Excerpted from the Introduction
‘From childhood onwards’, John Banville wrote in a piece on Raymond Chandler, ‘I had been keen on crime fiction: like many boys I was fascinated by puzzles, eager to find out everything I could about adult passions, and unslakeably bloodthirsty.’ ‘Although’, he acknowledges, ‘I would hardly have been able to articulate the thought at the time, what I found most attractive in Chandler’s work was the sumptuousness of the prose style.’ As a portrait of the artist as a young man and as an older man – it is from childhood ‘onwards’ that he has been fascinated by these things – it is a remarkably succinct account. Many of Banville’s characters are vampyric; all of them are radically puzzled by adult passions, their own and other people’s, whether they know it or not; and all his narrators are trying to work something out, fascinated by the puzzle their lives have turned into.
But it is the pathos of people trying to solve things that they know to be insoluble – who they really are, what they are doing, why they want what they want – that Banville is obsessed by in his fiction. And that The Book of Evidence and The Sea are so eloquent about. His narrators are doomed investigators of things they know to be beyond them. They crave revelations that they fear and distrust, and they mock their ambitions. The drama of these novels, then, is the drama of self-exposure, referred to in The Book of Evidence as ‘that constant, hot, excitement, like a fever in the blood, that was half the fear of being unmasked and half the longing for it’. His protagonists – ‘if that is the word’, as Banville once remarked of Beckett’s characters – are a strange compound of the criminal, his victim, and the detective on the case. These are the different voices we need to listen for in these two compelling artful monologues.
Both books are about men interested in paintings (Banville himself wanted to be a painter as a young man), and fascinated by women. Of antic disposition, they are men confounded by their own seriousness; or rather, men not quite sure how, if at all, to take themselves seriously. Full of a riddling self-conscious evasiveness – ‘everything for me is something else,’ the narrator of The Sea remarks, ‘it is a thing I notice increasingly’ – we never quite know where we are with these characters (if everything is something else, what is the thing he notices increasingly?). We never know quite how to take what they are saying. It is almost as if they want us to do something with what they are saying, other than just believing them, or disbelieving them. In the strange soliloquies that are these two novels there is an uncanny sense in which, as readers, something is being asked of us that we can’t work out. They engage us by puzzling us. Banville, that is to say, is the great modern novelist of just how baffled people are about what they want from each other. And so suspicion is his theme (as if to say: one is more suspicious of oneself than of anyone else; or, seeing is never believing). Each of these novels then, in its own way, trades in mistrust, in the trickiness of character.
The Book of Evidence is in a sense a crime novel, narrated by a man, Freddie Montgomery, who is on trial for stealing a valuable painting by a Dutch master, and murdering the chambermaid who caught him. The book is, apparently, a kind of testament to a court; it is addressed, archly, to ‘My Lord’, but we discover that this is Freddie’s ‘defence’ written, for the trial, from prison. He is writing when he is going to have to speak anyway. It is, therefore, redundant as yet, as evidence, but is nevertheless evidence of something, which it is for the reader to decide. With ‘no explanation, and no excuse’, the more he makes his case the less sure he is of what the case may be, or whether his case is worth the making. ‘[I am] an explorer,’ Freddie writes, ‘that’s what I am, glimpsing a new continent from the prow of a sinking ship.’
The Sea, like The Book of Evidence, is written in the aftermath of a catastrophe, and in anticipation of future catastrophe. It too is a strange mixture of memoir and confession, told by (and about) Max, an academic art historian, who has recently lost his wife (both novels, that is to say, are partly organized around the death of a woman). The stolen painting is Portrait of a Woman with Gloves, of uncertain attribution (the narrators of both novels are exercised, as the reader is, by what they can attribute to themselves and other people by way of motive or character). ‘The picture has been variously attributed to Rembrandt and Frans Hals, even to Vermeer. However, it is safest to regard it as the work of an anonymous master. None of this means anything.’ Banville is fascinated by people’s anonymity, by their being unnameable despite their names (the names in Banville’s novels are always doing a lot of sly work). Sceptical of the faux mastery of naming, he is duly suspicious of masters: of people who can tell us what things really are. And particularly, perhaps, of that fabled master of the nineteenth-century novel, the so-called omniscient narrator (the novelist as God). Indeed, Banville’s novels, whatever else they are, are parodies of omniscience. So we also need to note the deadpan theology of these books, what Max refers to in The Sea as ‘the numerous sly references I have sprinkled through these pages’, with all that ‘sprinkling’ might allude to.
No one, not even the experts, knows who has painted this stolen picture and it supposedly doesn’t matter anyway. What does matter is that when Freddie looks at the painting his ‘heart contracts. There is something in the way the woman regards me, the querulous, mute insistence of her eyes, which I can neither escape nor assuage. I squirm in the grasp of her gaze.’ Looking and being looked at, even by an absent woman, by an image, undoes him. As does his relationship with his wife, but in a different way (the wives in both these novels, it should be noted, are marvellously realized by their monstrously selfabsorbed husbands). It is the always enigmatic, sometimes horrifying demand in looking and being looked at that Freddie and Max, like many of Banville’s characters, are gripped by. What do people want when they look at someone or something, or when they describe – i.e. look with words – which is a looking to make someone see? Being looked at, even by a woman in a painting, makes Freddie feel overexposed, ashamed of himself, or of the self he assumes she has seen. Perhaps looking, Banville intimates – and the looking that is reading and writing – is the wish to expose. And what then is the wish to expose oneself or others a wish to do? This is Banville’s question in these novels. What is someone actually doing when they describe themselves? Or, as novelists do, when they describe themselves by describing others? What are they hoping for?
Max, which is not his real name but the name he gave himself – thereby cancelling his origins, and reinventing himself – is working on his ‘Big Book on Bonnard’, which has in fact ‘got no farther than half of a putative first chapter and a notebook filled with derivative and half-baked would-be aperc ̧us. Well, it is no matter.’ His book has no real author, and it doesn’t matter (there is, of course, very little matter in a book barely written). But Bonnard was an artist obsessed by painting his wife and Max is a man obsessed by, as it were, painting a picture in words of his dead wife, and indeed of a significant love from his past (Bonnard went on painting his wife after she died). Both Freddie and Max are obsessed by images of women without quite knowing what to make of these women, or of their obsession with them. Both of them seem to sense that whoever, if anyone, they happen to be is somehow bound up with these women, or at least with what they feel about these women. But for Freddie and Max the claims and the disclaimers go hand in hand. They keep telling us (and therefore themselves) what does and doesn’t matter to them. But something to do with childhood (their own), women, and questions of authorship and identity preoccupies both these storytellers. They have frequent recourse to the past, but with no sense of there being a promising future.
Questions of authorship, as Banville knows, are questions of origins and of authority, of who the masters are and what they want us for. But because his fiction always makes great play with portentousness, with the comedy of grandiosity – and in this sense he follows on from Beckett – Banville is wary of the false notes prompted by the larger questions. ‘I do like fiction that thinks,’ he has said in an interview, ‘and this is a great failing. It really is. To be infected by the bacillus of philosophizing, of thinking, is a bad thing for a novelist.’* (Banville’s fiction, like Beckett’s, teaches us to be wary of disclaimers and of what they claim, and, also like Beckett, to be more impressed by failure.) Banville intimates in these novels that tragedy is the way we dignify self-importance, but that it is very difficult for us to think ourselves out of our own significance. Unless, that is, we are sufficiently amused by our exorbitant selfabsorption. ‘I feel viscerally’, Banville said in the same interview, ‘that the novel is a comic form, that it’s essentially a burlesque form.’ We need to take in the word ‘burlesque’ here, if not take it too seriously. But how do we take seriously our embarrassment about being serious? It is one of the great boons of Banville’s narrators, that they leave us never quite knowing what seriousness is, while knowing how much some things seem to matter to us. That we don’t know where we stand, and we are utterly preoccupied. That we are prone to have our attention caught, to be struck by things. And once we notice things they have their way with us. ‘It is not that I am lost for words, but the opposite,’ Freddie remarks in The Book of Evidence. But we don’t say that we are found for words, or that we are lost to words; we know what he means and we don’t. We could miss this, or attend to it. The novel may be an amused and amusing form, at least in Banville’s sense of it, but he wants us to have a good look at what the words are doing. And at the same time to register that there is something comic, something burlesque about all this close, attentive, suspicious reading and writing.
So Banville is a writer fascinated by fascination, by states of attention, intensely curious about people’s curiosity. People looking and being looked at; people being looked at when they are looking; people distracted or immersed or absorbed; people desiring and being desired. And of course, by implication, the reader reading, lost in a book. This, for Banville the novelist, is the evidence. And there are wonderful descriptions on virtually every page of people entranced, or struck, or captivated, or intrigued, staring and glimpsing and glancing in these particularly intent ways. What it all might be evidence of, though – our capacity to be, as it were, possessed by our attention, so absorbed by our distraction – is not clear. And we are not simply and solely in the grip of these states of mind and perception, they are the stuff of art. We can describe them, and reflect on them. Art wants to hold our attention by showing us what held the artist’s attention. We want to represent our preoccupations– what occupies us before we are occupied: what is there before we are – in words and painting, and other media.
So these novels are self-consciously about artists and the writer as artist – and as criminal, thief and historian – not because Banville idealizes the peculiarly modern artist-as-hero, but because his narrators are endlessly exercised about what they might be up to in telling their stories (what he has called ‘that wonderful vulgar desire to tell stories’; and again, with a similar twist, the ‘low desire to write stories’). The child who wants to believe that curiosity can be satisfied – that there are detectives who can work things out, who know what the evidence is and what it points to, who know what happened – becomes the novelist, the narrator, the always failing, slightly absurd detective (and latterly, of course, Banville under a wellknown pseudonym has also been writing detective stories). In Banville’s fiction the unreliable narrator – a variant of the omniscient narrator, making the reader, this time, seem specially intelligent – becomes knowingly unreliable to himself. The reader can’t trust him because he knows (and keeps saying) he can’t trust himself. As though he needs to alert the reader. ‘I cannot rid myself of the conviction’, the narrator of The Sea writes, ‘. . . that I missed something, only I do not know what it might have been’; ‘Why do I torment myself’, he asks, ‘with these insoluble equivocations?’
Copyright © 2015 by Introduction by Adam Phillips. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.