I’ve written about Irish novelist John Banville several times. I regard him as one of the finest contemporary prose stylists working in English. He is not everyone’s cup of tea. For every person who is a fan, you’ll find a detractor. His characters are ghastly, they say (well, this is true, but then again, great literature is riddled with horrendous people, and as Claire Messud once pointed out, “if you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”) Banville’s novels tend to be atmospheric, densely-written, philosophical examinations of the self, and are usually narrated (unreliably) by amoral, immoral or otherwise thoroughly awful men who have committed a dreadful transgression.
Such is the case with Victor Maskell, loosely based on Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable.Or Shroud‘s Axel Vander, modelled on Paul de Man. Or Freddie Montgomery from The Book of Evidence, whose confession, if that is what it is, draws inspiration from a man called Malcolm MacArthur.
In the summer of 1982 MacArthur killed two people, a nurse in the Phoenix Park and a farmer in County Offaly. The nurse, Bridie Gargan was killed by MacArthur when he stole her car; MacArthur then drove to the farm of Dónal Dunne to buy a shotgun, then killed the farmer with it. The crimes shocked the country, not only because murders in Ireland happen relatively rarely (if you ignore drug-related crimes or killings that were part of the Troubles, the homicide rate is extremely low), but because MacArthur hid out in the home of a friend, Patrick Connolly, who happened to be the Attorney General. The resulting court case had a massive political fallout in Ireland.
There was also the matter of MacArthur’s personality and backround. He came from a privileged, well-to-do family, was well-known in Dublin social circles, and had an eccentric air and old-fashioned dress sense, and in press pictures he appeared baffled by all the attention
You don’t really need to know any of that to enjoy The Book of Evidence.When I first read the novel a year or so after it was published in 1989, I was unaware of the real story behind it, or else I had forgotten it (I was only eleven in 1982 and didn’t pay much attention to the news). While several elements in the novel have a real-world parallel, Banville didn’t write a roman à clef so much as a psychological novel. Freddie Montgomery isn’t interested in telling the reader what happened; he wants you to know why the events took place. The irony is he does the first magnificently but can’t do the second at all. By the novel’s end, he is still at something of a loss to explain any of it.
Bafflement is one of Banville’s default emotions for his characters. They are often confounded by the world and themselves, unsure of their place in society, uncomfortable in their own skin. Freddie is an appalling snob who drinks too much, is married and a father, and once worked as a scientist, and yet he probably couldn’t tell you why he is any of those things. He has drifted through life in a haze of alcohol and moderate debauchery, but is more often than not a passive observer or vaguely willing participant. Of his marriage, he says “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.” He is equally befuddled by himself. “How shall I describe it, this sense of myself as something without weight, without moorings, a floating phantom? Other people seemed to have a density, a thereness, which I lacked.”
It is when he sees a particular portrait of a woman that everything seems to fall into place. “You do not know the fortitude and pathos of her presence. You have not come upon her suddenly in a golden room on a summer eve, as I have. You have not held her in your arms, you have not seen her asprawl in a ditch. You have not – ah no! – you have not killed for her.” The painting is part of a collection at Whitewater, a manor house owned by his old friends the Behrens family. Freddie is there to see what happened to his own family paintings, which his mother sold to Helmut Behrens. Freddie needs the cash; he left his wife and child on a Meditteranean isle, essentially as hostages of a local gangster to whom he owes money.
When Behrens tells him the pictures have already been sold on, Freddie is outraged – pompous, foolish exasperation is often his mood – and plans to steal a painting from the house with the vague notion of holding it for ransom. Plan is of course the wrong word. Nothing Freddie does is planned. The theft is interrupted by a serving girl. “This, I remember thinking, this is the last straw. I was outraged. How dare the world strew these obstacles in my path. It was not fair, it was just not fair!” Events afterwards unfold to a tragic end.
More than one critic has commented that you don’t read Banville for plot. The Book Of Evidence is probably one of his plottier books, but it is also a novel you read for the sheer beauty of its writing. A kitchen “looked like the lair of some large, scavenging creature.” A man’s “ashen cheeks were inlaid with a filigree of broken veins.” Gin “tinkled in my mouth like secret laughter.” An evening passes “in a succession of distinct, muffled shocks, like falling downstairs slowly in a dream.”
The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the Booker but lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. It did win the Guinness Peat Aviation Award, much to the chagrin of Graham Greene, who was one of the judges.
Incidentally, Malcolm MacArthur was released after thirty years. Shortly afterwards, he was spotted in the audience in Trinity College as Fintan O’Toole interviewed … John Banville.
Image credits: Sunday Independent, Sunday Telegraph, Wikipedia