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Entries in Banville (6)

Friday
Nov112016

The Untouchable

I wanted to tell her about the blade of sunlight cleaving the velvet shadows of the public urinal that post-war spring afternoon in Regensburg, of the incongruous gaiety of the rain shower that fell the day of my father's funeral, of that last night with Boy when I saw the red ship under Blackfriars Bridge and conceived of the tragic significance of my life; in other words, the real things; the true things.

Why do so many betray all that they love?  An expert or three will aver that these traitors are ashamed of what they love, ashamed either of humble roots or past generations, or simply and unavoidably attracted to the garish limelight (which soon will resemble the pale moonlight, but anyway). There are other reasons, of course, reasons that involve one's own identity, so quietly and carefully folded up in a hidden suitcase, a suitcase that one cannot help but look at every time one enters the room. A suitcase one begins to imagine, as one begins to imagine entering the room and finding it again and again to make sure it's still there intact, undiscovered, sealed from oxygen and mankind. It is then, we may suppose, that the dreams commence. The nightmares or day-mares about walking in one dire day and not finding a suitcase anywhere. Because the suitcase was never there; nothing was ever hidden; and one's past comes crashing into one's present like two mirrored doors in close collision. A summary of the life and fate of the narrator of this novel. 

That our man is called Victor Maskell should not influence our impression: he has lost and will continue to lose, and the masks he has chosen are facsimiles of his own countenance. As we begin our tale, Maskell has been outed as having been far less patriotic than he might have seemed in the preceding decades establishing himself as one of Britain's finest Baroque experts, in particular of this painter of genius. Now at the threshold of his eighth decade on an ungrateful earth, he has become a widower, a lover of his "own kind," and an occasional parent, his son loathing him for what he was, his daughter pitying him for what he wasn't. He has long pondered the nature of his quandary:

In the spy's world, as in dreams, the terrain is always uncertain. You put your foot on what looks like solid ground and it gives way under you and you go into a kind of free fall, turning slowly tail up and clutching on to things that are themselves falling. This instability, this myriadness that the world takes on, is both the attraction and the terror of being a spy. Attraction, because in the midst of such uncertainty you are never required to be yourself; whatever you do, there is another, alternative you standing invisibly to one side, observing, evaluating, remembering. This is the secret power of the spy, different from the power that orders armies into battle; it is purely personal; it is the power to be and not to be, to detach oneself from oneself, to be oneself and at the same time another. The trouble is, if I were always two versions of myself, so all others must be similarly twinned with themselves in this awful, slippery way.

And where did Maskell split his being, dividing the poor son of an Irish preacher from the soon-to-be Soviet informer ("the fact is, I was both a Marxist and a Royalist")? Cambridge University of the 1920s and 1930s, a hotbed of radical thought and, on occasion, even radical action. The Great War has led to a peace once unimaginable, and the fervent idealism that courses through the veins of able-bodied intellectuals when serenity and prosperity have been secured has now embraced a new approach to humanity: a destruction of greed. The atmosphere in those years, says Maskell, "had something thrillingly suppressed in it, as if at any moment the most amazing events might suddenly begin to happen." And what events might he mean? Oh, the downfall of capitalism, the founding of a worker-based government which would control the means of production – and I believe we don't need to go on. Himself a distant relative of the queen, Maskell was not alone in his endeavors: there is Boy, who splits his day evenly between cottaging and stealing state secrets; Nick, a rich, ambitious, and rather sleek operator, whose sister Maskell would eventually marry, even if it is her brother he more greatly desired; and Leo Rothenstein, who buys Maskell his first Poussin, although maybe not for the reasons supplied at the time of purchase. There were others, of course; but their roles were mostly as supporting actors, which is another way of saying they were granted brief spurts of magniloquence then killed for the cause. One exception to this rule is the man known as Querell.  

Querell is a spy alright, but unlike his confederates he is also a writer of a series of potboilers ("He was genuinely curious about people  the sure mark of the second-rate novelist"). Maskell wonders and wonders some more about Querell, who does not seem to eat or sleep or do anything except lurk, smoking "the same, everlasting cigarette, for I never seemed able to catch him in the act of lighting up." A rather revolting scene early on in the novel, coupled with his professed Catholic faith, make Querell an even more unlikely human being and a much more likely Frankenstein's monster. So when someone informs Maskell, that "that Querell now, he has the measure of us all," our art historian begins to reconsider the popular novelist:    

Querell would come round, tall, thin, sardonic, standing with his back against the wall and smoking a cigarette, somehow crooked, like the villain in a cautionary tale, one eyebrow arched and the corners of his mouth turned down, and a hand in the pocket of his tightly buttoned jacket that I always thought could be holding a gun .... You would glance at the spot where he had been standing and find him gone, and seem to see a shadowy after-image of him, like the paler shadow left on a wall when a picture is removed.

If Querell is meant to represent, as some have surmised, this writer, then this is cruelty indeed. And it should not detract from our enjoyment of The Untouchable that Victor Maskell is modeled, hewn, and traced on this infamous figure (with the name a punning reference to this scholar), nor that many other characters, most notably Boy, have historical archetypes. Blunt was a spy, an art historian, a Communist, and a homosexual, basically in that order, and the proud Briton will always shudder at the mention of his name. Maskell knows very little about the cause he supposedly serves, probably because, for a spy, he is a very poor judge of man. An orphaned chapter segment prattles on about this anarchist, the idol of many a collegiate ignoramus, a quickly-abandoned tactic which, while oddly out of line with the narrative, spares us the stale biscuit aphorisms of the hidebound comrade. The passage is fake just like Marxism is fake, the lazy imposition of an artificial understanding on a world far more natural and complicated than even the most perspicacious Marxist could ever suspect. The only thing we are convinced of is Victor Maskell's utter selfishness, which he admits, his flimsy homosexuality (which, for most of the novel, he experiences vicariously through Boy), his family feelings (which he barely senses), and that the only thing he truly seeks is to imbue his life with some profundity, to be as memorable as the Poussin masterpieces he knows he can merely admire but never replicate.  

As in all of Banville, passages of extreme beauty grace page after page ("The Daimler .... vast, sleek, and intent, like a wild beast that had blundered into captivity and could only be let out, coughing and growling, on occasions of rare significance"; "We sat opposite each other ... in a polite, unexpectedly easy, almost companionable silence, like two voyagers sharing a cocktail before joining the captain's table, knowing we had a whole ocean of time before us in which to get acquainted"; "You will find my people at the top, or if not at the top, then determinedly scaling the rigging, with cutlasses in their teeth"), but to his credit Maskell does not drift into unabashed sentimentality, even when he fully succumbs to his genetic programming. And who is the female interlocutor in the quote beginning this review? One Serena Vandeleur (whose name recalls characters in both this novel and this one), in principle a young journalist yearning for a breakthrough as the biographer of an outcast, although Maskell has his suspicions about her true agenda. As, it should be said, he comes to have about everyone's agenda; such are the wages of duplicity. Perhaps he could just take a group photograph of his backstabbing brethren for his biography and title it The Shepherds of Arkady.

Saturday
Apr182015

Shroud 

He is called by many names, and no one can say which was rightfully and originally his; many authorities maintain his name was first of all a sobriquet. He is without doubt of divine essence, if not, indeed, Mercury himself, god of twilight and the wind, the patron of thieves and panders. He is Proteus, too, now delicate, now offensive, comic or melancholic, sometimes lashed into a frenzy of madness. He is the creator of a new form of poetry, accented by gestures, punctuated by somersaults, enriched with philosophic reflections and incongruous noises. He is the first poet of acrobatics and unseemly sounds. His black half-mask completes the impression of something savage and fiendish, suggesting a cat, a satyr, an executioner.

Our beliefs assume curious shapes as dusk descends; what we have loved becomes either more enchanting or more alien; what we have feared glows with illuminant strength; and what we have known sinks into a morass of ruinous doubt. It is not our faith weakening as the light, but our gradual glimpse of the obverse of that old coin we had been carrying so confidently in our pockets. And even if the two-headed coin of conjurors and charlatans, one face will necessarily be darker, the duplicate or understudy. A small hint at the structure of this novel.

Our novel is cloven into three, perhaps because only three characters have any bearing on its outcome. The first and most rotund is a tall, lecherous, one-eyed beast of an academic with the unripe name of Axel Vander. The name, as any speaker of Dutch will tell you, seems to indicate a nobiliary particle with a syncopation of its final and most important component – a fact that Vander duly notes, then, like most everything else, brushes to the side to deal with more pressing problems. The most pressing at hand may come in the form of Catherine Cleave, dite Cass, our second character, apparently Irish, and as young, feminine, and thin as the aging Vander is bulgingly male. She enters our landscape as the novel opens in his own thoughts; she has discovered his secrets and intends, like any unsteady extortionist, to meet her victim in person. He travels, sweating, cursing, knocking a bad leg to the metronome of his cane, to Italy from California, land of the gold rush, of lawlessness and, towards the end of the twentieth century – a century that he knows almost in its entirety – a cultural vacuum where a learned man can hide in peace. More specifically, he will meander to Turin, where he initially plans, like any practiced murderer, to cast Cass Cleave from this famous tower and be done with her.

What our plot entails cannot and should not be elaborated upon in these pages; the pleasure of reading Banville hardly extends into the superficial realm of artifice. His repeated triumphs are the victories of style that frame details so minute as to seem both obvious and radiant. Vander dreams he will rot in a "cavernous hospital in which all the other beds, twenty or thirty of them, were empty, and sinisterly waiting"; America to him "seemed like a nonce-word, or an unsolvable anagram, with too many vowels in it"; when asked for a glass of water, a ubiquitous waiter in the Antwerp hotel where Cass and Axel's paths finally cross, "nodded, or perhaps it was a little bow that he made, briefly letting his eyelids fall as he did so, and murmured something, and padded off into the shadows" (I had initially read the passage as "paddled," which would have been even more magnificent). What can be said is that both Axel and Cass – who almost devolve into a rather fitting anagram – are subject to acute hallucinations that could easily be diagnosed by people who enjoy easy diagnoses and easy living. Such an approach will not, however, get us very far. Vander has something wicked on his conscience; it could very well be the fate of his late wife, Magda, appearing most frequently as a stuffed corpse; or a numinous link to Cass's father who revels in the mendacity of the professional actor; or even something increasingly distant for the contemporary reader – the bottomless perdition of the last European War. Contracts were drawn up, mostly with the Devil or his minions, and persons otherwise unconsulted in battle strategies or occupation policies suddenly tended to chirp from the obscurest branches. Vander recalls one of his Belgian compatriots in this vein:

Although at the time I had a foot in the door of a number of papers and periodicals, the Vlaamsche Gazet was unlikely to have been amongst them. The paper's editorial attitude was one of noisy and confident anticipation of what it called the Day of Unity, when all the country's unnamed enemies would finally be dealt with. This Day of Unity was never defined, and a date was never put on it, but everyone knew what it would be when it came, and knew who those enemies were, too. The editor, Hendriks – I have forgotten his first name – large, overweight, glistening, with a wheezing laugh and furtive eyes, had, in the early years of that dirty decade that was now coming to a calamitous end, decided in which direction the future was headed, despite the fact that, in private, he expressed nothing but contempt for our immediate and increasingly menacing neighbor to the east.

Vander will gain the by-lines he so craves, and only at the cost of a few scruples; Hendriks gets his comeuppance a few years after the war as one of the swinging sacks of Jack Ketch. Whether Vander sees this fate as justice depends in no small part to what he thinks of destiny, whether what we do and those who fall as our victims could play any role in our own condemnation – and perhaps enough has been said on the matter.

There is a topical undercurrent to Shroud that may rile those who believe in art as an island replete with apolitical fauna and flora. At worst, the implications come off as a thin crutch, no more supportive than Vander's own Faustian staff; at best, the historical context infuses the tale with much-needed logic and causality. And yet, there are many unlikelihoods. That long and horrific night when an anonymous letter, in a Satanic reversal of a Biblical passage, saves Vander from certain destruction; the random appearances of a secondary character of impossible age best accounted for as "an off-duty clown"; the syndrome (perhaps lifted from this novel) that causes Cass to smell almonds and then slowly unfurl the foolscap of her very troubled mind; the whole conceit of Lady Laura, whose life is an amalgamation of so many woeful habits that it would seem well-nigh impossible for her to exist for the years and the circumstances provided (although her nasty form of retribution is spot-on); yet the most unlikely of all the scenarios involves Cass herself. That Kristina Kovacs, a former flame now dying as slowly as Vander's memories, would be interested in one last carnal exploration in which she might recall the Sapphic nights of her enlightened youth is perfectly plausible; that Vander himself could see anything in his blackmailer except insanity may suggest what state his mind and soul currently inhabit. Yet through this long and lusty poem, one face stands out as true and enduring, the "raptor's profile of a desert monarch," a thin and eternally pensive physician who comes to Vander's aid then hovers in his vicinity. Perhaps he is convincing because his secret is unambiguously clear; perhaps his utter indifference and opposition to Vander can be taken as a symbol of what Vander has long since avoided. And we haven't even mentioned who gets to play the Harlequin.

Sunday
Oct242010

The Silver Swan

The Silver Swan, who living had no Note,
When Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
Thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
"Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
"More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise."
                                                                                                                  – Orlando Gibbons

Since the beginnings of the last century art has been moving away from plots of diabolical origin and into the keen, misty balefulness of the genre called noir.  Why must a world be dark to be evil?  Perhaps it is not so much that the world itself is dark, but the intentions of man impervious to the Light that may very well be his salvation.  In noir, there is little of that oddity we have come to call hope.  Each person may be an enemy, and becomes especially suspicious when he wishes to be your friend; each street is somehow guarded by wicked sentinels with little remorse for their purposes; and sex, that all-encompassing pastime, can only really lead to your perdition.  And within this now-rampant genre two types can be identified: that of the labyrinthine plot that may mimic the devilry some believe engirds the world, and that which is simple yet profound in its intentions.  The latter may describe the majority of us, and may direct our reading of this novel.

Our protagonist is a Dublin coroner by the name of Garret Quirke, a long-time widower and a brand-new teetotaler.  The reasons for such asceticism – he is asked more than once what he does now in the evening – are less puzzling than the plain unlikelihood of a heavy-set man using his large, shaking fingers to examine corpse after corpse.  When such contrivances occur in real life they are accepted as nature's eccentricity, yet in fiction they are dismissed as improbable.  Given little power over his own existence, Quirke is relegated to an almost bureaucratic undertaker role requiring silence, mansuetude, and a willingness to grease a few wheels.  Why such an environment?  One supposes that the average coroner would be less compelled to meet the desires of the next-of-kin, especially when some of these desires are underhanded and disturbing.  Quirke has, of course, no such qualms.  This makes him both an excellent noir hero – no noir hero can really manage straitlaced morals – and an easy victim of those who prey on the ethically conflicted.  And it is initially unclear as to which category Billy Hunt fits. 

A traveling salesman, Billy was in another unlikely coincidence once Quirke's classmate in medical school.  His failure to finish his studies has its reason, as we learn much later in the novel, but he does bear more than a passing resemblance to Quirke: he is strapping and large, likes his gargle, and his wife, Deidre, was recently found naked and drowned in a cove (a fact made doubly strange by Billy's confession that the late Mrs. Hunt neither disrobed entirely for her husband nor knew how to swim).  An unstated implication arises, echoed by Quirke's discovery of needle marks on Deidre's inner forearm, and allows our coroner to be sympathetic to his classmate's request to declare the affair a suicide.  This he does, unconvincingly, before the local judge prior to launching into his own investigation of the matter with the help of the police and, well, his own preoccupation with dead wives.  A third widower appears, Quirke's brother-in-law, and a loathsome family secret is revealed: upon the death of his wife Delia at childbirth, Quirke entrusted their child to his wife's sister, Sarah and her husband Mal.  Yes, one guesses an alcoholic coroner would not be the ideal single parent.  But the hand-off is made more appalling by the knowledge that Quirke had always preferred Sarah to Delia, yet only Delia would allow herself to be deflowered before they exchanged vows.  That sidelight may be endemic to noir fiction: that even while a person wants to do good, the result as well as the impetus may both be foul.

There are others: Leslie White, a tall, pale Lothario and his voluptuous if ignored wife Kate; Phoebe, Quirke's daughter by birth alone; Hackett, the detective inspector at whom Quirke hurls some probatory missiles; Rose, the widow of an old, rich Irishman; and a "spiv" of a spiritual healer by the name of Kreutz, half-Austrian, half-Indian, but Sufi in his practices.  It is this latter being, who seems to Deidre to hail from another dimension, that maligns no one and yet possesses, "something ... that would make a person wary of being completely frank in talking about him."  The bromides are thankfully few, but with such a host of characters the portraits contain usually no more than a few wide strokes.  Take, for example, what is inflicted upon poor Hackett: 

He was in shirtsleeves and broad braces.  Quirke recognized the voluminous blue trousers, shined to a high polish at seat and knee, that were one half of what must still be the only suit he owned.  His big square face, with its slash of mouth and watchful eyes, was shiny too, especially about the jowls and chin.  His brilliantined black hair was brushed back fiercely from his forehead in a raptor's crest.  Quirke was not sure that he had ever seen Hackett before without his hat.  It was two years since he and Hackett had last spoken, and he was faintly surprised to discover how pleased he was to see the wily old brute, box-head and carp's mouth and shiny serge and all.

A clear image surfaces in our minds, if enhanced by hundreds of close matches.  And while Quirke is rather an original concoction – a recovering drunk, stubborn, and both highly sensitive and almost emotionless – most of the personae suggest old cut-outs of the kind so commonly incident to noir and its shallow, filthy canals.  Deidre, who goes by the nom de scène Laura Swan, emerges from a hardscrabble existence to marry the very unnecessary Billy and then begin a very unnecessary affair with the unmarriable Leslie – and not only the names bespeak little children.  That they come to run jointly a beauty salon and massage parlor should explain Quirke's discomposure at Billy's pleas to file this all away under that most lamentable of Catholic sins – and we should stay our pens right about there.

Benjamin Black is the poorly concealed pseudonym of this fine Irish writer, who has been both praised and lambasted for his venture into what might be broadly termed popular fiction.  Since Banville's bugbear (as with most writers of his talent) has always been overcoming the superficiality of structure, a neat knot of threads may be just what he could use to weave his ivies.  And weave he does: Deidre's hair was "a shining reddish gold, like a million strands of soft, supple metal, catching the light from all angles and glowing even in the half-dark"; at Kreutz's place she finds "three unreally perfect, glossy apples in the copper dish, each one reflecting on its cheek an identical gleaming spot of light from the window"; and a waiter "present[s] the wine bottle for Rose's inspection, like a conjurer showing a dove preparatory to making it disappear."  There are many other such moments, transparent moments that show the old, sturdy, unflappable Banville toggling between the lush madness of aesthetic prose and the austerity of these quiet detective tales.  There is something satisfying in their composition, which is why one is not surprised to hear Banville admit, as he did in a recent interview, that while he can only manage about five hundred words a day for his normal prose, he can pump out up to nine thousand for a noir text.  Must be the quiet, introspective setting.  Bloody and quiet, that is.

Friday
Jul022010

Prague Pictures

It was thirteen years ago this week that I journeyed for the first time to this magical city, where I pursued a steady diet of Czech vocabulary, long walks and the reading of an inordinate amount of literature.  While the language never stuck, and I have gone so far as to claim that it seemed cacophonous, the city and its eternal magnificence have never left my purview.  Prague marked the first of my many summers and years traveling on my own, an odd title since my family and I have been excessively nomadic, and it was in many ways the correct beginning.  Prague remains a delicate combination of spiraling towers, narrow streets, decadent bridges and squares, and a balance that does not belie its location at the very center of Europe.  You may gush in whatever platitudes you choose, but Prague is mysterious enough to attract the writer and the lover and tidy and precise enough for the politician and scientist.  And pieces of all these personae are embedded in this book

The presentation assumes the classic juxtaposition of the writer's present, the writer's past and the city's distant past – with, it should be said, no axis of continuity, a stratagem that turns out to be advantageous.  We begin when our author first traveled to Prague, shortly after he had written a novel set in that city about a renowned astronomer, but still frozen in that frozen war that provided ample excuses for cruelty, excess, and tyrannical force.  His mission?  To contraband to the United States works by a famous Czech photographer.  The recipient?  The son of a Czech intellectual who is described most sumptuously thus:

He was a tall, spare man with pale, short hair brushed neatly across a narrow forehead, a Nordic type unexpected this far to the south and east.  Impossible to tell his age; at first sight he might have been anywhere between thirty and sixty.  He was handsome, with that unblemished surface and Scandinavian features, yet curiously self-effacing, somehow.  Even as he stood before me I found it hard to get him properly into focus, as if a flaw had suddenly developed in the part of my consciousness that has the task of imprinting images upon the memory.  I think it was that he had spent so many years trying not to be noticed – by the authorities, by the police, by spies and informers – that a layer of his surface reality had worn away.  He had something of the blurred aspect of an actor who has just scrubbed off his make-up.

We may generalize this poor fellow into the typical Eastern Bloc sufferer, although Banville does indicate that many writers seem only to care in such situations about their counterparts ("Did [anyone] ... ever think to protest the imprisonment of a Russian street sweeper, or charlady, some poor nobody who had not even written a subversive poem but still ended up in prison?").  The Czech Professor mentioned above vanishes into Banville's recollection of some long and thirsty evenings with a few Czech students, and the strange and officious lies spread by young minds of various nationalities as to what precisely was going on in Eastern Europe.  There persists a lamentable misunderstanding of politics among artists that is so pervasive that it must be based on an idealized concept of human nature.  When Banville reports allegedly novel information an acquaintance has on the infamous Ceauşescu regime, he likens the despot's system to the mafia – which is akin to comparing a dragon to a large, winged fire-breathing reptile.  Why do some writers completely misconstrue politics?  Perhaps because politics, in its essence, is hideously banal since the only things that matter are power and money.  Conscientious politicians try to utilize both assets to achieve peace and prosperity – and I don't  think we need to review the anatomy of an unscrupulous politician.  In any case, Banville does seem to have once belonged to that caste of writer who believed atrocities were for Hitlers and not for Eastern European rulers or even, for that matter, South East Asian or Central African rulers.  What Banville doesn't, or perhaps didn't see at the time is that all evil empires, however miniature, will revolve around this power-and-money footrace, thinking it, for the connected and protected at least, a win-win situation.      

Against this rich setting Banville juxtaposes his own, rather clownish attendance at a few literary conferences in the present time but devotes most of the remaining pages to a few luminous characters in Prague's past.  While enumerating the regents of the period as required by the unstated laws of historical texts (one hopes that these laws will also become unused), Banville focuses his attention on two learned men, a "Great Dane" and a "little dog."  The nicknames are self-inflicted and demonstrate modern thought's preoccupation with the competition of scientific minds as well as the fallacy that the existence of a rival propels the human imagination to greater heights.  Brahe, being twenty-five years senior, will naturally be surpassed by his younger colleague, not only because science in its unending brilliance always progresses but also because Brahe is a noble and Kepler a commoner.  Their relationship to Prague can be investigated by any mediocre student, and Banville's account is buttressed by a handful of textbooks; why he felt we needed such a recapitulation, however entertainingly told, is not ours to worry.  Since I am not a Banville completist, I cannot comment on the overlap of his Kepler novel and the Kepler who aches to employ the highly advanced astronomical instruments Brahe hoards in some suburban estate.  I suppose that they are both equally accurate and equally fictionalized – which may remind the careful reader of the city in which all this action takes place.   

For all his style, Banville allows himself some regrettable comparisons ("As many have remarked, Catholicism and Communism have much in common"), and there prevails a certain disgust for religious traditions not nearly as evident in his other works.  Still, Banville is not blasphemous.  As he shapes a city that has endured an egregious amount of worship and suppression of faith, his tone in introducing a young lady or a building suggests a yearning for the years of beauty and enigma that each possesses.  He is not a tourist, nor a fool surfing in the gaudiest nightclub or faddish locale, nor an expert on anything in Prague except the sites associated with Kepler – and we may wonder how nugatory such knowledge really is.  Considering the distribution of his pages, one finds that Prague's past overshadows the present much like its most famous cathedral, and that the present is allotted so few entries in no small part because what Prague is today cannot be quantified in the riddles of yesteryear.  Unless, of course, you truly believe that life will remain undreamed by everyone but you.

Tuesday
Jan192010

The Sea

One should never trust a book by its publisher's blurb, never mind the ridiculous cover ultimately inflicted upon it by the brokers of style (occasionally, a first edition hardcover will be more to the writer's tastes, thereafter wigwammed into hideous shades of bland).  Blurbs of course are even more egregious offenders.  Yes, they are meant to sell, which means, I suppose, that they must provide tout pour tous without offending anyone too heartily.  They must in a way resemble women's dresses: enough is left to the spectator to propel dark fantasies; enough is removed from conjecture to affirm its authenticity.  I will spare you this book's blurb not because it is nonsensical, but simply because it is as vague as its title – pun fully intended – and neither title nor blurb nor first edition hardcover picture binds it with the thinnest strand of justice.

Our aging narrator is an art critic, a widower, an Irishman, and someone whose command of English ebbs and flows in soft, scummed pats on an endless beach.  His name is Max Morden, and if he finds the name of his dying wife's treating physician, Dr. Todd, "a joke in bad taste on the part of polyglot fate," one would do well to consider his own.  His obsession, apart from the past (famously stated to "beat inside [him] like a second heart"), is the meaning of all his time and space if his life were a series of pictures by his beloved Bonnard, or by some of the other, mostly post-Impressionist names he so casually drops.  His quandary is what life has cost him, why he now awaits in agnostic gloom the withering of his Anna; why his daughter Claire, because of her sturdy and almost clomping awkwardness, will never marry; why he was born into one lowly station and never allowed to board a first-class train.  His imagery will be dreams mixed with the past, or the present tinged with other hues, such as "those plangent autumn evenings streaked with late sunlight that seemed [themselves] a memory of what sometime in the far past had been the blaze of noon."  The Sphinx's riddle this is not quite, but his steps and circuits do suggest a certain path:

A dream it was that drew me here.  In it, I was walking along a county road, that was all.  It was in winter, at dusk, or else it was a strange sort of dimly radiant night, the sort of night that there is only in dreams, and a wet snow was falling.  I was determinedly on my way somewhere, going home, it seemed, although I did not know what or where exactly home might be.  There was open land to my right, flat and undistinguished with not a house or hovel in sight, and to my left a deep line of darkly louring trees bordering the road.  The branches were not bare despite the season, and the thick, almost black leaves drooped in masses, laden with snow that had turned to soft, translucent ice.  Something had broken down, a car, no, a bicycle, a boy's bicycle, for as well as being the age I am now I was a boy as well, a big awkward boy, yes, and on my way home, it must have been home, or somewhere that had been home, once, and that I would recognize again, when I got there.  I had hours of walking to do but I did not mind that, for this was a journey of surpassing but inexplicable importance, one that I must make and was bound to complete.  

Morden, like the narrator of this novel, is tall, almost disruptively large, and a proud dipsomaniac.  He remains not so much drunk during the novel as hungover, gliding between the realm of wishful wanting to the dry sardonicism of resigned failure.  His thirst seems quenchable only by an ocean, his tone vacillates but never falters, and his main interest will always be the four Graces and the sea.

The family Grace boasts the normal components of upper-middle class life, a stratum that eludes our poor Max.  Max endures a childhood of parental bickering to become the itinerant teenage son of a single mother, arriving at each new lodging house "always it seemed on a drizzly Sunday evening in winter."  It is then no surprise that he focuses his efforts on a childhood summer in the vicinity of four persons he is not quite sure ever existed: Carlos Grace, a grey-chested ruffian, Connie Grace, the thick and voluptuous mother, and their two children, the mute Myles and the waifish nymphet Chloe.  A brief aside: I have always found Chloe an odd name to bestow upon a child, almost signifying in advance a weakness or vulnerability that could burst as easily as a jellyfish – but I digress.  Chloe will become in time the vessel for Max's affection, although his first attraction is for the bulging and shapely Connie, both of whom have some affinity in name with Max's eventual wife and child.  Once Anna is diagnosed and the hourglass flipped, Max returns to that same sea, if the sea can ever truly be said to be the same:

Throughout the autumn and winter of that twelvemonth of her slow dying we shut ourselves away in our house by the sea, just like Bonnard and his Marthe at Le Bosquet.  The weather was mild, hardly weather at all, the seemingly unbreakable summer giving way imperceptibly to a year-end of misted-over stillness that might have been any season.  Anna dreaded the coming of spring, all that unbearable bustle and clamour, she said, all that life.  A deep, dreamy silence accumulated around us, soft and dense, like silt. 

Early in our narrative, Morden agrees with this Russian poet – almost always a wise choice – about the incomparability of October upon the creative psyche, and yet he betrays Pushkin's testament with his obsessive revisiting of the poet's least favorite season, summer (I should add that that the second sentence of this passage is one of the finest in the English language).  And there lingers another character amidst these Graces and the burgeoning historian, a nanny of sorts, a lithe, pale girl with the name of Rose.  Rose has a cruel secret that cannot be rightly shared, and its late discovery relegates it to oblivion.  No, whatever we may think of these band of merry players, it is our hero that demands attention, that shifts and jumps in unmeasured steps to the beat of the past beating within him, beating him because it has escaped and is immortal and he will fade into the ocean whence he and memory sprang in tandem.  We also remember another Russian author's tortured recounting of a summer gained and lost to chance and, ultimately, to consumption, a summer from which poor Humbert never recovered.  Count Morden among the eternally convalescent.      

Friday
Jun272008

The Book of Evidence

51KNG624MEL.jpgThere is an unfortunate subgenre of popular fiction which can simply be labeled “the confessions of a killer.”  Even unaided by cable or other lurid purveyors of societal atrocities, an attentive observer would find many such works in any bookstore servicing the whims of the demos.  We are intrigued by such stuff, if only for a moment, because we are naturally attracted to evil.  Not because we are inherently evil ourselves — we are, I say boldly, nothing of the kind — but because bad things show us the counterpoise to normalcy that stirs our juices with the potential knowledge of why there is so much vileness in our world.  This is why the more morbid or unrepentant the culprits, the more galling and demented the crimes, the more revolting the violence, the faster the chill that races up our spines as we lurch closer to Old Nick himself.  These diabolists ratiocinate at each step of their miserable life, from the most fundamental of daily tasks to love, death, and betrayal.  Everything has a cause, effect and logical framework; everything is the fault of others who conspire against them to bring out their very worst; every line, every feature, every shadow spreads like an inkwell across the virgin white page; and what they did is simply the unerring mathematical consequence of these factors.  Yet the true indication of a master stylist is not what to include, but what to omit; and no, every last detail does not need to be fanned into a Chinese lantern.  Which brings us to the jailbird confessions of Freddie Montgomery, the insufferable protagonist of this novel.

Our book is divided in halves.  There is first and predictably a long introduction to a crime whose gory details are suggested in asides and semi−demented philosophizing.  Our man Freddie is not an original thinker, nor, one should add, does he have any pretensions in that general direction.  He is “amazed at the blue innocence of the sea and sky.”  His morals are nonexistent, but so is his lucidity of thought.  It is in the sweat−stained journal of a degenerate teenager that we may expect comments on “the bad in its inert, neutral, self−sustaining state,” a fallacy in reasoning so basic that its mention begets only shudders and headshaking.  He has a wife, Daphne, a son, and two parents all painted in the most grotesque colors, each description increasingly exaggerated, momentum caused by the excitement of stringing together macabre observations.  Yet occasionally these suicidal rantings swirl into a divine wind:

I thought how strange it was to be here like this, glass in hand, in the silence and calm of a summer evening, while there was so much darkness in my heart.  I turned and looked up at the house.  It seemed to be flying swiftly against the sky.  I wanted my share of this richness, this gilded ease.  From the depths of the room a pair of eyes looks out, dark, calm, unseeing.

This is the mood throughout: bouts of insuppressible guilt interrupted only by noticing that he has been bleeding for the last thirty minutes.  That Freddie has killed, or the identity of his victim, which is not immediately obvious, should not interest us as much as the descent of his soul into absolute darkness.  I suppose we are to be enthralled by this cultured person (he is a proponent and student of statistics and probability theory), fallen and forlorn.  I suppose as well that the freak gallery that pervades the world of Freddie Montgomery — a man possessing “an inveterate yearning towards backgrounds” so as to avoid his reality’s loathsome foreground — must be seen as they are described, as an acting troupe of clowns and charlatans, drunks and dyspeptics.  And I also suppose that Freddie and his moral warts are to be forgiven long enough for us to be aware of how much everything has changed, and how, how, how this could happen to anyone at all.

But we are not aware.  We are not aware because despite the backcover blurbs, Banville’s intention is nothing of the kind.  He seeks first and foremost, like all good writers, a collation of pleasing detail in an atmosphere of his choosing.  That is why we shuttle between Spain, a country Freddie despises once his wife and son are left as hostages, and Merrie England, where the native Irishman also does not seem to belong.  It is only when Freddie describes what he truly loves (this Irish port being one of those things) that Banville’s carbons crystalize into a diamond:

In the ten years since I had last been here something had happened, something had befallen the place.  Whole streets were gone, the houses torn out and replaced by frightening blocks of steel and black glass.  An old square where Daphne and I lived for a while had been razed and made into a vast, cindered car−park.  I saw a church for sale — a church, for sale!  Oh, something dreadful had happened.  The very air itself seemed damaged.  Despite the late hour a faint glow of daylight lingered, dense, dust−laden, like the haze after an explosion, or a great conflagration.  People in the streets had the shocked look of survivors, they seemed not to walk but reel.  I got down from the bus and picked my way among them with lowered gaze, afraid I might see horrors.

You will find motifs and motives in this painting, as well as in a certain bombing that may be the handiwork of a politically violent faction, but this passage alone justifies Freddie’s lapsarian musings and outshines every other moment in the novel.  So you shouldn’t necessarily believe Freddie when he claims his life has no moments, just the “ceaseless, slow, demented drift of things.”  His crime has neither passion nor meaning, which we cannot say about the starry sky above his darkened cell.