John Banville ignores the skeleton cupboard of Irish literature, preferring art and style to the nightmare of history. And that also makes him Irishby Fintan O'Toole / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Sea by John Banville
Walter Pater claimed that all art aspires to the condition of music, but John Banville’s later novels aspire to the condition of painting. The Untouchable is a playful version of the life of the art historian and spy Anthony Blunt. In The Book of Evidence, the narrator Freddie Montgomery becomes obsessed with an old Dutch portrait of a woman, and in a botched attempt to steal it murders a chambermaid. In Ghosts, the same narrator serves as amanuensis to an art scholar and spends his time “with my catalogues and my detailed reproductions, polishing my galant style.” The narrative of Athena is wrapped around a series of fake paintings by fake artists with names like Jean Vaublin, Johann Livelb, Giovanni Belli and LE van Ohlbijn—all synonyms or anagrams, more or less, of John Banville. In his new novel, The Sea, the narrator is a sixtysomething art historian, Max Morden, who is writing, or more to the point not writing, a “Big Book on Bonnard.” His daughter, continuing the self-referential joke, has abandoned her studies on “Vaublin and the fête galante style.”
Banville’s desire to be Jean Vaublin, the writer’s envy of the painter, has much to do with the way he remembers. His work is suffused with intensely imagined memories that arrive not in words, but in pictures. Sounds, contexts, even stories, seem secondary. The past arrives in a visual form as a hazy image that, with concentration, takes detailed shape. In The Sea, Max remarks that “memory dislikes motion, preferring to hold things still.” And the masters of still life are the visual artists. This is why, time and again, Banville’s novels give us people who are fixated with paintings. In The Sea, Max conjures up a memory of a woman washing a girl’s hair, and immediately thinks of a painting: “She stands in the very pose of Vermeer’s maid with the milk jug.” Another character sits “in the very pose of Whistler’s mother.” When he wants to describe a young woman whose nose seems slightly out of kilter with her face, he tells us that it is like “one of those fiddly Picasso portraits.” One incident unfolds “under a Tiepolo sky of enamelled blue.” Max’s dazed recall of the last days of the wife for whom he is grieving throughout the novel is interwoven with his fascination for Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath, With a Dog, painted shortly after his wife’s death.