May 242020

The University Press of Mississippi has just published Conversations with John Banville, a collection of interviews with that great Irish author. I interviewed Banville, eons ago, with the timeless time of memory, when I had weekly radio interview show at the Albany (NY) public radio station, WAMC. That interview is included with the title I gave it when I uploaded the audio file to NC, The Beauty and Tenderness of the World.

This Conversations series at the University Press has a long list of entries and is wonderful. My Gordon Lish essay is included in another volume. It’s an amazing reference trove for scholars and writers and, yes, even readers.

Here’s my intro to the interview:

John Banville is an author singularly unafraid of the stigma of hyperbole and baroque excess; his novels are littered with flamboyant pathologies, decaying families, waifish women inviting the whip or the hammer, drunken, ineffectual males, and orphans, real or figurative, that move through an atmospheric fog of drift, and dread worthy of the great Gothic masters. Known best in North America for his historical novels Kepler and Doctor Copernicus, Banville has lately returned to the Irish setting of his earlier books—for example, Birchwood and Long Lankin—a fantastically sterile, degenerate place of crumbling aristocracy, mythically dysfunctional families, murder, incest, drunkeness, and mega-alienation, a land of such hyperbolic scabrousness that it becomes a kind of comic, Beckettian endgame of metaphysical loss.

Banville’s last two novels have centered on a character called Freddy Montgomery; in The Book of Evidence, published in 1989, Freddy, drinking too much and down on his luck, tries to steal a painting from a squire’s country house and ends up murdering the maid with a hammer. In Ghosts, published in 1993, free after serving ten years in prison—a life sentence in Ireland—Freddy turns up on a sparsely populated island where he has been hired as a secretary to an aging professor whose specialty is a little known Parisian painter named Vaublin. The plot—if it can be said there is a conventional plot in Ghosts—turns on Freddy’s abortive love affair with a waifish young woman dropped ashore by a drunken ferryboat captain.

Now, Freddy’s back, in a new Banville novel called Athena, just published by Alfred A. Knopf. This time Freddy surfaces in Dublin under an assumed name—Morrow—hired by a man called Morden, who works in a street called Rue, to authenticate a cache of 17th century paintings on classical themes. Athena is knee deep in conventional plots: there is an art fraud plot—something out of the Rockford Files with a cop called Hackett and a sinister transvestite gangster called Da; there is a plot of sexual obsession and sadomasochistic love between Freddy/Morrow and a girl called A; and there’s a tender, astringently touching plot involving Freddy’s elderly Aunt Corky, though not a blood aunt—the connection is vague and largly syntactical—who moves into his dingy two-room flat to die. In the background lurks a mysterious serial killer who drains his victims’ blood. And yet for all this plottish hyperbole, Athena is a kind of echo chamber of comic despair, in which everything seems fated or written by another hand, where gods toy with humans and turn them into beasts, where a miasma of solipsism hangs in a world of dreams, where reality and dream haunt each other, and mysterious lost children, doubles, and putative parents hover just out of focus (though one is constantly aware of them as force fields, as emanations, magnetic, incestuous, and invisible).

Buy the book and read the rest.


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