Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Garden of Exemplary Prose: Two Early Books by the Brilliant John Banville


         I've read a number of novels by John Banville, a world-class Irish writer, whom I would nominate for a Novel Prize (though it was sweet to see Dylan get in this year), but I was wholly unaware of his early series of fictions based on central Western Civ scientific and mathematical figures. "The Newton Letter" was published back in the 1980s, and since I am reading this so-called 'trilogy' out of order, I have no context in which to place it. Standing completely on its own, it's another beautiful piece of writing but less completely mind-blowing than some of his later novels. It's short; almost more of a novella. And according to the reviews (which I would not otherwise know) is an updating of a famous novel from a couple centuries before by Goethe described as the paradigm demonstration of the relativity of point of view. Things, in this case relationships, look to be a certain way to the narrator, who involves himself in the lives of characters all of whom know truths about each other that escape the narrator. In Banville's treatment of this idea, his narrator -- a rather vain, self-absorbed scholar facing a problem in his current book project -- moves to the sticks for a quiet place to work, but does nothing but 'get involved' with the local family renting him his cottage. What he perceives to be the reality of their lives is a mere glimpse through a glass darkly. The demonstration-plot relates to Newton, the subject of our narrator's blocked book, because it suggests that time and space are not 'objective,' as Newton would have it, but 'relative.' I appreciate this point, and I appreciate Banville's marvelous wielding of the English language here, as ever; but as a character the narrator is not only rather despicable but flat and fairly uninteresting. He has no name --no doubt a literary choice to make a point. He also has no heart. The central figures in other of Banville's novels -- and countless works by other authors -- that I do care about are equally flawed and lack an appreciation of the harm they cause, but somehow they make me care about what I'm reading more than this privileged cypher does.


            The novel "Mefisto" by John Banville is a beautifully written ice-cold nightmare, a diamond in the void. Like the prior novel, "The Newton Letter," it was written in the 80s, and I didn't discover his work until later. It also follows "Doctor Copernicus" and "Kepler," which with "The Newton Letter" are regarded as a trilogy on essential scientific figures. Some reviewers add to this group Mefisto, a novel centered on a math prodigy wandering through the incoherent universe of a backward Irish village, a decayed mansion, a failing mine, and the nearby "city" into which the narrator and the 'friend'-antagonist whose role appears to justify the book's title wander after the mine collapses. Our narrator, who's also a bit of an idiot-savant, and through whose eyes we witness the book's dysfunctional universe, never asks questions and takes no part in what we might consider an "ordinary" conversation. His brain records life, a technique that allows Banville to show us brilliant evocations of helpless, confused, 'special,' lost or horribly disfigured pieces of broken human machinery, which we also find completely convincing. Since reasonably healthy or 'normal' human interaction is missing here, nobody ever really talks to anybody, the reader has no better idea of what is 'going on' in the ordinary sense of narrative, plot or motivation. We're experiencing the narrator's life, that is, just the way he does. He can sit absorbed for hours in pure mathematics, playing with equations (if that's the right term, and I don't think it is), but he can't explain why he does what he does, or goes, or what he makes of the people he interacts with, because he doesn't think about any of these "issues" or "choices" the way people who have such conversations, or read novels, experience life. We're just getting the data, but it's offered to us by a cinema-verite style of narrative-presentation that smacks of genius. Does our narrator feel anything? We don't feel anything when his mother dies, because she's presented as a crabbed, backwards, small-minded rustic slightly more advanced than a segmented worm -- have we known such people? If not, why is this portrayal so completely recognizable? Since she's not lovable, perhaps her genius weirdo son should not be expected to care, but what does he  feel or think about any of these others -- especially the Mefisto embodiment, whose gift of manipulative mischief is matched only by his stagey saloon-villain gift of gab that is a combination of both Shakespeare and Beckett and something for which I find no literary equivalent. Again, we feel we've encountered this character all our life. He hangs around watching things screw up, occasionally lending a hand, and then offers a wry, distancing word or two of commentary. Misery is his meat. He thinks it's all splendid. Our narrator somehow receives all this as non-judgmentally as a computer screen.... Near the book's end the coldness of this universe began freezing my blood, even as I recognize that its perfectly conceived nothingness is the product of a spectacular literary performance. When, finally, we discover one character of whose heart or mind we know nothing (because our narrator cannot 'go inside' of anyone) actually weeping over the death of another, whom we know only by her pointless round of meaningless actions, spiced with a little drug use, I felt myself wishing to cry as well. Oh, I thought, the humanity.