John Banville | Critical Review by Philip MacCann

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of John Banville.
This section contains 753 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Philip MacCann

SOURCE: "Profoundly Superficial," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 340, February 17, 1995, pp. 38-9.

In the following review, MacCann discusses Banville's Athena and concludes that "At the heart of his writing appears to be a fear of uglification by the ordinary."

Joyce described respectable society in Dublin as suffering from a particular unreality: perhaps colonial mimicry, perhaps also the result of a great literary tradition, disproportionately dominant for such a small culture. In Ireland there is a sense in which one's every gesture is a literary cliché; there are more scenes in books than things to do.

A major theme in Irish (and much other) literature is the threat of lifeless conformity and overfamiliar material to individual imagination. For this reason some Irish writers still exile themselves. A few have looked to the vibrant working-class culture, previously excluded from the canon and thus free from literary self-consciousness. John Banville, who along with William Trevor occupies the pinnacle of contemporary Irish writing, has his own solution. He transforms the Ireland around him into the unfamiliar world of stylised art. You won't recognise an Irish pub scene or pervy priest in Banville. At the heart of his writing appears to be a fear of uglification by the ordinary.

To some, this appears European. For others, Banville is Irish in a sense that has yet to emerge. But his aestheticist task—to improve on life by artificial representation—tacklesan international dilemma. Fredric Jameson writes that: "We have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our current experience." Thus Banville's art eschews the vulgar artificiality of life in favour of the stylish artificiality of art itself. He paints a painted world. Characters are caricatures, images are ice-bright hypermetaphors, narrative knows it is so.

Artificial structures and pattern-making are often Banville's material. It comes as no surprise that short spoof critiques of Dutch Baroque mythological paintings form intervals in the monologue of his new novel. For Athena continues an appropriate theme: writing aspires to the condition of painting.

Montgomery's story, begun in The Book of Evidence, is concluded by this third novel in a trilogy that continued with Ghosts. His crimes passionnels were the theft of a painting, and—less-importantly—murder. Now he is back with a new identity, drawn once again to art and shady dealings. He is distracted by the subplot of a dying aunt and his own more interesting philosophising. The total picture is complete when that original preoccupying artistic image of female perfection takes physical form in the dealer's sister, to whom the novel is addressed.

This "solipsistic", Nabokovian narrator (we get flashbacks to Lolita), with pretensions of villainy he can only struggle to imagine, shows greatest self-awareness by his self-description: cyclops. He is the agent of Banville's artistic vision, which sees itself ironically as two-dimensional exaggeration. There is a Banvillesque image of "windows below which the sunlight's geometry was laid out in complicated sections". This has the freshness of a child's vision. Is it limited by being disengaged from the world? Montgomery's thought in The Book of Evidence—"on the surface, that's where there is depth"—recalls Derek Mahon's complimentary remark about the "profoundly superficial" Louis MacNeice. It could equally have been said of Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism …

"A row of shops with delivery vans, dogs, defeated-looking women pushing prams: how little I know of what they call the real world," the new narrator, Morrow admits, doubtful that writing should provide the only set of references in the novel he is creating. So he undermines his own narrative constantly. He subverts the tradition of writing from experience: one moment is like "a spring day in Clichy (I have never been in Clichy)".

He may fear that his narrative is like Klee's Twittering Machine, an elaborate, absurd structure that simply works. But any style is limited to itself. This novel is total writing which, like any exciting style, is arrogant, gorgeous and usually uncompromising. Yet unlike Banville's early novels, Athena relaxes into more ordinary colloquialism and Irishness, though this does not bring more emotional truth. I like best those moments when the stylisation is so powerful that, rather as in Wedekind and Genet, it can support the translation of emotion into affecting expressionism: "Three things the thought of you conjures up: the gullet of a dying fish into which I have thrust my thumb, the grainy inner lining of your most secret parts, ditto …" Here is a novel by a painter who writes philosophy for writers, imparting what the Dutch call wijsbegeerte or "lust for knowledge". He's an artist's artist.

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This section contains 753 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Philip MacCann