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John Banville and Benjamin Black: The Mundo, Crime, Women

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 49, Issues 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2014
pp. 106-120 | 10.1353/eir.2014.0008

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Using the pen name Benjamin Black, John Banville began writing crime fiction in 2006. By that time his career as a writer of prose fiction reached back over thirty-five years. Banville’s first published work was a collection of short stories titled Long Lankin (1970), after which two novels, Nightspawn (1971) and Birchwood (1973), followed. At this point Banville began writing novels in series, completing two tetralogies: the so-called “science” novels (1976–86) and the “art” novels (1989–97). The five novels published since the tetralogies (2000–12), while not presented as a series, also share key elements and dominant themes with his previous work, and each of the three series also contains a distinct trilogy. A novelist who has been writing in a series-within-series format for over three decades, Banville characteristically writes self-referentially by constructing texts out of canonical borrowings—some of which repeat across the fiction—and by using a form of mimicry. Indeed, most of Banville’s writing is profoundly intra- and intertextual, and the intertextualism is of a kind and extent that enables it to cancel the usual mechanism of allusion and to render the citations original in meaning and effect. Though Banville’s reputation has grown steadily over the years, his work has not lacked critics, especially those who have questioned the issues of gender the fiction has raised. This essay suggests that the highly successful work of Benjamin Black has not only secured for its author a prominent place among current writers of Irish crime fiction, but it also invites intertexual analysis as a form of engagement both with Banville’s earlier work and with those critics who have viewed negatively the author’s articulation of questions of gender in the novels.

The Fiction of John Banville

Banville’s series begin with the science novels, which explore connections between science and art and focus on imaginative leaps of scientific discovery and artistic creation. The series opens with Doctor Copernicus (1976) and Kepler (1981), fictional biographies of Nicolas Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, while the third, The Newton Letter: An Interlude (1982), concerns an historian of science unable to finish his book on Isaac Newton. Mefisto (1986), the phantasmagoric concluding novel with a young prodigy as protagonist, is a bridging text to the series to follow.

The trilogy embedded in Banville’s second tetralogy of art novels, so-called for the central place of paintings within them, shares a common protagonist: the books’ narrator, Frederick (Freddie) Montgomery, who murders a woman, is thrown into jail, and attempts to redeem himself and to atone for his crime.1 In The Book of Evidence (1989), Ghosts (1993), and Athena (1995), Banville’s treatment of the imagination shifts from a focus on its “revolutionary” capacities to its susceptibility to fantasy, with Freddie’s crime following from a “failure of the imagination” and a failure to grasp the personhood of the woman he kills (215).2 That this crime underpins the trilogy points to the ethical content of the series as a whole, and has resulted in a new ethos-focused thread in the criticism of Banville’s work.3

The Untouchable (1997), the final work of the art tetralogy, is a fictionalized biography of Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, who was unmasked in 1979 as the fourth Cambridge spy working for the Soviet Union. A bridging novel, like Mefisto it looks forward to Banville’s new exploratory focus on death, grieving, and loss through the Cleave characters that are present in the third trilogy (Eclipse, Shroud 2002, Ancient Light 2012) and in the other two books of the final series, The Sea (2005) and The Infinities (2009).

The startling discipline of Banville’s work has elicited Violeta Delgado Crespo’s likening of Banville to Wallace Stevens, who thought of his writing as his poetic mundo, a personal expressive system of modulating themes, symbols, and concepts that he developed over the course of his career (Crespo 306).4 Banville’s copiously plundered material—tropes, scenes, and voices—is adapted from canonical predecessors who reached their peak before or by midcentury, including Henry James, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Samuel Beckett, and...

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