Reconstructions

Michael Irwin

  • Kepler by John Banville
    Secker, 192 pp, £5.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 436 03264 3
  • The Daughter by Judith Chernaik
    London Magazine Editions, 216 pp, £5.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 06 010757 X
  • We always treat women too well by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright
    Calder, 174 pp, £8.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 7145 3687 3

A reviewer must allow for his personal reading temperament, his instinctive critical preferences and dislikes. John Banville roused my own antipathies as early as the second page of his novel: Kepler, arriving at a Bohemian castle, is greeted by a hump-backed dwarf who pipes, ‘God save you, gentles,’ and to make matters worse has second sight. When Tycho Brahe, Kepler’s host, appears, sporting the metal bridge in his damaged nose, he bemoans the loss of a pet elk that has fallen down a staircase and broken its leg after drinking a pot of beer. This is the sort of thing one expects in historical fiction, the implication that folk of bygone times were all larger than life – or smaller, of course, in the case of dwarfs – gamey, eccentric, picturesque. From this root of platitude can sprout a hundred clichés of incident or expression: thighs will be slapped, wenches ploughed, unwieldy insults bartered. The very attempt to make the characters more vigorous devitalises them. It’s of no great relevance that in this instance elk, dwarf and reconstituted nose are all ‘real’, all biographically authenticated. The effect of the immediate emphasis on freakish detail is to suggest that the past is to be viewed through a conventional kind of distorting glass.

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