Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Dark Knowledge: Banville's Black Cloak

Christine Falls / Benjamin Black
There is little pretense, or is it little faith, or perhaps both, in the fact that the rear dustwrapper flap of the American edition of Christine Falls reveals quite plainly that Benjamin Black is John Banville. (I assume it is the same with the British edition pictured here, a cover which captures, unlike the American cover art, the atmosphere of the setting.) Was this the forthrightness of Banville himself not wanting to pull the wool over our eyes? Unlikely. The publishers? Most likely. They must have weighed the readership of a new crime series with the known factor of Banville followers, Ban's Fans so to speak, and after a little mathematical work realised there would be good sales all round with the combination.
Banville's choice of pseudonym is of interest for anything Banville creates is so. The surname "Black" is self-evidently appropriate for the "noir" crime novel. The given name, "Benjamin", translates as "son of the right hand." If Banville is left-handed then it would be seen as the work of the other. But if John Banville is right-handed then it is even more interesting for it would be the mirrored reflection of the author, a sinistral performance is delivered by his reflected self. His dark double. A rather Nabokovian conceit.

There have been some authors who, perhaps eyeing retirement in the south of France, have tried to forge a new identity and leave their long list of under appreciated, though critically acclaimed, literary novels behind like a wardrobe that is no longer working for them. I think of the Canadian novelist, Trevor Ferguson, whose alter-ego, John Farrow, has provided some interest in the battle against crime. But Banville is at the top of the heap and has done well financially, so unless he likes the horses too much, we can assume he has always found this genre appealing and is looking for a challenge. But though to write pseudonymously is possible, to write anonymously is difficult. We live in times of book signings, author tours, trade shows and book expos, and interviews across the gamut. What is an author to do? Perhaps he could sport a mustache, or don Simenon-like spectacles and smoke a pipe, and say, "Yes, people often say I look like John Banville the literary author." No, it won't do. One cannot lie. One must leave those to ones characters.

And lie they do. Falsehoods are the very supports holding their lives in place. Indeed, It seems that place and period are the very inspirations for the novel, a time when lies and religious sins were abundant. Dublin in the 1950s is a darkly etched cityscape. The ghosts of LeFanu and Wilde would find their old Merrion Street haunts to have frightfully changed. His main protagonist, Quirke, the pathologist who prefers his drapes drawn, and the dead to the living, wanders within a rather small circumference of south east central Dublin, but one gets a feel for the wet streets and rank odors, and one can almost smell the omniscient cigarette smoke. He paints his characters with quick flourishes of the brush, like an Augustus John with a two foot brush at arms length, and we wonder at the skilled use of colour. Minor characters come alive with a few deft strokes. I rather like Poole in chapter one, Quirke's neighbour who Black/Banville describes thus:

Poole stood sideways in the barely open doorway of his flat, neither in nor out, his accustomed stance, with an expression at once truculent and timid. He was an early riser, if indeed he ever slept. He wore a sleeveless pullover and a dicky-bow, twill trousers sharply creased, gray carpet slippers. He looked, Quirke always thought, like the father of a fighter pilot in one of those Battle of Britain films, or better still, the father of the fighter pilot's girlfriend.

Another character who seems to pass through doorways sideways is the young protestant admirer of Phoebe with an Irish given name, Conor Carrington:

Conor Carrington was, Quirke noted, the kind of person who enters sideways through a doorway, slipping rather than stepping in. He was tall and sinuous with a long, pale face and the hands, slender and pliant and white. . . . he had the look, Quirke thought, of a man arriving unwillingly at the wake of someone with whom he had been barely acquainted.

These descriptions carry much other information and colour the backcloth of the period; the protestant and catholic issues loom over the stage like blasted trees bereft of leaf pointing sharp fingered branches at each other.
I won't detail the plot. Only say that by the last quarter of the novel I felt I was reading a book by Benjamin Black. But that may have been the shift of place, a shift to Boston, and the fact that the finish line was in view, the dust having settled from the revelations so to speak.

Will life prevail? If, in the equation a lie takes the "f" out of life, then the "f" must represent truth, and the "f" will try to prevail. But there is always a cost. The book ends in the spring with the hope of renewal and change, warm soft breezes and the hint of justice. But one can only imagine the foggy autumn rounds, the slippery way along the tow path, the smokey pubs and clouds lowering over Merrion Street. A place where justice is thwarted by the powers in high places using sinister information and brute force. I already anticipate the next Benjamin Black crime novel, but I do hope Banville will return as well. Even if he is sporting a mustache.

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