My Own Ghost

Adam Phillips

  • The Sea by John Banville
    Picador, 264 pp, £16.99, June 2005, ISBN 0 330 48328 5

‘Just as the pearl is the oyster’s affliction,’ Flaubert wrote in a letter in 1852, ‘so style is perhaps the discharge from a deeper wound.’ It is an arresting image, not because it was news then that the artist was in some way a wounded soul – someone whose suffering was the source and inspiration of his art – but because we would expect the wound to surface in the writing in the form of ideas or preoccupations rather than as sentence structure or rhythm or verbal mannerism. But even if we agree that the sounds of a novelist’s sentences are soundings of his condition, it is difficult to spell out the connections between them: Flaubert isn’t sure whether a style is itself an affliction, or merely the discharge that comes from one. He wants us to believe, as a man of his times, that beautiful things come from terrible things, and that beautiful things are themselves terrible, that writing is the disguised autobiography of the afflicted soul, and that unredeemed nature is precisely this: a producer of styles and pearls and discharges, and indeed of sentences about what nature is like.

Once we take it for granted that there is a wound in the (modern) artist, it is interesting to be reminded that we may have been looking for it in the wrong place, that we might have the wrong picture of how suffering turns into words. Writers don’t suffer with ideas, they suffer in style. ‘Everything,’ writes Axel Vander, the sly hero-narrator of John Banville’s Shroud, ‘has to be qualified.’ And style is the way the writer qualifies himself, or whatever it is he feels is in need of qualification. The question Banville has always asked in his novels is: what must a self, or an identity or a narrator be (or be like) if qualification is the name of the game? To qualify something or someone is at once to legitimate it, and to go on explaining it. Banville, an extraordinary stylist, has always had an ear for the strange equivocations that language is riddled with, and an obsessive interest in men who are unable to sustain their ‘identities’, who are haunted and nearly broken by their own theatricality, men with mysterious wounds who are living with a sense of impending catastrophe; men who believe, as Vander does, ‘that every text conceals a shameful secret, the hidden understains left behind by the author in his necessarily bad faith.’ Banville suspects that all forms of self-creation, including writing, are forms of necessarily bad faith, and he manages to make this suspicion heartening. There is no contemporary writer so subtle or so gleeful about the inevitable shams and feints of character.

As far back as Birchwood, published in 1973, Banville has been fascinated by the amateur dramatics of self-fashioning, but the struggle his early characters went through to legitimate their points of view was tempered by the sense that, nothing more substantial being available, mystique would have to do (‘Being a man with a secret was a full-time role,’ the narrator of The Newton Letter finds himself reflecting). The possibility that women may not be the only sphinxes without a riddle, or that this is a condition now suffered only by men, has haunted all Banville’s heroes; but in his recent novels – The Untouchable, Eclipse, Shroud and The Sea, books that seem retrospectively to form a quartet – the narrators have been, in their different ways, successful men who have a sneaking and a not-so-sneaking suspicion that there really is nothing to them. Not merely that they are frauds, but that once they start writing accounts of themselves they are unable to find anything resembling a truth against which they can measure their unfathomable falsehoods. ‘I am a stranger,’ announces Alexander Cleave, the collapsing actor-hero of Eclipse: ‘No one can put a name to my face, I cannot even do it myself, with any surety. There is no present, the past is random, and only the future is fixed.’ Banville’s heroes are always flamboyant about their futility, and there is usually something seedy and shrewd about their despair: histrionics, exile and cunning keep them going.

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