A whole lot of faking

Valentine Cunningham

  • Ghosts by John Banville
    Secker, 245 pp, £14.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 436 19991 2

‘The philosopher asks: Can the style of an evil man have any unity?’ It’s a wonderfully sharp question, marrying morals to aesthetics in a challenging new-old fashion. And it’s a question, as ever with John Banville, within other questions. Who, for instance, you’re made to wonder at this point in Ghosts, is actually asking? Some anonymous narrator? The author? The novel’s own enigmatic ‘evil man’, the one who does so much of its telling and, it turns out, has a lot morally to answer for? You never know. It’s hard to tell; it’s always hard to tell with this author. It’s at the centre of his power that his mood, his people’s mood, the mood of his writing, is inte0rogative. And in best Modernist fashion, these interrogations don’t have straight answers.

So can the style of an evil man – those fallen aestheticians Banville is drawn to, the compulsive counters and writers, the book-keepers and keepers of the books, notes, novels, those custodians of black books, Big Books, words, even of the Word – have, in fact, Unity? The question drives right to the heart of the ordering, sense-making, story-telling, fiction-writing that preoccupies Banville’s novels, not least this one. The rather higgledy-piggledy structure of Ghosts – its abrupt to-ing and froing; its throwing of chronological switches between a present in which a curious troupe of pleasure-boat passengers is briefly thrown up on a small Irish island, and the past lives of the island’s art-historical inhabitants, especially of the novel’s ‘evil man’, its ex-con main narrator; the plethora of ancillary voices, stories, modes (including the sudden late intrusion of an art-critical passage in which an anonymous painting gets lengthily scrutinised); the un-smooth mix of action, reflection, question – all this, which makes this the most contrivedly ragged of Banville’s novels so far, certainly appears to challenge any ready reply in the affirmative. Unity? Not really. But then, a simple negative reply is hard too. More is going on, or might be going on, in the matter of order, than immediately meets the eye.

On the island so rudely invaded by the flock of castaways, Professor Krutznaer, art-historian now manqué, occupies his time up his panoptical tower with what he calls ‘the old questions’. Are chance, disorder, incongruity the ‘only constants’ uniting the ‘disparate things’ which he observes Banville-wise – ‘that wind, this fly, himself brooding here’? These questions, of order, pattern, deep arrangement in things, are old not least because they’re asked by a long line of Banville intellectuals: Koppernigk of Copernicus, Kepler of Kepler, Kasperl and Kosok of Mefisto. The air of Banville’s fiction is thick with such issues. His people squirm and wriggle away from the idea that chaos, or chaos theory, are all. They’re eager to ponder the counter-claims of necessity. Was the ex-jailbird’s arrival on the island, Krutznaer wonders, arranged? Can he be a ‘required’ man? Surely his old acquaintance Felix, who knows a discomforting mite or two too much about his sticky ways with picture provenances, cannot be among the castaways by ‘pure chance’.

As for provenance, it has this way, especially in the mouths of babes and sucklings (and there are some among the castaways), of sliding over into its allied vocable Providence. Indeed, if arrangements exist they presuppose arrangers, even – especially in the minds of the great Doctores Mathematici, the pioneering Scientific Christians whose nosings about the universe concern and haunt Copernicus and Kepler and Newton’s Letter – a great Arranger. But then, if provenances can be, as Felix alleges, faked, maybe Providence can be a grand faker, or fake, too. Certainly when it comes to the narrative arrangements made by the ‘evil man’ of Ghosts and his fellow conspirators, the Author, the Narrator(s), the Text, there seems ample room for a whole lot of faking.

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