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Critical Review by Wendy Lesser
SOURCE: "Violently Obsessed With Art," in New York Times Book Review, November 28, 1993, p. 1.
In the following review, Lesser discusses the narrator which appears in both The Book of Evidence and Ghosts, and asserts that, "Where the narrator in The Book of Evidence was always striving for effect, the narrator in Ghosts quietly achieves it."
The latest novel by the Irish writer John Banville, [Ghosts,] is a bit like a Peter Greenaway film: the visual elements are entrancing, the mystery plot is intricate and obscure, and the characters are all faintly (sometimes aggressively) threatening oddballs. Like Mr. Greenaway, Mr. Banville is particularly interested in humankind's strange mixture of passions for the beautiful and the violent, especially in combination. But while we have come to expect this mixture in movies (think of Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma), it is less common to come across it in a novel. Mr. Banville has made it his turf. In his previous novel, The Book of Evidence, published in 1989, he gave us a main character who set out to steal a privately owned portrait of a young woman (it sounded, from the description, like a Vermeer) and ended up murdering her flesh-and-blood counterpart, a maid who worked for the portrait's owner. Now, in Ghosts, Mr. Banville offers us a houseful of eccentric, mainly criminal, sometimes violent characters who are all obsessed with the visual arts.
Ghosts is set on an unnamed island, presumably off the coast of Ireland. Like The Tempest, which it explicitly echoes in places, the novel begins with a shipwreck. Among those who straggle onto the beach are Sophie, a black-clad photographer; Flora, described as looking like a Modigliani; and Felix, whose shady past includes evil doings in art forgery. They and their companions make their way to a large house inhabited by one Professor Kreutznaer and his assistant, Licht, who are engaged in studying the work of a famous painter named Vaublin. For some unspecified time past, they have been helped in their research by another art expert, a nameless man recently released from prison, who also serves as the novel's narrator. "Serves" is not exactly right, for this narrator considers himself the novel's master, the Prospero-like figure who has created the entire cast. "A little world is coming into being," he tells us on the second page. "Who speaks? I do. Little god."
If you are looking for a plot in any conventional sense, you may as well give up on Ghosts right now. Though there are elements of suspense (Why is Kreutznaer afraid of Felix? What happened in the past with a Vaublin painting called "The Golden World"? And what is the narrator's connection to all this?), they are hardly the motivating forces in this novel. The achievement of Ghosts is to use words as brushstrokes, to create in language an artwork that has all the appeal of a complex painting. Our eye roves over it and back again, not in linear, chronological order but in a state of suspended time, picking up new details and drawing new conclusions with each concentrated gaze. "They have a presence that is at once fugitive and fixed," the narrator says of his characters when he finally, and explicitly, presents them as figures in a Vaublin painting. "They seem to be at ease, languorous almost, yet when we look close we see how tense they are with self-awareness. We have the feeling they are conscious of being watched." This is the language of sensitive, intelligent art criticism, heightened and transformed into the realm of fiction.
One of Mr. Banville's victories in Ghosts is to have created a famous painter out of whole cloth. True, Vaublin's work contains elements of the Dutch and Flemish masters—Vermeer's crystalline stillness, Rembrandt's luminous darkness, Bruegel's antic figures at play. And with their Pierrots, their cherubs, their allegorical nature scenes, Vaublin's paintings also have affinities with those of French artists like Watteau, Poussin and Fragonard. But there is no single artist on whom Mr. Banville is drawing when he gives his vivid descriptions of Vaublin's work. We cannot simply hunt up the key and insert it in the novel to unlock its mysteries of identity. Instead, we need to give our minds over to imagining Vaublin's paintings, which exist nowhere else but in our imaginations.
The descriptive felicities of Ghosts extend beyond the paintings themselves. There are moments of evocation here, in sentences and vignettes, that capture the physical details of reality in a startling, witty and genuinely pleasing way. Take, for example, the portrayal of an alcoholic about to take his first drink out of a new bottle of gin: "I love that little click when the metal cap gives; it is like the noise of the neck of some small, toothsome creature being snapped." Or the throwaway aside about a concert pianist: "Yes, laugh, as I want to laugh for instance in the concert hall when the orchestra trundles to a stop and the virtuoso at his piano, hunched like a demented vet before the bared teeth of this enormous black beast of sound, lifts up deliquescent hands and prepares to plunge into the cadenza." And the same narrator who perceives reality so well is also an expert at unreality, for the dreams rendered in Ghosts are truly, convincingly dreamlike.
Mr. Banville received a great deal of acclaim for The Book of Evidence, which—with its lovingly enunciated, self-distanced chronicling of the murderer's deed—was hailed as a worthy successor to Camus's Stranger and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Such praise is bound to be overpraise, and in fact The Book of Evidence struck me as a coy and artificial work, with a narrator who was constantly searching for the highest-priced word on the menu. Ghosts is a far better novel, though it is also a more difficult one. Where the narrator in The Book of Evidence was always striving for effect, the narrator in Ghosts quietly achieves it. The irony is that they are intended to be the same person.
I do not know what people who have not read the previous novel will make of this new one. Many of the central questions in Ghosts—who the narrator is, what his crime was, how he has dealt with women, how he knows so much about art—are answered only in The Book of Evidence. The very motivation that fuels Ghosts, its explicitly Pygmalion-like desire to create a living woman out of a work of art, is a response to a problem raised in its predecessor. "I killed her because I could kill her, and I could kill her because for me she was not alive," the narrator said in The Book of Evidence. "And so my task now is to bring her back to life…. How am I to make it come about, this act of parturition?" Ghosts is that same character's answer to that question.
Hence many of the technical mysteries of Ghosts dissolve if you have read The Book of Evidence. The plot becomes straightforward rather than contorted, the narrator gains a name and a history, the motivations come clear. But one unresolvable mystery remains. How did the coldly and flagrantly self-dramatizing narrator of the earlier novel become the elusive, evocative artist of the present work? One wants to know if this is the character's moral progress or John Banville's. But, as another Irishman famously remarked, how can you tell the dancer from the dance?
This section contains 1,241 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)