John Banville’s The Book of Evidence was published by Secker & Warburg in 1989.
“Sometimes,” wrote Joan Acocella of The New Yorker recently, “you feel that, over the past twenty-five years or so, [John Banville] has been writing just one long novel.” Twenty-five years might seem a neat bracket of time, but there is nothing unconsidered about Acocella’s estimation, for nearly twenty-five years have passed since the publication of Banville’s classic novel The Book of Evidence. The suggestion of Banville writing an epic work over a quarter-decade is a good one. For this novel is the one out of which all his middle and late fiction springs, bringing forth, among other things, that arch Banvillian voice: the melancholic, middle-aged male intellectual, solipsistic, forlorn and forsaken, struggling for some kind of authentic existence. Loosely based on the shocking events surrounding the Malcolm MacArthur murders in 1982 and the first novel of three in the series commonly known as the “Art Trilogy”, the narrative is the prison confession of Freddie Montgomery, a feckless Anglo-Irish gentleman with an eye for fine art, who inexplicably bludgeons to death with a hammer an innocent maid named Josie Bell whose only sin was to witness him stealing a painting.
The Book of Evidence is by any estimation the most indispensable work of Banville’s entire corpus: any retrospective look at his career must ultimately begin and end with this novel. Although perhaps more influenced than influential, it can nonetheless be claimed to be one of the finest novels in English of the late twentieth century. For all the intellectual complexity of its themes, it is also a notable precursor to the Benjamin Black books, and its readability demonstrates Banville’s remarkable ability to straddle the high- and middlebrow markets. For the author, the novel itself brought unprecedented critical attention, widened his popular appeal considerably and cemented his reputation as the finest Irish prose writer since Beckett (although the book’s style owes considerably more to the influence of Nabokov). Within the landscape of Irish fiction, it is a work which incorporates traditional homegrown literary themes such as the politics of violence, the dislocations of cultural identity and the problem of language, as well as signalling another stage of development in the faintly pulsing, but nonetheless discernible, idealist tradition of the Irish philosophical novel.
There are those who would object to calling The Book of Evidence an Irish novel, since that is to occlude the supranational nature of its motifs. Perhaps no other Irish writer since Beckett has done more to shun the category “Irish writer”, although in so doing Banville has ironically drawn attention to how encompassing it can be. And yet, as with all Banville novels set in Ireland, the local feels like a screen on which some greater metaphysical truth is being projected. Allow the Irish aspects of the book to recede from view and the big issues of the twentieth-century western intellectual tradition take the stage. The novel is a meditation on the meaning and nature of being; it incorporates poststructuralist scepticism of linguistic stability and yet is a defence of the bourgeois seductions of “high” art; it is an existentialist crime narrative that sits comfortably alongside Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Camus’s The Outsider and Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel. It is also of a piece with its specific moment; one of Banville’s finest critics, Elke d’Hoker, has noted that the novel’s publication coincided with the “ethical turn” in continental philosophy in the 1980s.
Most of all, The Book of Evidence confronts the problem of morality in a godless universe. Nietzsche was a major influence on Banville in this period; indeed, in his own notes to the composition of the novel, he jotted down the philosopher’s observation that “there are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena”. While the heyday of literary existentialism has long passed, and Nietzsche’s dismantling of metaphysics has long been absorbed into the mainstream of continental philosophy, Banville’s great manoeuvre in The Book of Evidence is to make the ambiguity of moral interpretation a judgment on traditional assumptions about art. In calling itself into question, the novel chimes with much of the ethical, aesthetic and linguistic matters of postmodernist fiction. An accessible crime thriller inspired by shocking events The Book of Evidence may well be, but this is also a book which fulfils Banville’s singular intellectual ambition, an ambition that in the early 1970s the critic Seamus Deane recognised as marking him out from all other young Irish writers.
Not only was the novel critically acclaimed on its publication as a remarkable literary achievement and its author’s finest work to date, it was also a commercial success. Banville is often criticised for his aestheticism, but it is also appropriate to recognise that he has always been an institutional writer whose novels fit with the publishing and marketing mainstream of contemporary literary fiction. Having already won prizes of various sizes for Birchwood (1973), Doctor Copernicus (1976) and Kepler (1981), by 1989 he had become accustomed to picking up the odd literary award. Nominated for the Booker prize, The Book of Evidence was beaten by Kazuo Ishiguro’s beautifully crafted The Remains of the Day. However, Banville did collect the unattractively titled but more lucrative Guinness Peat Aviation award, at that time the largest literary prize in Europe. To win the GPA award was no mean feat: to enter the competition, publishers could submit any book that had been published by an Irish author over the previous three years. With a final total of around two hundred books out of which to compile a shortlist, the four “assessors” (who were not to be called judges), Fay Weldon, Hugh Kenner, Philip French and Gerry Dukes, were given an impossibly short ninety days to read, digest and decide which book was most worthy of the fifty thousand pound cheque. To make matters more complicated, the assessor’s recommendation of the winner would then be made to Graham Greene, the British novelist, who was to be the final adjudicator.
Locked in a hotel room in Co Clare, the four assessors eventually whittled the gargantuan list down to thirty books which, according to Kenner, were the only ones they had all read. That The Book of Evidence survived such an arduous process is undoubtedly a testament to the audacity of its narrative; that it emerged on the shortlist of five, which included such diverse titles as Seamus Heaney’s The Haw Lantern and Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1690-1972 and was chosen as the eventual winner, is a testament to how even an arbitrary world can produce a satisfying result. Yet the oddity of the episode was only beginning; as sometimes is the case with Banville and literary awards, controversy duly ensued. Taking everyone by surprise and much to the embarrassment of all involved, Greene unexpectedly announced that while Banville was the winner of the competition a special award was to be given to Vincent McDonnell for his book The Broken Commandment, a work that had not even made the shortlist compiled by the assessors.
Perhaps as a reward for Greene’s eccentric behaviour, Banville would later commit what The Guardian’s Chris Petit would describe as an act of “cold revenge”, by fictionalising Greene as the traitorous Querell in The Untouchable (1997), his magisterial thriller inspired by the Cambridge spy scandal. Yet the GPA award debacle had its artistic upside: in transforming Greene into Querell, Banville was deploying one of his favourite devices, that is, the transformation of controversial historical figures into fictional characters. He had done so in his science novels of the 1970s and 80s (Doctor Copernicus and Kepler); he would also do the same with Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable and with the Belgian deconstructionist Paul de Man in his dazzling philosophical novel Shroud (2002).
The fictionalisation of historical events has long been a distinctive feature of Banville’s writing, and nowhere more so than in The Book of Evidence. Indeed one of the most impressive aspects of the novel is its masterly self-reflexiveness, for the ethical nature of imaginative transfiguration involved in the artistic process is the issue at its heart. Freddie’s murderous crime, it seems, originates in his inability to recognise the reality of the world, of society, of people. So it is that Banville’s novel questions the ethics of a too-invested faith in art. This self-questioning reveals a profound irony: the truth art has to tell about reality can only be revealed through art’s unreality. It is this turn towards the ethics of art that makes The Book of Evidence the most important work in Banville’s oeuvre, placing self-doubt at the centre of every fiction he has written since. Had he merely attempted to reproduce the GUBU events surrounding MacArthur’s crime and subsequent flight, the novel could perhaps have been an historical one, like Doctor Copernicus or Kepler, albeit an historical novel with a philosophical point to prove. Yet the reconstruction of MacArthur in The Book of Evidence as Freddie Montgomery is perhaps the supreme example of Banville’s ability not only to generate a fictional narrative from actual events, but also to make the ethics of an artistic imagination which appears to reign supreme over the raw material of life the subject matter of his own book.
The key scenes in the novel are these. Standing in the gallery, gazing at a portrait of a woman, Freddie finds himself transfixed and compelled for reasons unknown to steal it. But the theft is a bungle and Freddie is suddenly overcome with self-pity. He is witnessed by Josie Bell and he marches her to his car, before smashing her face in with a hammer. Having now destroyed the life of the maid, Freddie dumps the painting for which he killed. Some ideal has released its grip; some order has been shattered, but what? This great conundrum in The Book of Evidence is what Freddie calls a “failure of imagination”. Near the end of the novel comes perhaps the best-known passage, a section of narrative that is a rumination on a crisis of imagination. Reflecting on his killing of Josie Bell, Freddie says:
This is the worst, the essential sin, I think, the one for which there will be no forgiveness: that I never imagined her vividly enough, that I never made her be there sufficiently, that I did not make her live. Yes, that failure of imagination is my real crime […]
The phrase is suggestive of a number of ideas: personal failure; the ineffectualness of contemporary art; the end of the romantic ideal of self-creation and the bringing to life of the other. More extraordinary, and problematic, perhaps, is the strange idea that the imagination is even necessary to recognise the existence of the other. But the other question here is not the failure of the imagination, but how to rehabilitate the imagination, so that an authentic, ethical co-existence can be realised. This question transforms The Book of Evidence into a text about the politics of art in an era defined by its scepticism towards ideologies of power and authenticity.
Up to the publication of The Book of Evidence, the failure of imagination had been a persistent theme for Banville. In the four novels of his “Science Tetralogy” of the 1970s and 80s, for instance, he had explored the problem that the reality constructed by the human imagination is fundamentally fraudulent. Out of this fraudulence is created a form of art which is ordered and beautiful, and purely self-referential. The great Beckettian paradox of art, then, for Banville, is that it will always necessarily fail to capture external truth, but out of that failure art emerges triumphantly self-contained, producing what is described in Doctor Copernicus as “redemptive despair”. For this apparent insistence on the primacy of the artwork, Banville has garnered the reputation for being an ice-cold aesthete. In Ghosts, the sequel to The Book of Evidence, for example, he will have Freddie say “I am told I should treasure life, but give me the realm of art any time.” If there is something a little too cosy about all this, it is because in this picture of isolation art supposedly retains for itself an abstract, un-social idea of truth which is provable only on its own terms. However, The Book of Evidence is of central importance in Banville’s corpus because it is precisely these assumptions that are put to the test, and the results of that test show ambiguity and uncertainty: how much of his story is true, Freddie is asked by the authorities, and he replies that all of it and none of it is.
The despair that was redemptive in Doctor Copernicus is now no longer secure, for The Book of Evidence asks: what does it mean, in ethical terms, for the imagination to have failed? When the novel was first published, most of the attention paid to it either focused on Banville’s style and technique, the portrayal of the psychology of a murderer, or the problem of moral relativism the book explored. However, the phrase “failure of imagination” not only accords with some post-romantic decline of the power of art, but with a pessimism that was in keeping with mood of its time. With the benefit of twenty-five years’ hindsight, the book seems to also speak to the moment from which it springs.
Writing in The Irish Times in 1989, Hugh Kenner called The Book of Evidence a “book of our times about circumstances that lead an intelligent, highly civilised man to commit an appalling murder in what is traditionally called ‘cold blood’”. While Kenner, in all probability, is referring to the MacArthur case, there is also some suggestion in his observation that the book draws peripheral attention to the use of violence in the service of an ideal, for it is for the woman in the portrait that Freddie kills Josie Bell. A notable feature of The Book of Evidence, largely ignored at the time of original publication and often overlooked since, is the subplot of terrorist bombings, based on the Dublin bombs planted by Loyalist paramilitaries in the 1970s, that punctuate the narrative. In the context of Irish politics during the Troubles, the phrase failure of imagination is pointed. This was retrospectively noticed by Banville himself who considered the book in relation to the bombing of Omagh by the Real IRA in 1997. In an interview in 2000 with The Observer, for example, Banville said that:
I realised many years after I had written it that The Book of Evidence was, in many ways, about Ireland because it was about the failure of imagination and the failure to imagine other people into existence. You can only plant a bomb in Omagh main street if the people walking around in the street are not really human.
Here the political and the ethics of imagination are inseparable, however unusual it may be to say that other people need to be “imagined” into existence.
If Banville sees political violence in Ireland as stemming from a failure of imagination, or at least does so in that brief interview, then other troubling dimensions to the violence in The Book of Evidence can also be considered. Fay Weldon, in her assessment of the novel in 1989, wondered why it was that Banville, like other Irish writers, seemed to hate the flesh, and more specifically, women. Freddie, after all, does not “see” women in anything other than aesthetic terms. From this perspective, the more troubling aspects of the novel are plain to see: an upper class male murders a working class woman, just as vulnerable women have always been murdered by men. Just as Weldon did, many critics and reviewers of Banville have continued to see his portrayal of women as objects of art – static, silent, mysterious – as typical of an unreconstructed masculinity, nostalgically in search of a lost grandeur. If the imagination “fails” in The Book of Evidence, can it be said that it is a particularly male form of imagination that fails, one that draws again for its self-serving power on the deep cultural repository of revulsion towards women?
To what degree, it might be asked, does Banville’s oft-asserted claim that the artwork must be autonomous immunise The Book of Evidence from these legitimate criticisms? Over the course of his career, he has frequently stated his view that the artist must divorce himself from social issues or find himself in peril. He has continued to cite Kafka’s idea that the artist is the man with nothing to say, or, as Alain Badiou puts it, all art can educate us for is its own existence. Many critics and reviewers of Banville, both academic and otherwise, have also supported the view that this means that art for Banville is unrelated to its environment. And yet he has also written that “even the most abstract art is grounded in the mundane”. In fact, The Book of Evidence complicates the idea of aesthetic autonomy. Freddie’s imagination “fails” and in that failure his error is revealed. It is unlikely that Banville is making some radical statement about the necessary failure of the patriarchal imagination, but it is also true that this masculinism is exposed in the book as fraudulent and derisory. In doing so, the greatness of novel is that it reminds us that the distance between the sociality of art and the autonomous nature art claims for itself is always in dispute. The Book of Evidence is a work which tells us that the best art is both closed and open. Ultimately, and appropriately, there is no resolution to the narrative; there is only Freddie’s “shame”. As with all great works of art, it is beautiful and provocative, evades definitive categorisation and transcends genres, appearing at once to be self-enclosed and yet enclosed by its moment.
Eoghan Smith lectures in English at Carlow College. He has also taught at NUI Maynooth. He has written several articles on the work of John Banville, Samuel Beckett, Claire Keegan and other practitioners of modern Irish writing. He is the author of the forthcoming John Banville: Art and Authenticity (Reimagining Ireland series), to be published by Peter Lang this year.