrayed his country.
What becomes obvious is that Maskell is a romantic who fancies himself as an ice-cold operative. As Nick, one of Markell’s compatriots tells him, “You think you care only for the cause while really the cause is only something to lose yourselves in, a way to cancel the ego. It’s half religion and half Romanticism. Marx is your St. Paul, and your Rousseau.” Whether Maskell eventually learns to operate having incorporated the writings of Machiavelli’s The Prince—and whether he recognizes that impulse in himself—becomes the crux of the biscuit.