John Banville Biography
Nationality: Irish. Born: Wexford, 1945. Education:
Christian Brothers School, and St. Peter's College, both Wexford. Career: Copy editor, Irish Press, Dublin, 1970-83. Since 1989 literary editor, Irish Times, Dublin. Awards: Allied Irish Banks prize, 1973; Arts Council of Ireland Macaulay fellowship, 1973; Irish-American Foundation award, 1976; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1977; Guardian Fiction prize 1981; Guinness Peat Aviation award, 1989. Agent: Sheil Land Ltd., 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF, England.
Nightspawn. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Norton, 1971.
Birchwood. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Norton, 1973.
Doctor Copernicus. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Norton, 1976.
Kepler. London, Secker and Warburg, 1981; Boston, Godine, 1983.
The Newton Letter: An Interlude. London, Secker and Warburg, 1982; Boston, Godine, 1987.
Mefisto. London, Secker and Warburg, 1986; Boston, Godine, 1989.
The Book of Evidence. London, Secker and Warburg, 1989; NewYork, Scribner, 1990.
Ghosts. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Scribner, 1993.
Athena. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Scribner, 1995.
The Untouchable. New York, Knopf, 1997.
Long Lankin. London, Secker and Warburg, 1970.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Party," in Kilkenny Magazine, Spring-Summer 1966.
"Mr. Mallin's Quest" and "Nativity," in Transatlantic Review(London), Autumn-Winter 1970-71.
"Into the Wood," in Esquire (New York), March 1972.
"De rerum natura," in Transatlantic Review 50 (London), 1975.
"Rondo," in Transatlantic Review 60 (London), 1977.
Reflections, 1984; The Broken Jug (After Kleist), 1994.
Introduction, Ormond, a Tale by Maria Edgeworth. Belfast, AppletreePress, 1992.
Introduction, The Deeps of the Sea and Other Fiction by GeorgeSteiner. Boston, Faber and Faber, 1996.
Contributor, Arguing at the Crossroads: Essays on a Changing
Ireland, edited by Paul Brennan and Catherine de Saint Phalle. Dublin, New Island Books, 1997.
Trinity College, Dublin.
"John Banville Issue" of Irish University Review (Dublin), Spring 1981; John Banville: A Critical Introduction by Rudiger Imhof, Dublin, Wolfhound Press, 1989, Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1990; John Banville, A Critical Study by Joseph McMinn. New York, Macmillan, 1991; The Supreme Fictions of John Banville by Joseph McMinn, New York, Manchester University Press, 1999.
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John Banville writes about writing. His characters are marionettes, entangled in self-reflexive explorations of the relationship between creation and reality. Banville's fiction is full of borrowings, from Marvell to Sir Arthur Eddington, yet it is saved from intellectualism and narcissism by its disciplined structure and Nabokovian narrative voice, deliberately uneasy and emotionally strained.
Its third-person narrative distinguishes Long Lankin from Banville's later books. Like Dubliners, this debut collection presents different stages in the lives of Irish characters in sets of episodic stories dealing with childhood, adolescence, and adulthood respectively. "The Possessed," a novella, is added as a coda. Each story centres on two dispossessed characters who frustrate each other's initial sense of freedom and end up in a state of arrest, wholly unable to fathom the "whatness of things." Ominously prominent background noises and shadows continually hint at Long Lankin, the leper from the old English ballad, whose cure depended on a ritual murder. He materializes in the novella as Ben White and radically upsets the tenor, chronology, and fictional level of the book. White's transformation into "Black Fang" intermediates his appearance in two preceding stories: in "Summer Voices" as a boy, bullied by his sister and fascinated with death; and in "Island" as an unproductive writer who stares at Delos and is accused of murder by his demanding girlfriend. In "The Possessed," Ben demands a blood-sacrifice for creative freedom, metaphorically kills his sister by severing their—almost incestuous—ties, and lifts himself to the status of implied author, unleashing a savagery that reflects the author's urge to finish off the book.
Nightspawn is a sequel to "The Possessed" and exploits the metafictional effects of coalescing hero, narrator, and writer. Ben imitates Yeats, Prufrock, and Shelley, and in the best nouveau roman tradition he soon becomes a pawn in his own cliché thriller. His Greek island gets crowded with his stock characters who emotionally involve White beyond his narrative control and are to blame for the novel's doubles, double plots, and obscurity. Eager to get to "the real meat," but checked by "the conventions," White becomes the first of Banville's Beckettian heroes who must go on, or perish in silence and who are doomed at the end to return to the first sentence.
In Birchwood, Banville refutes many of his fabulations. Gabriel Godkin, the narrator, is once again autocratic and conditioned by his own narrative. His genre is the Irish big house with all its familiar trappings and stock characters. There are slapstick humour and morbid fun: Granny Godkin finds her end in the summerhouse by spontaneous combustion. Intermingled with the big house is the external world of romance, Prospero's circus, which Gabriel joins on his quest for a sister who is in fact an imaginative character created to deprive him of his inheritance by the aunt who proves to be his mother. Gabriel's anachronistic narrative is determined by his "search for time misplaced"; like the antics of Birchwood's grandfather clock, it transcends boundaries of time as deftly as Proust's Recherches. But the book's shifting frames of reference are firmly fixed in its philosophical observation that the expression of the memories of things is at best a two-dimensional mirror-image in which much is consistently reversed.
In his classical tetralogy, Banville translates his fascination for the relationship between creation and reality into eminent scientists' quests for truth. He even appends bibliographies with references to works on theoretical physics. In Doctor Copernicus, Duke Albrecht claims that he and Copernicus are "the makers of … supreme fictions." And indeed, Coppernigk is time and again likened to Wallace Stevens in order to show how science is art and how art cannot express truth, but only embody it. Coppernigk's quest leads from conceptualization to cognition, a unification with his anti-self, his syphilitic brother Andreas who repeats verbatim Eddington's "We are the truth." Although the book recreates the cruelty and stench of the Renaissance, it is not an historical novel. Copernicus is a protégé of a writer's consciousness which is informed by Einstein, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Max Planck, Yeats, and Stevens—who are all quoted in a pandemonium of opposing philosophical contentions. Banville feels free to introduce a map-cap, manic depressive paranoid called Rheticus, who claims responsibility for Copernicus's De Revolutionibus, lies like mad, lays bare the irrational undertones of the book and provides a delightfully comic interlude. Ultimately Doctor Copernicus is another metafiction; all characters may be figments of Copernicus's own mind; and he, in turn, acts and thinks as part of the literary creation. Every book of the novel is a closed entity, revolving within itself and resolving in a restatement of the first paragraph, with the very last sentence being a return to the very first. The narrative reads like a fugue, but despite its insistence on form it is immensely realistic in its depiction of a nightmarish era, where total chaos is just around the corner.
The structure of Kepler is a reflection of the hero's belief that "in the beginning is the shape." The five chapters are shaped like the polygons that Kepler envisaged within the intervals of the six planetary orbits; the sections acrostically spell out the names of famous scientists, and the shifts of time in each section reflect Kepler's discovery that the planets move in ellipses. In his Quixotic quest for a truthful order, Kepler the man becomes conditioned by the entropy that Kepler the scientist creates, with a paradoxical anti-hero as the result.
At the basis of The Newton Letter lies von Hofmannsthal's Ein Brief; the Nabokovian first sentence aptly reads "Words fail me, Clio." The epistolary form grants the narrator more autonomy than any of Banville's protagonists and emphasizes his treacherous subjectivity. The novel is the satire of the tetralogy and details the consequences of immersing an historian with a Newtonian mechanistic view in the common world of the big house, where Goethe's humanity reigns supreme. The hero is constantly baffled and blinded, misinterprets the inhabitants of Ferns and is Banville's most convincing example that truth is perhaps inhuman.
The Book of Evidence and Athena exploit even further than Banville's previous work the fragile span between reality and the need to believe and live in illusion. The first person narrative of Frederick Montgomery in The Book of Evidence is a confessional monologue of an art expert awaiting trial for murdering a young female servant, who caught him stealing a Dutch masterpiece, A Portrait of a Woman with Gloves, from a friend. He killed her simply because she was in the way. Montgomery, a gentleman and non-criminal type, has to make sense of his crimes, to discover the impulse that drove him to them. Articulately written, Montgomery's recollections of his past include scenes of viewing life from within, through windows, as if he had been imprisoned all his life. This feature continues when he appears in Athena. Montogmery, out of prison, changes his name to Morrow, but becomes no less self-obsessed. Banville's imaginative description of the Portrait of a Woman with Gloves, as seen by Montgomery, goes beyond what is on the canvas. Montgomery is able to brilliantly invent details of the life and circumstances of a long-dead woman in the portrait, but of the living woman he killed, he realises later, he cannot be forgiven because "I never imagined her vividly enough, that I never made her be there sufficiently, that I did not make her live. I could kill her because for me she was not alive." Athena develops Montgomery/Morrow's difficulties of identity in a scenario that is a fantastic play of words and images. Figures from The Book of Evidence recur, but slightly altered, and even the one solid character, described with a blend of humour and pathos, Morrow's dying aunt, is a fraud. Acting as a kind of subliminal commentary, paintings are described and analysed to reflect on Morrow's psyche and his pursuit of love via an imagined recreation of the murdered servant. In The Book of Evidence Montgomery declared that his task was to bring her back to life and that he would from then on be "living for two"; he later remarks in Athena "She had been mine for a time … from the start that was supposed to be my task: to give her life." Gombrich notes of Belli's Pygmalion "that his quest was 'for forms more perfect and more ideal than reality,"' which pinpoints Morrow's obsession and his tragic dual state of mind. Banville's handling of this extremely complex theme is faultless, for his great ability is to project us into the psychotic world of Montgomery/Morrow, and to share his confusion without question.
—Peter G.W. van de Kamp, updated by