Adam to Zeus
There’s a revealing slip near the start of John Banville’s new novel. Ursula Godley, whose husband lies dying upstairs, reflects on her son and daughter: ‘These are the creatures she carried inside her and gave birth to and fed from her own breast, phoenix-like.’ A phoenix can never feed its young because there is only ever one of it at a time. It immolates itself in order to generate itself anew. It’s pelicans that are supposed to feed their children, and even revive them from death, by pecking at their own breasts, which is why they were often treated in the Middle Ages as an image of Christ’s charity.
The confusion between these birds is not a big deal, but it does open a shaft into Banville’s world. He instinctively thinks of the sole phoenix rather than the loving pelican. Throughout his career he has tended to write about solitary figures with aspirations to be the only and the best, but who mostly turn out to be fakes or failures. Early on he wrote about cosmologists (Copernicus, Kepler) who were driven to model the abstract beauty of the universe while experiencing the violent appetites of mortality. His mid-career heroes, who are often also the narrators of the novels in which they appear, tend to be highly self-conscious art historians, or scientists or academics with high aesthetic ideals and dodgy personal histories, like Victor Maskell, the Anthony Blunt-ish hero of The Untouchable, or the murderer Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence, or the unnamed narrators of the string of novels which followed. These men are set apart from other people by a massive sense of self-worth and a coldly aesthetic view of the world. Their egoism is enriched by a range of fears: that their social identities might be only a performance; that whatever identity they might have is rooted in personal ghosts and guilts which might or might not be real, and which might be either expiated or confirmed by the novel’s end. But there is a general suggestion in Banville’s fiction that being a narrator, or even just a centre of consciousness, more or less entails being cruelly inhuman, blind to others’ pain and partially blind to one’s own weakness.
What Banville’s heroes have generally lacked is love. They are often conscious of this lack, and it’s often drawn to our attention so that we don’t forget there might be something inhuman in their singularity. Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence says of the woman he eventually marries: ‘I do not know that I loved Daphne in the manner that the world understands by that word, but I do know that I loved her ways. Will it seem strange, cold, perhaps even inhuman, if I say that I was only interested really in what she was on the surface?’ Montgomery is typical of a Banville narrator because it doesn’t seem as though his author has much love to spare for him either. Banville often makes us notice things that his narrators do not, recording their oblivious self-indulgences with a pitiless lack of authorial indulgence. Usually some cerebral equivalent of love – fascination, curiosity, memory, an interest close to disgust – makes the novelist want to keep the character going and makes the reader want to read on, and usually some kind of aspiration to understand people or the world, or just to carry on performing, keeps the character going. These narrators, who aspire to be supermen but who succeed only in being unreliable, are brought into being and sustained by Banville’s belief that individual perceptions are intrinsically selfish. As Adam Godley the younger, son of the Adam Godley who is upstairs dying in The Infinities, muses, ‘How can he be a self and others others since the others too are selves, to themselves?’ There is a suggestion here that every man is a phoenix, singularly living in a haze of self-deception and isolation.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.