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.

When Gilbert Osmond cries beautifully, he is talking about his daughter: ‘She is my great happiness.’ The beauty may be Isabel’s projection at the time: this man is courting her and he has lovely manners. The suspicious reader – or the informed rereader – will feel it is just part of Osmond’s nasty, cramped, aesthetic act. What the adverb isn’t – and the same goes for the others – is any sort of plain or reliable designation. And another adverb used in the same way – close to cliché, not far from code – takes us deep into one of the major subjects of the novel, the difficulty of learning, as Robert Lowell’s title says, ‘to speak of woe that is in marriage’.

When Ralph sees what has happened to his cousin Isabel’s grand ambitions for a rich, free life, we are told that he ‘woefully’ exclaims to himself how far she has fallen. In a discreet echo of this moment, Banville’s Isabel offers ‘a woeful smile’ when she talks about her husband. And when we meet the one use of the noun form in James’s novel, we return to the question of money. With his bequest Ralph’s father became ‘the beneficent author of infinite woe’. The paragraph continues:

For this was the fantastic fact. At bottom her money had been a burden, had been on her mind, which was filled with the desire to transfer the weight of it to some other conscience, to some more prepared receptacle. What would lighten her own conscience more effectually than to make it over to the man with the best taste in the world? Unless she should have given it to a hospital there would have been nothing better she could do with it …

Isabel’s cheek burned when she asked herself if she had really married on a factitious theory, in order to do something finely appreciable with her money. But she was able to answer quickly enough that this was only half the story. It was because a certain ardour took possession of her – a sense of the earnestness of his affection and a delight in his personal qualities.

And here the adverb ‘beautifully’ does get filled out a little. Beauty is an insidious form of horror, and the novel, in this famous passage, becomes distinctly gothic:

She had not been mistaken about the beauty of his mind; she knew that organ perfectly now. She had lived with it, she had lived in it almost – it appeared to have become her habitation … But when, as the months had elapsed, she had followed him further and he had led her into the mansion of his own habitation, then, then she had seen where she really was.

She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air; Osmond’s beautiful mind indeed seemed to peep down from a small high window and mock at her. Of course it had not been physical suffering; for physical suffering there might have been a remedy. She could come and go; she had her liberty; her husband was perfectly polite. He took himself so seriously; it was something appalling.

Banville does a little Jamesian work with adverbs: ‘she miserably said’, ‘she inconsequently murmured’, ‘Osmond thinly smiled’. But his tours de force, here as in some of his other novels, are performed with adjectives that half-laugh at their own high style: ‘crepitant’, ‘matutinal’, ‘pullulating’, ‘hebetudinous’, ‘darkling’. How Jamesian they all sound, although digital searching tells me that only ‘matutinal’ is any sort of favourite with him. James uses ‘crepitation’ once, and he doesn’t use ‘hebetudinous’ at all, even if the word seems to evoke his style more perfectly than the others do. I don’t have a name for this effect. It’s beyond pastiche, and it isn’t parody. But the sheer pleasure it provides, the music of language at play, is undeniable.

Mrs Osmond opens slowly, as does James’s novel. Banville goes in for a little antiquing of the prose to remind us we are in the 19th century: ‘Even yet she felt, did Mrs Osmond.’ The second part of the book repeats the inversion for her husband: ‘He was waiting, was Mr Osmond.’ Ralph has died, as he does in James; Isabel is arriving in London. She has people to see, things to do, but mainly she’s delaying her return to her marriage. She decides to go to Paris, where she reaches a decision about her future. And then, even when she’s back in Italy, she doesn’t go to Rome, where she lives. She stops off in Florence to see the aunt who rescued her from Albany, New York and brought her to Europe. As it happens, her husband is in Florence too, rather than in Rome, so she has her first showdown with him there. He is just as smoothly unpleasant as he is in James, but a touch more sinister, and more explicit about his dislikes. He is also the master of a mental jargon that seems a little more modern than the rest of him: ‘It did not trouble him to any appreciable extent that his wife had been let in on his paltry secrets. In truth, he considered them not as secrets so much as – what? Discretionary withholdings? Pragmatic suppressions?’

What Isabel belatedly found out about him in James, and is still trying intellectually and emotionally to cope with in Banville, is that her close new friend Madame Merle was Osmond’s old lover and that she had effectively arranged Isabel’s marriage for their covert profit. They had a child together some twenty years ago, but had concealed both their affair and Madame Merle’s part in the parentage by attributing the child to the first Mrs Osmond, who has been dead for some time. Osmond’s plan now is to marry his daughter to the poshest English aristocrat he can catch, and one of his gripes against Isabel is that she is interfering with this scheme. She does deplore it, but she isn’t interfering.

*

I’m not going to reveal what Isabel’s decision is regarding her future, because the suspense is important and well sustained – Banville crafts a lingering mystery out of what she is to do that matches James’s delayed description of what was done to her – but it will give nothing away if I talk about the staging of the process.

Isabel sees Madame Merle in Paris, and tells her what she plans. She tells Osmond in Florence. Then she sees Madame Merle again in Rome and repeats her claim that what she seeks from her and from Osmond is ‘not revenge, but a reckoning’. In Paris she had said ‘an accounting’, and Madame Merle picks her up on the difference. It’s true that an accounting might include some sort of narrative as well as a balance, but Isabel knows all the stories now, and they are more complicated, and several degrees darker, than they are in James. This fraught chapter ends as a visitor is announced. It is Osmond, dropping in to see his old mistress. Madame Merle is amused: ‘“Well, this is a day of visitors, certainly,” she said. “Hardly have I settled to the pleasure of your company, when here is your husband come to join us!”’ Almost any novelist other than Banville or James would start the next chapter with the appearance of the man himself and some edgy dialogue. Here is what Banville gives us: ‘In her Albany years Isabel had read widely, if not deeply, into the history of Rome, as much for excitement as for instruction, it must be admitted. Shockingly little of what she read had remained with her, and …’ And so on for a page and a half, until we realise we are reading the background history to Isabel’s simile for the conspirators:

It was in Gibbon, she thought … that she had encountered a passage … describing … the afternoon entertainments on offer at the Colosseum in those days … There was a detail that struck our young scholar with dreadful force, and that stayed with her when so much else had fled, which was that often one of the wild beasts, lion or tiger or the like, would … pause a while in the midst of rending asunder and devouring some Christian martyr or Nubian slave girl … and seem fondly to caress its half-dead victim with gentle pats and pushes, with licks and nuzzles, with even, sometimes, a clumsy sort of embrace.

This is what Osmond and Madame Merle are like.

There is a real, intriguing difference between Banville and James here. It’s hard to imagine James’s Isabel dealing with such an encircling attack; the recurring delicacy of her situation is that she can’t forget how attractive Osmond once was to her, and how stylish he still is. Banville’s Isabel, although certainly frightened by the thought of what the two of them might say, by the sheer power of sarcasm to hurt, is a tougher character, and her equivalent difficulty is her distaste for her own triumph. It leaves ‘a bitter taste in her mouth’: ‘In that instant, she almost hated herself.’ If you’re sympathising with the martyrs and the slaves, it’s hard to recognise the gloating tiger within.

But then Isabel does what she needs to do, and develops a cool, almost forensic tone in relation to her enemies, who start blaming her for making her accusations rather than denying the truth of what she says: ‘It interested Isabel to note how roundabout yet inescapable were the ways by which guilt was led to betray itself … it was as if a defendant in the dock were to confine himself to criticising the manner in which the description of the deed he had been indicted for was couched.’ Earlier in the book she had thought of herself as ‘a police investigator turning over the circumstances of a crime’, but ‘turning over’ is too calm for her state of mind at that stage. At the very beginning of the novel she had ‘felt within her all the shrinkings of a sinner, only she could not identify the sin’. She is not shrinking now, and although she recognises, in an unwitting near-quotation from another James novel, The Wings of the Dove, that ‘she could not be as she once had been,’ she is still ready to live up to the epigraph that Banville has borrowed from The Portrait of a Lady itself: ‘Deep in her soul – deeper than any appetite for renunciation – was the sense that life would be her business for a long time to come.’

We need to return to the old man’s laughter about money. He doesn’t laugh about it in James, and he doesn’t talk to Isabel about it either. He talks to his son, and amiably agrees to endow Isabel with the means to meet the requirements of the imagination. He knows that such a meeting may be impossible without a certain quantity of money, and also that money alone cannot make the meeting happen. Neither he nor Ralph sees, although perhaps James does, the full reach of what money can’t do, and this is just what Banville’s Isabel comes to know. Money can almost wreck your life, and you can buy your freedom with it, as Isabel does in Mrs Osmond. ‘I mean to purchase my emancipation,’ Isabel says with a touch of irony, ‘my suffrage, if you like!’ But this is only to buy again what she had lost, a way of getting out of a ‘dead world’. The new vote is still to be used. ‘She had thought, secretly, shamefacedly, that money would be a form of freedom,’ but its only actual use was to place her in bondage and then, luckily, get her out of it.

You can’t buy life, or to put that more cruelly, whatever you buy, even if it’s happiness, is still bought. There is a sort of rebuke to pragmatism here. Even Ralph’s disinterested desire, in both James and Banville, is a rich man’s fantasy about the practical beneficence of money. And the lesson in Mrs Osmond, vividly evoked by a beggar Isabel does nothing to help, is the lesson in realism that the protagonists of so many novels heroically resist. The world as it is, the world we cannot not know, as James said, has no obligation at all to be what the imagination wants it to be, and money, like good intentions, can at best only shift the ground a little. Banville’s Isabel is unusual in accepting this instruction, and still having a life, albeit outside this novel. Even then, the word ‘business’ in the epigraph makes us wonder whether the market is far enough away.