‘The philosopher asks: Can the style of an evil man have any unity?’ It’s a wonderfully sharp question, marrying morals to aesthetics in a challenging new-old fashion. And it’s a question, as ever with John Banville, within other questions. Who, for instance, you’re made to wonder at this point in Ghosts, is actually asking? Some anonymous narrator? The author? The novel’s own enigmatic ‘evil man’, the one who does so much of its telling and, it turns out, has a lot morally to answer for? You never know. It’s hard to tell; it’s always hard to tell with this author. It’s at the centre of his power that his mood, his people’s mood, the mood of his writing, is inte0rogative. And in best Modernist fashion, these interrogations don’t have straight answers.
So can the style of an evil man – those fallen aestheticians Banville is drawn to, the compulsive counters and writers, the book-keepers and keepers of the books, notes, novels, those custodians of black books, Big Books, words, even of the Word – have, in fact, Unity? The question drives right to the heart of the ordering, sense-making, story-telling, fiction-writing that preoccupies Banville’s novels, not least this one. The rather higgledy-piggledy structure of Ghosts – its abrupt to-ing and froing; its throwing of chronological switches between a present in which a curious troupe of pleasure-boat passengers is briefly thrown up on a small Irish island, and the past lives of the island’s art-historical inhabitants, especially of the novel’s ‘evil man’, its ex-con main narrator; the plethora of ancillary voices, stories, modes (including the sudden late intrusion of an art-critical passage in which an anonymous painting gets lengthily scrutinised); the un-smooth mix of action, reflection, question – all this, which makes this the most contrivedly ragged of Banville’s novels so far, certainly appears to challenge any ready reply in the affirmative. Unity? Not really. But then, a simple negative reply is hard too. More is going on, or might be going on, in the matter of order, than immediately meets the eye.
On the island so rudely invaded by the flock of castaways, Professor Krutznaer, art-historian now manqué, occupies his time up his panoptical tower with what he calls ‘the old questions’. Are chance, disorder, incongruity the ‘only constants’ uniting the ‘disparate things’ which he observes Banville-wise – ‘that wind, this fly, himself brooding here’? These questions, of order, pattern, deep arrangement in things, are old not least because they’re asked by a long line of Banville intellectuals: Koppernigk of Copernicus, Kepler of Kepler, Kasperl and Kosok of Mefisto. The air of Banville’s fiction is thick with such issues. His people squirm and wriggle away from the idea that chaos, or chaos theory, are all. They’re eager to ponder the counter-claims of necessity. Was the ex-jailbird’s arrival on the island, Krutznaer wonders, arranged? Can he be a ‘required’ man? Surely his old acquaintance Felix, who knows a discomforting mite or two too much about his sticky ways with picture provenances, cannot be among the castaways by ‘pure chance’.
As for provenance, it has this way, especially in the mouths of babes and sucklings (and there are some among the castaways), of sliding over into its allied vocable Providence. Indeed, if arrangements exist they presuppose arrangers, even – especially in the minds of the great Doctores Mathematici, the pioneering Scientific Christians whose nosings about the universe concern and haunt Copernicus and Kepler and Newton’s Letter – a great Arranger. But then, if provenances can be, as Felix alleges, faked, maybe Providence can be a grand faker, or fake, too. Certainly when it comes to the narrative arrangements made by the ‘evil man’ of Ghosts and his fellow conspirators, the Author, the Narrator(s), the Text, there seems ample room for a whole lot of faking.
Banville has always been a classic Modernist, committed to an exemplary Modernist programme of narrative self-doubting, tricksy uncertainty-mongering, caginess, the unsettling of readers – what Finnegans Wake knows as HeCitEncy, hesitation about citing. And Ghosts keeps up the old Modernist ways. ‘Here they are. There are seven of them. Or better say, hall a dozen or so, that gives more leeway.’ Thus the opening of Ghosts. It could be the first paragraph of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Better for whom, one wonders? And leeway for what, exactly? Why, for more such calculated inexactness. ‘Tell them I’m alright. Tell them I’m asleep. Tell them I ...’ From her temporary bed-clothed refuge the much-desired Flora could be Lord Jim tailing off into ellipsis, caesura, the cut-off. She could also, of course, be on a page of dotted Irish playfulness by Sterne or Beckett. Banville knows, hereabouts, what his house and lineage are. And his readers should be up on what to expect in the way of random naming by now (‘My wife. What shall I call her this time – Judy?’), that defiant unfixing of the novel’s old sense, the modern world’s sense, of the fixity and uniqueness of names. The painter Studied on the island, is he Vaublin or Vanhoblin or Van Hobellijn? The infection of this kind of uncertainty spreads all over. The monologic murderer of The Book of Evidence made a point of wondering repeatedly whether he’d mentioned this or that, and the ex-con of Ghosts avidly continues the device. ‘Have I said this already?’ ‘Have we met Alice?’ ‘Have I mentioned My Search for God?’ As for the rig of the old actor Croke, one of the castaways, is he wearing a boater or a panama? It’s a question Beckett would have relished.
Words, in general, tend to fail old Croke. ‘My son, the comedian’, his father used to say, not intending a joke. And verbal failure on his scale is certainly not funny. Croke is called the ‘homo verus of myth and legend’, but he can’t ever drag up from his linguistic resources the name for ‘that thing they keep the host in to show at Benediction’. No monstrance of the Word made flesh for him. Even at the fifth, or even sixth, time of asking this verbal entity eludes. No wonder the jailbird reflects on the slipperiness of his pen, its tendency to go ‘prattling along all by itself’, making it the instrument and accomplice of a deviousness implicit in language itself. Small wonder, either, that there’s a continual celebration here of behind-hand, uncovenanted linguistic resources, of communication occurring despite the opacities and tricksiness of words. ‘Thus they converse’ – this of Krutznaer and Sophie, another of the castaways, a refugee photographer from post-war Germany, as they prowl about each other like a wary pair of lapsing communicators out of some late piece of Henry James – ‘haltingly, between long pauses. Behind the language that they speak other languages speak in silence, ones that they know and yet avoid, the languages of childhood and of loss. This reticence seems imperative.’
The imperative of reticence is one Banville’s people very commonly knuckle under to. One way or another, all Banville’s roads lead to the ample condition of silence, whether as grace of as curse. ‘What a connoisseur of silences I have become over the years!’ concludes the ex-con. He’d struck up a liaison with the island’s widowed Mrs Vanden that satisfactory to both precisely in its tendency to ‘ruminant silence’, phrases spaced out like the slow lobs of gerontic tennis players, ‘not exactly a conversation, more a sort of laborious intermittent batting’. Banville’s early novel Birchwood ended with a deference to Wittgenstein. ‘Anyway, some secrets are not to be disclosed under pain of who knows what retribution, and whereof I cannot speak, there-of I must be silent.’ It’s a thought that keeps striking in Banville’s pages.
In these texts, among these people, some secrets remain secret. Secrets are the domesticity Banville’s people customarily inhabit. What’s secreted away, the past, buried lives, old actions, intrigues and frightens. These people are continually anxious to grapple with the dead old thing or truth, to winkle it out into the open, to have Lazarus come forth, stinking grave-clothes and all. At the same time they’d rather some deeds got forgotten. Isn’t forgetting a way, perhaps, to forgiveness? (Doesn’t God, in forgiving, promise to remember your sins no more?) Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if Lazarus stayed well swaddled in his grave-clothes and Banquo’s accusing ghostly presence were dissipated?
It’s this fraught margin where the recurrence of ghosts is in question – as solution, even salvation, but also as grievous problem – that Ghosts patrols with such telling alertness. It is, of course, a mighty echo-chamber of a novel, whose mode is echo upon echo, echolalic to a daunting degree. Take the island. Arrivals hear it making a lovely, musical noise. This echoes, of course, the island in The Tempest, the one that was full of noises. More, the inhabitants keep hearing, and reminding us of, ghostly echoes of other notorious fictional and historical islands and islanders – Devil’s Island, Treasure Island, the Swiss Family Robinson, Crusoe. On such an echoing island Banville’s readers will of course pick up strong echoes of Banville’s earlier interest in Prospero. The carnival troupe of castaways inevitably recalls Prospero’s Magic Circus in Birchwood. And still there’s more. It gradually dawns on one that the blackmailer Felix seems to be the same person as the slouching Mephistophelean pander in Banville’s Mefisto. What’s even more, the ex-con soon manifests himself as Freddie Montgomery, the picture-thief and killer of the female domestic whose story was told in Banville’s last novel, The Book of Evidence. Ghosts brings home the issue of the power and readability of the past not least by being a sort of sequel to Mefisto and The Book of Evidence. ‘Everybody,’ it’s said of the island people, ‘feels they have been here before.’ They have. And so have we.
Repeating himself is by no means new in Banville’s work. The same or similar names, favourite tropes (metallic tastes in the mouth, or the bed that sags as if it had just borne a corpse), trademark adjectives (‘brumous’, for example) travel freely across the oeuvre. Banville devotedly supplements and footnotes history and literary history; he writes supplements and footnotes to his own writing. It comes as little surprise, for instance, after the nice way in which the picture thief in The Book of Evidence obtained employment at an institution whose computer was worked on at night by a zany prof and a youth with a burnt face – so that he was, as it were, actually in Mefisto – when we find Ghosts recounting the story of The Book of Evidence and picking up the picture-taker’s life at the point where he’s released from his life sentence with a self-educated yen lot art-history, clutching a reference from the stolen picture’s owner.
What’s intriguing, and commanding, is how these resurrections are by no means just simple returns of the chronologically repressed. Felix still has coppery pubic hair, but the hair on his head is black – dyed to evade the scrutiny of plodding Sergeant Toner and his kind. Ghosts is clearly the Story of Freddie Montgomery, but he’s only Montgomery now, and that only once. What’s held out is the possibility – faint, but still a possibility – of the redemption that Montgomery dreams of, a rebirth into a forgetting, an innocence, an innocent place.
It is, of course, a dream. The island could, perhaps, be paradisal. But, alas for all the wonderful pastoralia that Banville’s prose is so extraordinarily good at, the place of refuge is already fallen. As arcadias go, this one is blazingly unarcadian. This novel and its predecessor are mightily taken with a painting entitled Le Monde d’or, which turns out to have been dubiously provenanced by Krutznaer. So much for the Realms of Gold. Mephistopheles turns up in the shape of Felix. The Bad boy Hatch, aka Bunter (one name for the killer’s Double in Evidence), chivvies Croke into a heart attack. The hands so carefully rinsed of gore in Evidence still have ‘greasy black stuff flecked with blood and hair’ stuck ‘immovably under my splintered nails’. It’s a besmirched condition said to be normal, the natural accumulation of humans ‘as they claw their way through this filthy world’.
The rot, the death, of the Great Houses of Ireland that populate Banville’s pages – heavily mortgaged, ghostly, gothic effigies of Splendours and riches long past – become a symbol of permanent Fall in the Garden. Birchwood, that ‘baroque madhouse’, scene of cut-throat greeds and vile passions, sets a tone. Whitewater, where Montgomery steals and abducts the maidservant he kills, is a grim centrepiece of both Evidence and Ghosts. The glory of its great picture collection is the dubious Monde d’ or. Whatever aesthetic glory there was is now illusory. Perhaps it always was. In one of Banville’s most telling moments, the scholar-narrator of The Newton Letter yearns Yeatsianly alter the mistress of fern House – ‘Light of evening, the tall windows – Oh, a gazelle’. She’s the Protestant Ascendancy still on the ascendant. But it’s all a private fantasy and delusion. The House is mortgaged to the hilt; soon he hears the admired family talking of going to Mass. They’re not even Protestants. The let-down is as much a blow to the Yeatsian vision as to his own. ‘Farewell Happy Fields’, Banville’s people keep crying. Felix does so twice, once in Mefisto, again in Ghosts. It’s the valedictory apostrophe of Satan, quitting heaven for hell, his paradise well and truly lost. In such a context, if there be a divine Arranger, it would perhaps be the ‘supreme malignancy’ of Montgomery’s gloomiest musings.
But are things always so awfully dark as all this suggests? St Paul’s seeing through a glass darkly, per speculum in aenigmate, is clearly a mode of vision that attracts Banville. But it also provokes a kind of resistant counter-seeing. Again and again Banville returns us to some scene Utterly lucid with brilliant light, takes us through the brightest days of childhood summers, sets us down under those large limpid skies and vistas of his many seasides. It’s surely no accident that Krutznaer’s oldest sidekick – the owner, it turns out, of his speculative tower – is named Licht; nor that Sophia is a photographer, an artist in tight ‘I see,’ says the narrator of Birchwood, ‘through a glass sharply.’ And if those Great Houses of Yeatsian celebration prove crumbling illusions, there are always the counter-possibilities of those manifestly delusive, but still significant and suggestive, pools of light in the Christianised garden of T.S. Eliot’s ruined Great House, Burnt Norton, echoes of which keep recurring in the grounds of Banville’s dilapidated mansions. For every Lisadell, in other words, there’s a Burnt Norton – a potential theatre of redemption, the place where the voices of dead children echo, greatly suggestive of transcendence, where Prufrock-Lazarus might indeed have come happily forth. In the emptiness of his old home, with its reminders of church, Montgomery meets Van, his son, the boy he once thought might be the saving of him, the absolver of the sins of the father. Van, we learn with some shock, is dead He’s a real ghost.
That the world is all there is, is one of Banville’s persisting Wittgensteinian cornerstones. The mere phenomena are what his Kepler and Copernicus tight to save from the doxa-men, the priests and believers. But what seems to attract Banville to these mathematically-minded clue-seekers is the way that the utter given otherness of things was for them still, possibly, a manifestation of some sort of arranging and arranged Otherness. Of course, it has to be said that in his later novels the suggestive, crypto-religiose wonders of the natural world – so magnificent a part of earlier works like Birchwood and Kepler – have been toned down, quietened, darkened. They’re not what they once were. But still, in Ghosts Montgomery does say that he ‘could rhapsodise about ... the simple goodness of the common place ... the quiet delights of drudgery’. And still, to an extent, Banville does. His prose can still work miracles, still turn on stunning rhapsodies of enchanting thinginess. ‘A few big stalks of last year’s cabbages, knobbed like backbones, leaned this way and that, and there were hens that high-Stepped worriedly away from me in slow motion, or stood canted over on one leg with their heads inclined, shaking their wattles and uttering mournful Croaks of alarm.’ This prose, with its virtuosity of simultaneous acquaintance and estrangement, is not just there for purposes of display. It’s part of a sequence of brilliant gestures to the possibility of a ghost in the machine, some big Arranger, if only a deus ridens, as Montgomery puts it, a comic one with funny ways with cabbages and funny bones. This is not the least of what makes this astonishingly attractive novelist one of the most important writers now at work in English – a key thinker, in fact, in fiction.