The Fantastic Fact

Michael Wood

  • Mrs Osmond by John Banville
    Viking, 376 pp, £14.99, October 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 26017 3

A rich old American in John Banville’s new novel makes an amused distinction between money and small change. Asked what money is, he just laughs. This is not malevolent laughter but he does do a dangerous thing with his money. He leaves a lot of it, when he dies, to a young American niece. She is grateful, of course, and the money enhances her freedom – at first. It’s what she does with her freedom that darkens her world. She knows the money is not exactly to blame, but has to believe, once she has married a man who very subtly disguised his financial designs on her, that her wealth has been the accomplice of darkness:

The money: she felt befouled each time she thought of it and the disasters it had wrought in her life … Money was like one of the products of those fundamental operations of the physical life that must not be mentioned … but it was always there, something we must not seem to know yet cannot not know, something that must be disavowed, save in the secret closet of the self.

Characters caught up in exactly the same story form the basis of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. The old man leaves the money to his niece so that she can ‘meet the requirements of her imagination’. The phrase belongs to the old man’s son, Ralph, and so does the idea of the legacy. Just before he himself dies – he has been ill since the novel began – Ralph tells his enriched and now miserably married cousin Isabel that he realises the scheme was not a ‘happy’ one. ‘I believe I ruined you,’ he says. Wealth as ruin: it’s a very Jamesian notion, and a close companion to the vision of beauty as horror. Banville’s notion is different, but just as complicated.

There’s no immediate good reason to resist the thought that Mrs Osmond is a sequel to The Portrait of a Lady. It scrupulously reviews (and revives) the situation in the earlier novel, and pursues one of the options Isabel would have were she to return to Italy and her dreadful husband, Gilbert Osmond, the man she thinks of as ‘one of the lords of condescension’. Against this man’s wishes she has gone to England to see the dying Ralph. Banville himself says his book is ‘a sequel, more or less – well, rather more than less’. It’s full of brilliant Jamesian pastiche, and part of the last sentence quoted above (‘cannot not know’) is a quotation from one of James’s prefaces. But the straightforward concept of a sequel tends to literalise the story that went before it, as if it were a solid historical structure rather than a fiction – that is, the reflection of a whole map of choices and inventions. ‘Really, universally, relations stop nowhere,’ James said in another preface, ‘and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.’ Banville is drawing a different circle around similar but not identical figures, and the result is something like a jazz improvisation on a classic song, or a new orchestration of earlier tunes and disharmonies.

There is the pleasure of the pastiche, of course, but that starts in James’s novel. He was always playing with some version of the writerly self. Think of his use of adverbs in relation to speech or thought. Some instances don’t at first sight seem to call for special attention: ‘Isabel reasonably said’, or even ‘she oddly exclaimed’. But how about ‘she vaguely wailed’? Or ‘cried Gilbert Osmond beautifully’, or ‘said Isabel femininely’? Or ‘Ralph smokingly considered’? What is going on here?

One answer would see in these usages a sign of the easy narrative economy of the times. Why bother with showing when you can just tell? Another would think about whimsy, a parody of this very economy, in the manner of Nabokov mocking cheap deliveries of novelistic information: ‘you recall Brown, don’t you, Smith?’ There must be something in both views, but the really interesting feature of the odder adverbs is not how little they say but how they manage to say nothing at all, as if they were being ostentatiously wiped from a blackboard.

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