John Banville is a marvellous and rewarding novelist, but you don’t read him for the story, except when he is writing Crime as Benjamin Black, and, to be honest, not even always then. Actually, the Banville/Black double act has worn a bit thin, and not only because his most recent Black novel with familiar characters was published as by Banville. You read him – at least, I read him – for the prose, the richness of the characterisation, all the better for seldom being fully fleshed-out, for the glittering and sometimes mischievous intelligence, and most of all for his uncanny ability to render mood and atmosphere into verbal pictures.
Sometimes you might call his work self-indulgent, especially when, yet again, the setting is a decayed and further decaying Irish country house where the wallpaper is peeling and there are strange odours in the dark and dank stone-flagged kitchen. Nobody does this sort of thing better, and if it is self-indulgent it is so only in the way that Cezanne returned time and again to Mont Ventoux. In any case, I can’t have enough of it.
There is, arguably, self-indulgence elsewhere in this novel too. Old characters from earlier novels are resurrected. But why not? They are part of the author’s world, still alive, or at least brought to life again, in his memory and imagination. Chief here, or at least first among them, is Freddie Montgomery, from The Book of Evidence. Then he murdered a serving girl in the course of a burglary. Now, on the first page of this new novel, it is his release day – release on licence – after 20 years in prison.
Smartly dressed, if, naturally, unfashionably, he heads for a car saleroom where his former cell-mate has arranged to have him collect a sports car – bit young for him, you might think. It’s an Austin-Healey Sprite, which dates the story some way back, but then The Book of Evidence was published in 1989 and drew on a notorious scandal only a few years previously, when a man wanted for murder was found to be staying as a guest of Ireland's attorney-general. That novel was written in Montgomery’s voice. Now he has given himself a new name, Felix Mordaunt, and this novel is written is in the author’s voice, though it dips into Montgomery’s consciousness and that of other characters when convenient.
Montgomery heads for the house where he spent part of his youth. It is now owned by the Godley family, and he is accosted in the yard by Helen Godley. An alcoholic decaying beauty, she invites him in even though she senses something dangerous about him. Her late father-in-law was a famous scientist who once took Freddie’s wife to bed and whose biographer plays a part in this novel. It is arranged that Freddie should be given a lodging in the cottage owned by the maid-of-all-work, Ivy Bount, whose ancestor before coming to grief built the house. And so, this pilferer or picker-up of stray pieces of jewellery has his foot in the door, his snout in the trough. And in time he will meet an old flame who makes a grotesque demand of him. Meanwhile “the clock on he mantelpiece ticked, and time, as bidden, passed. He wondered what kind of pants she was wearing” – splendid juxtaposition.
There is a plot, though you might be hard-put to follow it, let alone recount it, but this scarcely matters. Indeed, it doesn’t matter at all. There is delight in the jewelled sentences, in the perceptive flashes of understanding and misunderstanding, in the clarity of perception. Banville once said it was his ambition to give his prose “the denseness and thickness that poetry has”. It’s an ambition he brought off long ago.
Banville has time and again been called a superb stylist, praise that some readers – and indeed critics and other novelists – find off-putting. Fair enough: superb style can conceal a deficiency of matter. But there is always matter in Banville’s novels. There is no escape from real experience, no mere flaunting of the peacock’s tail feathers. In truth, he works very close to the experience of life beyond or behind the words. He is a magician, really.
The Singularities, John Banville, Knopf, 308pp, £14.99