John Banville

(2541 words)
  • Pietra Palazzolo (University of Essex)

Described in the London Review of Books as “one of the most important writers now at work in English”, John Banville is author of 12 works of fiction, a collection of short stories and three plays. Like few other novelists active in this period – A.S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd, for example – Banville writes fiction that neither succumbs to a kind of extreme postmodern experimentalism nor attempts a nostalgic reconstruction of the unattainable past. Banville’s management of historical events and subjects sets him apart from more politically involved writers, conveyed, as it is, in a language that plays with and subtly subverts fixed categories of knowledge (fact/fiction; real/unreal).

Naturally, his approach to Irish national literature is ambivalent; he feels part of the culture, but, as he told Ronan Sheenan in a 1979 interview, he defines that culture in a “personal” way: “ I feel part of my culture. But it is a personal culture gleaned from bits and pieces of European culture of four thousand years.” Questioning the very notion of national literature – “there is no such thing as Irish national literature, only Irish writers engaged in the practice of writing” – Banville shifts the focus to language, in an attempt to subvert the literary tradition of the nineteenth-century and point to the new possibilities of Irish writing. His second novel, Birchwood (1973), for example, is a subtle parody of the “Big House” genre in its use of stereotyped characters and narrative patterns. For Banville “Hiberno-English is a wonderfully versatile yet often treacherous literary tool”, as he observes in the Washington Post (1999):

I believe it is this intermeshing of two languages, with all its political consequences, that goes a long way towards explaining the continuing extraordinary richness of Irish writing [. . .] For the Irish novelist [. . .] language is not a sheet of glass but a lens, and a lens, as we know, not only magnifies but inevitably distorts. It is precisely this distortion, the product of willed linguistic ambiguity, that the Irish novelist aims for and revels in.

This fundamental interest in the possibilities of language is married with a predominant concern with style in Banville, who is aware, with Henry James, that in literature “we move through a blest world in which we know nothing except by style, but in which also everything is saved by it”.

Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, on 8 December 1945 to Martin and Agnes (Doran) Banville. He was raised with his brother Vincent and sister Vonnie and educated at a Christian Brothers’ School and St. Peter’s College in Wexford. Following his wish not to be dependent on his family, he decided not to attend University. He first worked as a computer operator for Aer Lingus, which gave him the opportunity to travel extensively while also working on his first book, Long Lankin (1970), a collection of 9 stories and a novella. In 1969 he married Janet Dunham, an American whom he met on a trip to the United States. They settled down, first in London, then moved to the coastal village of Howth, County Dublin, where they still live with their two grown-up sons, Colm and Douglas. Nightspawn, his first novel, was published in 1971, followed by Birchwood (1973).

In the mid-1970s, while working as chief sub-editor at the Irish Press and contributing reviews and essays to literary journals and newspapers, Banville embarked on a tetralogy of novels about the scientific imagination – Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981), The Newton Letter: An Interlude (1982) and Mefisto (1986) – the first three books later re-published by Picador as The Revolutions Trilogy (2000) . The series’ constant theme is the inadequacy of language to explain the phenomena of the world, and the ensuing crisis of knowledge as it developed from early modernity to the present time. Together with few other pioneer works – Brian Friel’s Translations (1980) and Making History (1988), for example – Banville’s tetralogy effectively engages with the controversial debate on historiography and history making of the 1970s and 1980s. In Banville’s figuration of history, attention is given to the necessity for a personal negotiation of crucial historical junctures – beyond the constraints of essentialist national boundaries – which can be imaginatively interpreted and re-membered. For Banville, “the past does not exist in terms of fact [. . .] only in terms of the way we look at it, in the way that historians have looked at it.” The first two books of the series display significant innovations from conventional historical novels including the use of first and third persons, epistolary form, and insertion of contrasting points of view. These narrative devices provide varying perspectives on the events recounted, and an insight into the scientists’ search, which is informed by modern elaborations on the significance and possibility of knowledge (Kuhn, Koestler, Heisenberg, Stevens). Copernicus’ and Kepler’s search for unifying systems of order is wrought with painstaking adjustments and revisions, showing as it does, that the past cannot be captured without allowing for a structural reinvention. Far from being a-historical, then, Banville’s approach to literature bespeaks the necessity of investigating the possibilities of writing after the crisis of representational discourse, problematising conventional notions of it.

The key function of imaginative leaps in the creative process are effectively combined with a critique of the limits of language in The Newton Letter and Mefisto. Unlike the first two novels of the tetralogy, The Newton Letter is not set in Newton’s time but delves into the academic concerns of a twentieth-century Irish historian – the unnamed narrator of the book – who secludes himself in a country cottage in order to finish his biography of the famous scientist. Newton’s eighteenth-century England is filtered through the narrator’s musings on the scientist’s intellectual crisis in 1692 as hinted in a letter to John Locke, while the narrator’s own doubts about the possibility of completing his biography soon start to resemble Newton’s intellectual impasse. Opening with an invocation to Clio, the Muse of History, the book enacts the challenge of corroborating subjective experience while adopting objective methods, drawing a subtle parallel between the writer and the scientist.

The Newton Letter signals an important point in Banville’s literary development, functioning as an interlude, as its subtitle acknowledges, in its ability to open up a number of alternatives to the narrator’s impasse. By readdressing the historical conditions of its own crisis, the book provides a bridge between the investigations of the tetralogy – Mefisto closes with the recognition that order must be invented – and the developments of the trilogy on art. Filmed for Channel 4 with a script adapted by Banville (Reflections, July 1984), The Newton Letter is the object of renewed interest for its fresh and effective engagement with issues relating to the academic environment’s role in contemporary society – issues explored in other recent novels, such as A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale (2000).

After a gap of three years – he had left the Irish Press in 1983 to become a full-time writer – Banville returned to journalism, first as sub-editor (1986) and then literary editor of the Irish Times (1988), as he realized he “simply couldn’t make a living”. He held the position until 1999 when he succeeded to Brian Fallon as Chief Critic of the Irish Times. In the same period he started to work on his trilogy on art – The Book of Evidence (1989), Ghosts (1993) and Athena (1995). The passage from scientific to artistic discourse is not coincidental, but follows a logical pattern, as Joseph McMinn clearly observes: “Banville’s experimentation with the trope of art is not just an incidental allusion or reference, but a distinctive feature of the narrator[s]’ crisis of imagination”. Unlike the tetralogy, however, the art novels attempt to go beyond the acknowledgement of crisis to explore the possibility of elaborating man-made fictions as necessary creative acts. The ending of the first book, The Book of Evidence, sanctions the beginning of this exploration, compensating for the “failure of imagination” that made possible the murder of Josie Bell, the chambermaid who catches Freddie Montgomery in the act of stealing his favorite painting from the private collection of a family friend. Thinking retrospectively about the murder, Freddie – the narrative voice of the trilogy – starts to envisage a new task towards the end of his prison memoir:

this is the worst, the essential sin, I think, the one for which there will be no forgiveness: that I never imagined her vividly enough, that I never made her be there sufficiently [. . .] Yes, that failure of imagination is my real crime, the one that made the others possible [. . .] And so my task now is to bring her back to life [. . .] How am I to make it come about, this act of parturition?

Josie is presented in her transfigurations in the second and third books, as Flora in Ghosts and A. in Athena. In the latter novel, the narrative is taken up by Morrow – Freddie himself transfigured – who leads the reader through meandering explorations of his life in a maze of self-perpetuating images of A., the girl with whom he is in love and who suddenly leaves him: “must go. Sorry. Write to me.” Narrated in the first person, Athena is an extended love letter to A. – both Morrow’s lover and a figment of his imagination – that subtly subverts the real/unreal quandary and constantly frustrates, defying quests for authenticity. The emphasis is on a playful retelling of the story (reinvention), with several versions all coexisting.

In 1994 Banville also published two plays: The Broken Jug, an adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s Der Zerbrochene Krug (1807) in two acts which was premiered in Dublin at the Peacock, and Seachange, broadcast on RTE television for the “Two Lives” series. His third play, God’s Gift (2000), a version of Henrich Von Kleist’s Amphitryon, was performed at the Dublin Theatre Festival. The play is set in County Wexford during the 1798 Irish Rebellion against colonial occupation, in the aftermath of the Battle of Vinegar Hill. This second adaptation of Kleist’s works confirms Banville’s ability to fuse the tragic and the comic in a language which is at once succinct and rich, aptly handling the historical and political sub-text.

With The Untouchable, published in 1997, Banville returns to the confessional writing of Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence, a writing which is at once dry and humorous albeit conveyed with a more humane tone that never borders on sentimentalism. The book is concerned with the life of Victor Maskell, the son of an Ulster clergyman, after the exposure of his double life as a soviet spy, and loosely based on Anthony Blunt’s involvement in the Cambridge spies circle in the 1930s. The issue of guilt is never raised and his treason is gradually unveiled in all its moral ambiguity, provocatively conceived as part of a game: “it was essentially a frivolous impulse: a flight from ennui, a search for diversion.” Although received with praise, critical interest in The Untouchable has not yet unveiled the complex issues at work in the book which resists encapsulation in any precise genre.

Following the multi-layered narrative of The Untouchable, Eclipse (2000) is almost surreal in its depiction of Alex Cleave, a middle-aged actor who tries to find a meaning in his life after “corpsing” one night on stage. Banville’s most recent novel, Shroud (2002) – among the 20 books longlisted for the Booker Prize – continues the story of the actor’s daughter, Cass, a character that, though absent, was a pervasive figure in Eclipse. In Shroud, Cass is the girl who knows secrets about Axel Vander’s murky past – an esteemed literary critic vaguely reminiscent of Paul de Man – and who agrees to meet him in Turin. The novel provides a belated flashback on crucial junctures of the narrative of Eclipse, exemplifying an intertextuality that is typical of Banville’s fiction – that is, the elaboration of material from previous works not sufficiently dealt with, a process that occurs both in the novel sequences and in the fictions that stand alone. Paying little attention to characterization and narrative coherence, these last two novels are carried by the sheer force of their rich and evocative prose, a characteristic that has puzzled critics and reviewers alike.

Banville’s fiction largely adopts intertextuality: both as references and allusions to other writers (Samuel Beckett, Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke, Vladimir Nabokov) and cross-references within his own works, a kind of retour de personnage in the later novels which can be conceived as a peculiar challenge to narrative closure. This challenge seems to be reflected in the habit of writing novel sequences, a form of writing that is often found in contemporary fiction – Pat Barker and A.S. Byatt, for example – and that, as Steven Connor aptly articulated in a 2000 lecture at Birckbeck College, “reminds us of the incompleteness of any ending” yet “produces in the reader the expectation of totality”. It is this tension between the wish to break with narrative conventions and a fascination with a kind of enlarged sense of totality that is characteristic of Banville’s oeuvre. Despite contrasting views and perspectives on Banville’s work, critics are intrigued by this interplay of ambivalent modes of expression, since his poststructural skepticism in linguistic representation is peculiarly married with an enduring faith in the possibilities of imaginative language. In Joseph McMinn’s words,

Banville’s fiction suffers from divided loyalties: it constantly yearns to be something else, something which dispenses with language; the sensuous beauty of its reflective idiom, however, suggests that this kind of literature can live with its own longing, and make a poetic virtue out of that deficiency. This, perhaps, is how we might best appreciate Banville’s supreme fictions.

Recipient of several prizes since 1971 and of a literary award from the Lannan Foundation, Banville started to gain wider recognition with the publication of Doctor Copernicus (1976), the book which won the American-Irish Foundation Literary Award and the James Tait Black memorial Prize. His public prominence increased in 1989 when The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and selected for the Guinness Peat Aviation Book Award. His novels are widely translated in several languages and have also won prizes abroad. In 2002 Banville resigned from Aosdána after a 18-year membership, a decision that triggered contrasting views and a letter exchange with Anthony Cronin in the Irish Times. He has recently completed a book on Prague, Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City, as part of Bloomsbury’s “The Writer and the City” series, to be published in September 2003. Banville first visited Prague in the early 1980s and on several occasions since, but as usual his book is not easy to classify, being neither a guidebook nor a travelogue, more an intense “faithless lover’s letter of apology” that best encapsulates his feelings after leaving Prague, a city travelers inevitably fall in love with.

Banville has been the subject of a number of book-length studies which have attempted to give an analysis of his works against the backdrop of the modern/postmodern debate (McMinn, 1999; Berensmeyer, 2000) and Irish/European parameters (Imhof). More recently, in contrast with Imhof’s insertion of Banville’s work exclusively within the European framework and Banville’s own ambivalence towards national literature, Derek Hand (2002) has argued for the necessity of situating his work within the Irish context as well as the wider contemporary frame of European literature.

Palazzolo, Pietra. "John Banville". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 September 2003
[, accessed 30 January 2015.]

Articles on Banville's works

  1. Birchwood
  2. Doctor Copernicus
  3. Eclipse
  4. Kepler
  5. Long Lankin
  6. Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City
  7. The Book of Evidence
  8. The Newton Letter: An Interlude
  9. The Sea
  10. The Untouchable