Friday, August 31, 2007

John Banville/THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE

This is a bit of a cheat - something I read quite some time ago. However, the book I'm currently on (A Game with Sharpened Knives by Neil Belton) has certain similarities with Banville, so I thought this might be a useful warmer for next week's review.

I recommend Banville, but with qualifications. He's heavy going: I think it takes me at least twice as long to read one of his novels as it does any other book of comparable length. Partly this is because the writing is so gorgeous that you want to savour it, want to keep dodging back a couple of pages to re-read a particularly brilliant passage. But partly it is also because there's a lack of narrative drive or character identification. In Banville's fiction - at least in this and the couple of other novels I've read - there is the narrator and nothing else. And that narrator - erudite, arrogant, witty, detached, observant, finicky, introspective, supremely articulate, manic depressive - would appear to be Banville himself (an unfortunate identification, since his protagonists also always seem to be criminals).

The narrator here is in a prison cell awaiting trial - explaining how he came to be in this position in the manner that he imagines he will give his evidence in court. He has committed a random murder, in the course of an impulsive robbery - trying to steal back a painting that had once belonged to his family but had been sold to a wealthy neighbour. The underlying motive for the initial crime might have been a need for money (in a largely unconnected, soon forgotten prologue that is rather like a Graham Greene short story we see that, after promising beginnings - wealthy family, career as a scientist - he has somehow lapsed into an idle, directionless life, drifting about the Mediterranean islands with his wife and child, sampling exotic locales and flirting with the seamier side of life: when he incurs a debt to a local gangster, his family are held as collateral, and he returns to Ireland alone to try to raise the money to redeem them), but this is never discussed; an obscure fascination with the painting itself appears to the be only reason for the theft. The murder which accompanies it is even more motiveless.

That synopsis probably makes it sound more substantial than it is. The bulk of the novel covers a period of just a few short days: his return to his family home; the crimes a day or two later; hiding out for a while with an old family friend, and then giving himself up. There's really almost no plot at all. Almost no characterization either - there are only a handful of people in the book, and none of them feature very prominently or interact with the protagonist in any very detailed way. I don't even see any psychological insight in this - the protagonist's inner drives remain obscure to us, as they are to him. Comparisons with Crime and Punishment or The Stranger are misplaced, I think.

For all these shortcomings, though, it is still a marvellous read. Banville claims to be trying to create a new sort of novel - beautiful soliloquys, extended prose poems rather than conventional fiction. They may be overlong, overdone ("All syrup and no pancakes" as a Canadian friend of mine likes to say) - but I'll put up with the longeurs, with the meagreness of the story, for the many wonderful moments along the way.

I don't want to put extended quotations on BookBook, but I posted a couple on my blog a while back. I also particularly liked this misanthropic epigram:
"Pity is merely the acceptable form of an urge to give weak things a good hard slap."

If you love language more than story, Banville is well worth giving a try.

2 comments:

Mark said...

I enjoyed reading it, ugh, I hate to admit this, ten years ago. I'd read a couple of his other novels - the ones about Copernicus and I think Galileo. While good, just by glancing at the jacket copy of his other books, Banville seems to be repeating himself.

rd said...

Thanks very much -- sounds like the Banville I know and enjoy! I read his book, The Sea, which also had beautiful language. He is truly a writer. I think he rivals Ian McEwan. I also think how something is written is more important than what is being said. Can't wait to read this. (Just got a kindle2). Thanks, rd