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John Banville – April in Spain

“Terry Tice liked killing people”, begins John Banville’s nineteenth novel: “it was a matter of making things tidy…he had nothing personal against any of his targets…except insofar as they were clutter.” In a certain sense, Banville knows whereof he writes: April in Spain is a clutter-free giallo, utterly filleted of red herrings. It’s not a detective novel; it’s a crime novel, in which the characters converge on the nexus of their fates.

Image credit: Faber

This is my fifth Banville but my first Banville thriller. The man himself used to be frightfully coy about his genre fiction, churning out his Quirke series, set in the 1950s, under the name of Benjamin Black (the nineteen books cited above do not include the novels on the Black list). Only recently has he acknowledged Quirke as his own, which seems like good sense – everyone knew that Black was Banville, and it’s only worth having a pseudonym if you’re going to do it properly, like Elena Ferrante.

Again, April in Spain is not a detective novel, and Quirke (we never learn his first name) is not a detective. He is the Irish state pathologist, but we meet him out of the office: his second wife Evelyn has dragged him away for a holiday in San Sebastián, which he endures with studied ill grace. Banville loses no time in flagging up Quirke’s failings. He sulks. He boozes. He asks for his steak well-done. He “enjoy[s] occasions of social awkwardness”, and expends some energy on others’ discomfiture. All this is serenely borne by the saintly Evelyn, who indulges his strops and loves him unconditionally. When Quirke finds himself in hospital – courtesy of takeaway oysters and a pair of nail scissors – he meets an Irish medic called Angela Lawless, who jogs something in his memory. Eventually he clocks that she is April Latimer, sometime tearaway friend of his daughter Phoebe. Except that April Latimer has been declared dead these four years, murdered by a mad brother.

From this point – roughly a third of the way through – Quirke ceases to be the narrative tentpole of the book and becomes one interior voice among many. The investigation falls to his daughter Phoebe, who makes the mistake of mentioning the news to April’s repulsive uncle William Latimer, Irish Secretary of Defence. Latimer extorts the help of the deviously bland Ned Gallagher, a civil servant who cannot afford to be outed from the closet, which is where he keeps all the ministers’ skeletons (and he himself has some rather more serious secrets than his sexuality). Phoebe, for her part, comes out to Spain under the protection of Detective Inspector St John Strafford, who plays the main role in Banville’s previous thriller, Snow.

Thus the narrative slinkies from one character to another, with virtually everybody getting at least one chapter except Evelyn, who remains as unknowable to her husband as she does to her reader. In fact Evelyn, who is Austrian, is the one voice on which Banville occasionally trips up: he tries to convince us that “English was the language in which she was least proficient” and makes her stumble over some unlikely words like “confound”, while not letting her miss a beat in lines like “Remember what you told me about Hemingway, that he brushed his teeth only with brandy because there were so many germs in the [Spanish] water?” More assured is Terry Tice’s geezer schtick, which goes far beyond mere patina and deep into the ventricles of his brain – indeed, as we head into the final act, it feels more like a Tice novel than a Quirke novel. On a whim, Terry buys a copy of Brighton Rock, and we follow his progress with it. “The book wasn’t bad, though he hadn’t read many books so he couldn’t really judge. The people in it were the sort he knew, though they were described in an exaggerated way. They were loud and brightly painted, like characters in a pantomime.” The literary faculty of Terry’s mind has hardly developed past childhood, hence the gauche, almost touching naiveté of his criticism. For the same reason, “the author” is never named: Graham Greene means nothing to him.

Banville has always done a good line in psychopathy (see The Book of Evidence), and Terry Tice is a psychopath who stirs both pity and queasiness. When an unwitting Phoebe spies him leaving the bookshop, he strikes her as “a sorry runt of a thing…going along at a rapid sort of strut, shoulders back and pelvis thrust forward…a not quite life-sized and in some way damaged manikin.” But if Terry is damaged, so is most of the cast. Quirke used to be a dysfunctioning alcoholic, and is now just a functioning one. Phoebe grew up believing him her uncle rather than her father. Evelyn’s family were exterminated in the Holocaust, though not even Quirke is allowed to know her parents’ names or how many siblings she lost. So the whole thing is pretty noirish, with only a light dusting of crime fiction’s campier pleasures. There’s no real sleuthing, no great moment of revelation; just the dread of the inevitable dénouement. And it’s a skill, keeping the reader hurtling towards what they know is going to happen.

by Harry Cochrane

April in Spain is published by Faber and is available here.

J. L. Carr – A Month in the Country

I’ve seen the film. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book but for learning that J. L. Carr died the very day I was born. The title doesn’t do it any favours, I think: ‘A Month in the Country’ calls up Georgian images of greenwood trees and dusty parsons, the complacent England that Laurie Lee had to get out of. And the Guardian’s words on the front cover – “tender and elegant” – read less like a ringing endorsement than a stifled yawn. A good thing, then, that A Month in the Country speaks for itself, unlike the Booker-shortlisted ephemera that actually need a volley of press quotes.

Image credit: Penguin

It’s summer 1920. Tom Birkin is a young art restorer with a twitch from the trenches. His wife has run off with another man. He arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby, where he has been commissioned to uncover a whitewashed medieval mural in the parish church. The money comes from the late Miss Hebron, who is also funding another veteran, Charles Moon, to dig around in the neighbouring fields for an illustrious ancestor: all this archaeology takes place under sufferance of the Reverend J. G. Keach, who has Protestant misgivings about what the images might do for his flock’s attention span. As Birkin’s month passes and the locals make themselves known to him from down in the pews – he sleeps where he works, on the scaffolding – he realizes that he is falling in love with the vicar’s wife, Alice.

The narrative is signed off by Birkin as an old man, looking back on this month from nearly sixty years on. But age has not wearied him: his memory is sharp. Despite the idyllic Yorkshire setting – not a Yorkshire of Brontë heathland, but a Yorkshire of lavish greenery and stolid heat – the War never feels very far away. Carr doesn’t lay it on thick, and Birkin rarely alludes to it himself; his facial tic serves as an objective correlative. “I don’t need to be told you didn’t catch that twitch on the North-Eastern Railway,” Moon observes, “so we may as well start straight away swapping stories about the same bloody awful place.” But the stories remain between them, and reader is left to imagine.

However, A Month in the Country is not a well-worn tale of a damaged soul healing in an innocent, ingenuous community. Yes, it’s an unconditional welcome that Birkin receives from all the lay locals, especially from the Ellerbeck family, and by the end of the month his facial spasms have virtually disappeared. But Birkin’s hosts are far from pastoral cliché, just as Keach is far from a cardboard antagonist. When Birkin visits the vicarage to claim his first payment, a gothic cloud descends upon the prose. Alice Keach meets him on the doorstep, reeling from a nightmare: “trees had been closing in on her, first swaying menacingly, then dragging up their roots and actually advancing…And the air, it too had pressed in till she felt the house had become a compression chamber.” Lesser novels would pin it squarely on her husband and paint him as a country Casaubon, but it’s here that Carr gives Keach his own vulnerabilities, in “this wilderness of a house” where “they huddled together for each other’s company.” Later on, in a final showdown with Birkin, Keach allows himself a flickering moment of candour: “It’s not easy. The English are not a deeply religious people.”

Be that as it may, the old pieties hold very firm in Oxgodby, which lies too far from the Front for the shells to have pounded away Christian belief. One of the most touching scenes, omitted from the film, comes when Birkin, Mr Ellerbeck, his daughter Kathy and the blacksmith Mr Dowthwaite troop down to Ripon to find a new organ for the church. They incense the contemptuous vendor by holding a mini choir practice, under Mr Ellerbeck’s direction:

Here Kathy, let’s have No. 264, “Low, He comes with clouds descending once for guilty sinners slain”. It’s got  plenty of go in it.’…

   And off they went; Kathy leading off in an unusually strong soprano howl, Mr Ellerbeck’s exaggerated tenor almost harmonizing with the blacksmith’s basso profundo (both mighty hands across his waistcoat)…it was a splendid noise and they were well into verse 3 before a maniacal yell choked them off: it was the proprietor, beside himself with rage.

Amidst all these set pieces, the Oxgodby Last Judgement is inching into view, piece by piece, figure by figure, fanning out beneath the fearsome gaze of Christ – “no catalogue Christ, insufferably ethereal. This was a wintry hardliner.” Carr seems to know his technical stuff, his cinnabars and his sinoper haematites, but the poetry of these passages really turns the mural into something like a living organism, as it is for his protagonist. At some point on the job, it strikes Birkin that one of his flaming wretches is a portrait: “a crescent shaped scar on his brow made this almost certain” (and without wishing to drop spoilers, that scar turns out to be symbolically significant). If Birkin’s trek to the vicarage has shades of gothic, his exposure of the painting reads a lot like a detective story – but not entirely, because detective stories don’t give the sense of two people communing across a space of centuries, and detective stories always wrap up neatly. A Month in the Country doesn’t wrap up neatly; it bears out the either/or nature of Yeats’ choice, perfection of the life or of the work.

by Harry Cochrane

A Month in the Country is published by Penguin and is available here.

The Second Mania: A Jamesian Diary

For years I steered clear of Henry James. My mother had long championed The Portrait of a Lady, which sounded rather too fey and effete, and looked rather too long. When I learned that he was John Banville’s, one of my favourite writers, favourite writer, I was disappointed. When I became hooked on Donna Leon’s series of Venetian murder mysteries, I instinctively sided with the unconvinced Commissario Brunetti who, however highly cultured, is not cultured as highly as his wife, a Jamesian scholar lovingly lavish with his epithet of ‘The Master’. My root prejudice probably went back to university and Ezra Pound’s needless defence of Dante: ‘For sheer dullness one reads Henry James, not the Inferno‘.

But it was in my last year as a student that a dear musicologist friend of mine lent me The Turn of the Screw, which he had read on account of the opera that his favourite composer, Britten, had made from it. This looked more appealing than The Portrait of a Lady: it was shorter, for one thing, and the blurb was enticingly gothic. Elliott gave it to me with a glowing review, having read it in one wintry, nocturnal, fireside sitting. At the moment of reaching ‘the part with the ghost’, he had looked up, caught his reflection in the dark window, and spilled his whisky with fright. I told my mother about this new borrowing. ‘I hate The Turn of the Screw,’ she said. ‘The only Henry James worth reading is The Portrait of a Lady.’

It’s strange how memories twine themselves around the most convenient chronology. Even now I have to remind myself that The Turn of the Screw was not the first Henry James that I read. It was the first Henry James that I had, on my bookshelves, but there it remained for a good eighteen months while I, for once the educator rather than the educated, spent a year teaching English in Ravenna, a small city about a hundred miles down the road from Venice. As with every Italian town there was a Via Mazzini, but Ravenna’s appeared to be semi-officially known as the Via dei Poeti for its dozen or so panels, which sported quotations from not only the poets but also from the artists, novelists, popes and psychiatrists who had spent time in the place and had had something to say about it. There was T. S. Eliot and his French poem ‘Lune de Miel’; there was Oscar Wilde and his early prizewinner ‘Ravenna’; there was a postcard from Klimt and appreciative grunts from Freud. And there was Henry James and a few lines from his essay on the city, which one can find collected into his Italian Hours: ‘For Ravenna, however, I had nothing but smiles – grave, reflective, philosophic smiles, I hasten to add’, just in case we suspected him of outright, vulgar happiness.

But it was not until the following April that I read more than this panel. It was The Aspern Papers, a novella similar in brevity to The Turn of the Screw, and it was divided over my journey back to Northumberland for the Easter holidays, which began on the gorgeous Apennine line from Faenza to Florence and finished on the ungorgeous one from Leeds to Newcastle. Between the two there was a flight, on which I recall reading nothing. I probably would not have completed The Aspern Papers that day had I not fought with my then-fidanzata soon after landing. We sat on the train in silence, side by side, I with The Aspern Papers, she with an Italian translation of Daisy Miller. The frostiness between us was entirely Jamesian, but I feel that his characters would have oiled it over with strained, elegant civilities.

The Aspern Papers, then, was (or were) my introduction to Henry James. I loved it. But unusually for any book of mine, still more so for one so beloved, I do not remember where it came from. I can point to the provenance of most of the volumes on my shelves. This one was second-hand, from the beautiful old Penguin range with the bone-coloured backs and spines and the oval frame around the title. I have no recollection of buying it; why would I have bought it, with my avowed, uninformed denial of The Master’s mastery? I can see myself seduced by the edition, its slightness, its synopsis, its Venetian setting and its story of a hallowed poet’s prying biographer, scrupling at nothing to prise the surviving letters from the aged innamorata, certainly not at preying on the confidence and marital hopes of her niece. Yes, I can see myself falling for that. I am certain that I did not go out to Ravenna with The Aspern Papers, yet I had them with me when I took that train to Florence. I must date it, then, to the Christmas holidays of 2016-17, probably as a stocking-filler; I cannot imagine having found it on the foreign-language shelves of any of Ravenna’s bookshops, still less having forgotten such a find.

As much as I loved The Aspern Papers, I waited maybe another six months before finally picking up The Turn of the Screw at around the same time as belatedly reading another nasty, lurid, poisonous little tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Reinstalled in my family home in Northumberland, which I watched over with my parents at work and my brother at university, my thoughts had taken a turn for the dark; perhaps I saw the frame of Bly in my own rural residence. Still the taper burned slow: it was not until a year later, now living and working in Florence, that the Jamesian impulse fully seized me. The brother got me The Ambassadors for my birthday; I meanwhile snatched up every two-euro second-hand copy that I could find in the Paperback Exchange. Some I had vaguely heard of, such as The Wings of the Dove; some not at all, like The Awkward Age and Roderick Hudson, his first novel. Each time I returned to the shop there seemed to be a new one, sneaked into the box beneath the shelves. It was as if someone was drip-feeding them to me.

Of course, there is a world of difference between reading and collecting, and James understood the perils of the second mania. He understood how one can be possessed with the desire to possess, simply for possession’s sake. We see it in The Outcry, which I bought in a booksale at the Harold Acton Library on the Arno’s south bank: an American with a bottomless chequebook tussles with an English lord for an heirloomed portrait, which over the course of the novel spikes and falls in value depending on the identity of the supposed artist. It is beneath Beckenridge Bender to pay anything less than a huge, headline-grabbing sum, and it is beneath Lord Theign – who desperately needs it – to accept any at all. Never does James give us any details about the portrait itself, its dimensions, its medium, its uniquities, for none of that is of the least interest to either party. All that matters is the having.

The first mania only compounds the second. Starting with The Ambassadors would put many a reader off for life, but since beginning with The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw and Roderick Hudson, I have battled through subsequent longueurs in search of the chills I have come to presume. The Jamesian world is a labyrinth, and characters you’ve met before glide through the passages: the sculptor Gloriani, for instance, a major player in the Rome of Roderick Hudson and a guest at a number of Parisian socials in The Ambassadors. My current desideratum, meanwhile, is a lesser-known novel named after the Princess Casamassima, née Christina Light, Roderick Hudson‘s bored, self-loathing siren.

Were it by any other writer, I would search for that Princess among the Amazons. But all of my Jamesian buys have been occasional, none premeditated, and if Henry James has infected me with the acquisitiveness that rules so many of his characters, he has also infected me with the desire that rules almost all of them: to do things properly. The Beckenridge Bender of the twenty-first century would log into eBay, locate a first edition of book and bid ten times its asking price, blowing all rivals out of the market. But the breadline has necessarily attuned my sympathies more to the impoverished Lord Theign, who affects indifference to the point of…well, that you’ll see when you read it. Like him, I shall feign insouciance and bide my time until I should cross paths with The Princess Casamassima, as Roderick Hudson does, ultimately and fatally, in the unlikeliest of places.

by Harry Cochrane

This piece was written in summer 2019. A second Jamesian diary entry will be out soon.