- "This Place … So Vividly, So Violently, So Murderously Alive":Emigration in John Banville's Benjamin Black Novels
The year 2005 may have been John Banville's annus mirabilis. By early March, Banville had finished his fourteenth novel The Sea, which went on to secure for its author the much-coveted Booker Prize, and he had started writing The Infinities. At that point Banville's reputation was mainly that of a "writer's writer": His novels had often been characterized as difficult and demanding, while he had been praised as a supreme "stylist" whose bookcases must be brimming with volumes of Joyce and Nabokov. As Mike Murphy noted on the RTÉ Arts Show, "the Banville reader is an intellectual, probably an academic, woolly gansey with double-strength spectacles" (qtd. in Kenny 2). After the "early novels"—Nightspawn (1971), Birchwood (1973), and the science tetralogy Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981), and The Newton Letter (1982)—Banville's later novels had been "written in the first person of a garrulous, intellectual, ambitious, and rather monstrous male" (Haughton and Radley 857). Nevertheless, over the course of his novelistic career he had on many occasions ventured beyond his customary garrulous intellectuals and explored a wide range of themes and genres: history in the science tetralogy, a touch of espionage in The Untouchable (1997), a soupçon of crime in The Book of Evidence (1989), and a deep investigation of art in Ghosts (1993) and Athena (1995). In 2006 Irish University Review issued its second special issue on his works, the first one having been published very early in Banville's literary career, just after his fourth novel had appeared in 1981. With fourteen novels under his belt he had become the grand middle-aged man of Irish letters, fiercely intellectual and uncompromising in his aesthetics. [End Page 144]
Yet even with this success there were signs of stagnation. In his introduction to the Irish University Review special edition, Derek Hand identified the "solid, enduring centre round which his [Banville's] work turns," noting that
the increasing movement ever inward, away from the wide, communal scope of the earlier novels toward singular consciousness or voices has merely made transparent what has been present all along. In many ways Banville has been retelling variations of the same basic story from the very beginning of his writing career. The story he communicates is one in which his protagonists come to understand the limitations of the imagination's engagement with reality.(Hand viii)
Less generous in her assessment, New Yorker critic Joan Acocella voiced a similar point when reviewing Banville's sixteenth novel Ancient Light in 2012: "Sometimes you feel that, over the past twenty-five years or so, he has been writing just one long novel." It was thus no coincidence that 2005 also saw the birth of Banville's "dark twin brother," Benjamin Black (Banville, "John Banville on the Birth"). This writerly alter ego is best known for the Quirke novels, which, starting with Christine Falls (2006) and continuing to his latest, Wolf on a String (2017), all feature Garret Quirke, Black's sleuth, a pathologist at the Hospital of the Holy Family in 1950s Dublin. In addition, Black has published The Lemur (2008), first serialized in the New York Times Magazine, and channeled Raymond Chandler by bringing back Philip Marlowe in The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014).
Characteristically, Banville's descriptions of Black's birth are both factually fastidious and off-handedly opaque at the same time. In an essay for the Guardian in 2011 he dates the beginnings of the first Black novel Christine Falls to "a day in early March of 2005" when, driving in a car, it suddenly occurred to him what he should do with an unused television mini-series set in 1950s Ireland and America that he had written a few years previously: "It [the film script] was meant to be a collaborative venture between Irish and Australian television, but it didn't happen, and since I don't like to waste anything, I thought I would turn it into a novel instead" ("John Banville on the Birth"; Edwards 30).
Elsewhere, however, he has talked about his...