Saturday, December 23, 2006

Master of style

John Banville, on being awarded the Booker Prize for The Sea, had remarked, "It is nice to see a work of art win the Prize." If it had not been Banville, I would have dubbed the speaker an irritatingly arrogant man, but with him, these words, despite landing from the horse's mouth, do not lose sheen since they are the truth. Banville is master of self-reflective fiction.

First, it was The Sea that bowled me over, and now, The Untouchable. Banville's narrators in both are articulate English males pondering the emptiness in their lives. But why are these people racked by self doubt? Subconscious strands run through Banville's work, pointing to childhood traumas and missed opportunities. Max Morden and Victor Maskell (such snobbish, unreal names) owe a vote of thanks to their creator for making them masters of simile and the precise phrase. So much so that the reader is left gasping as he conjures each simile or metaphor, risen from unthinkable depths of the imagination, apt and striking at the same time. Is Banville a sorcerer or is he just supremely gifted? A party group becomes a flock of languorous pigeons; "swift, bug-eyed glances" are exchanged; a dining scene assumes Olympian proportions. And all these have been produced from a slender sheaf within The Untouchable.

He leads a deeply tormented inner life, does Maskell. Yet, he never loses the larger picture, always looking at and analysing events around him with an avuncular regard for the reader. None of this, mind you, is done for effect. Maskell's wisdom is closely tied up with his eccentricities and one wishes one knew such a man in life to understand more legibly the strands of concern that run through and ruin his life. This is not to suggest that Banville doesn't paint as broad a canvas for his narrator's character as allowed for within the confines of a novel. It is a mark of Banville's talent that Maskell becomes so real as to leap off the constraining environs - spying rings; the Blitz; private, encompassing grief - that the pages afford him.

Banville's writing reminds one of Alan Hollinghurst - words joined together with a blindingly posh simplicity; evolved imagery; deep sense of time and place. You open their books not to learn a story; you approach them with expectant trepidation at what amazing sights and sounds lurk in the folds of the next page.

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