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Tom DeignanApril 08, 2021
Photo by Diogo Palhais on Unsplash.

“Other Irish writers he knows about are interested in Ireland. He has tried to read them… The folktales, the myths, the faeries, the banshee…All that dusty old fustian Hibernian rubbish.” -Bram Stoker, in John O’Connor’s 2019 novel Shadowplay.

Fifty years ago, a former Aer Lingus clerk named John Banville embarked upon what would become one of the more celebrated literary careers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A native of Wexford, Banville grew up on the same island as mighty literary giants like Swift and Synge, Yeats and Joyce.

So, naturally, Banville set his first novel—1971’s Nightspawn—on the Greek island of Mykonos.

“I wanted to get as far away from Ireland as my limited experience of the world would allow,” Banville told The Independent. The critic Rudiger Imhof has dubbed Banville “the black sheep in the family of Irish writers,” while Banville has jokingly referred to himself as a “West Brit,” a play on the old but durable Irish insult famously whispered by the nationalist Miss Ivors in James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

John Banville has jokingly referred to himself as a “West Brit,” a play on the old but durable Irish insult famously whispered by the nationalist Miss Ivors in James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

Banville—a Booker and Kafka Prize-winner, and such a perennial Nobel candidate that he was once the victim of a cruel though utterly plausible hoax—has done little to discourage such characterizations. “I stay in this country, but I’m not going to be an Irish writer. I’m not going to do the Irish thing,” Banville told an interviewer in 1997. A few years later he told a broadcaster that “I’ve never cared enough about Ireland to feel I had to flee from it, or leave it.”

And so, in his best-known literary efforts, Banville was uninterested in priests or informants or turf fires. From earlier novels about Copernicus, Kepler and Newton, up through more recent works like The Untouchable, Shroud and the Booker Prize-winning The Sea, Banville has exhibited a relentless fascination with the form and narrative of history, rather than the events themselves; the artifice and inadequacy, rather than grandiosity, of storytelling; the tragi-comic futility of trying to separate the dancer from the dance, the actor from the act, the writer from the written words.

Which, as any reader of Laurence Sterne, or Brian O’Nolan, or Samuel Beckett can attest, is not without precedent in Irish literary history.

Yet something has changed for John Banville in the last 15 years. In a twist worthy of his own byzantine fiction, Banville has adopted a new persona and writing style, and even—perhaps—a changed attitude toward “the Irish thing” he once derided.

Communism and the church

In a 2011 book entitled Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century, Declan Burke wrote of the “many reasons...for the current explosion in Irish crime fiction.” These include, according to Burke, the “end of the thirty-year ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland,” a “country awash in cash and drugs” and the “declining reputations of the Church and the political, legal and financial institutions.” As evidence, Burke offered up popular novelists like Tana French, Adrian McKinty, John Connolly and Ken Bruen.

Also in 2011, a certain Irish writer suggested Banville might care a bit more than he had been letting on about historical forces in Ireland. “The church for us was what the Communist Party was for Eastern Europe,” Banville told the editor of The New York Times Book Review. “We only discovered this when we got older, how unfree we were.” Such a comparison was, if nothing else, provocative, given what many regard as Catholicism’s prominent role in fighting Communism, from Central America to Krakow.

Whatever ills the Irish Catholic Church must account for (and they are legion), there were no secret police, or bloody street clubbings, or sham elections, right? But what if, in peculiarly Irish ways, there actually were? And what if these dark historical forces were illuminated and dramatized not by bleak literary realism, but noir-ish who-dunnits?

“The church for us was what the Communist Party was for Eastern Europe. We only discovered this when we got older, how unfree we were.”

Banville “remains fascinated by Ireland in the ’50s,” Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times last October, with Banville himself claiming “church and state worked to keep the people safely infantilized, the church through early brainwashing, the state by blanket censorship and official lying.” Such cultural commentary—Joycean, in a 21st-century way—is at the center of the crime books Banville has written as “Benjamin Black” since 2007. Most feature the haunted, orphaned pathologist known simply as Quirke.

“It was not the dead that seemed to Quirke uncanny but the living,” he declares in Christine Falls, the first Benjamin Black novel, in which the titular damsel vanishes, prompting a potential cover-up by Dublin’s Catholic elite.

The morgue, Quirke later declares, is “his territory.” And in a sense, that is what Benjamin Black has allowed John Banville to do: perform a literary autopsy on post-colonial Ireland, which this summer marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the War for Independence with Britain. Which begat partition. And the gruesome Irish civil war. And, later, “The Troubles.”

Banville’s Benjamin Black novels (among them The Silver Swan, Elegy for April and A Death in Summer, all of which inspired a BBC/RTE TV show, “Quirke,” starring Gabriel Byrne) suggest that one Irish civil war may well have ended a century ago. But a different one—cultural and spiritual, economic and political—was still raging as Banville’s generation came of age. Using the language and conventions of genre, Banville has raised a host of provocative questions about recent Irish history, which he once may have dismissed as “Hibernian rubbish.” The questions remain, vexing and pressing.

Using the language and conventions of genre, Banville has raised a host of provocative questions about recent Irish history.

A new protagonist

Banville’s latest mystery, Snow, published in the United States last fall, introduces a new detective protagonist, Inspector St. John Strafford, though the conflicts under investigation could be described as closer to ancient. “There was not as much blood as there should have been, given the wounds that had been inflicted,” Banville writes of Snow’s crime victim: a Catholic priest, suggestively named “Lawless.”

“The priest’s body had been tampered with, too. He lay on his back, hands joined on his breast…. All that was lacking was a set of rosary beads twined around his knuckles.”

Snow is the second mystery to feature Inspector Strafford, a Protestant who knows it’s “only a matter of time before he would be told...that he didn’t look much like a policeman.” Strafford understands this to mean that he doesn’t “look like an Irish policeman.”

If old religious tensions simmer in the background of Snow, historical and political conflicts threaten to erupt volcanically in the first Strafford book from 2019. The Secret Guests dramatizes a long-rumored World War II scheme to hide British princesses Margaret and Elizabeth (the future queen) during the Blitz in rural Tipperary, even as bands of armed Irish Republicans plot to seize this prized opportunity to strike against their former colonizer.

Frustrated that he is neither British enough for the aristocracy nor Irish enough for the natives, Strafford declares: “The wildmen were welcome to break in and kidnap that pair of royal brats...and hold them to ransom for whatever sum they took it into their heads to demand.” For Strafford, the very word “us” is dizzying and contentious—chummy or challenging, depending on who says it.

And yet even this outsider knows that a 16th-century story of an Irish rebel whose “head was sent to Queen Elizabeth in a sack” remains more than a little relevant. “The Irish,” Strafford observes, “have long memories.” He is certainly Irish enough to know that.

Writing about the adventures of sleuths, superheroes and space travellers often allows for bold, even subversive observations about the world.

A cultural critique

Much has been made of why and how an unapologetically cerebral esthete like Banville turned to crime fiction. To make more money? To merely entertain readers? Banville’s own assurances that he is not condescending toward genre writing have come off as, well, condescending. “I was a little appalled at the speed with which I got the [crime books] done,” he told the Times’s McGrath. Either way, there has been much comparing and contrasting of the Black and Banville styles, resulting in declarations that the former is a skilled craftsman who churns out literary equivalents of fine cabinets, while the latter mystically conjures “art.”

Little, though, has been said about how the conventions of genre have offered Banville—and so many other artists—new and offbeat avenues for sharp cultural observation and critique. From Captain America punching Adolf Hitler on the cover of Marvel Mystery Comics #4 to the echoes of world theologies in “Star Wars,” the adventures of sleuths, superheroes and space travellers often allow for bold, even subversive observations about the world. The 21st-century dominance of the Marvel and DC universes has made it easy to overlook genre-influenced offerings by a wide range of “serious” artists, from Guillermo del Toro to Colson Whitehead, who are posing ancient questions in provocative new ways. “Serious genre,” if you will, is not only no longer an oxymoron. It can also serve as a retort to Philip Roth’s famous, frustrated pronouncement on the novelist’s inability to compete with reality itself.

Crime, horror and science fiction offer even established artists like John Banville new ways to explore that very reality. As Junot Díaz put it before his fictional journey through the Dominican Republic’s gruesome and beautiful 20th century: “What [is] more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What [is] more fantasy than the Antilles?”

In a fitting twist, John Banville recently announced that the nom de plume Benjamin Black is being retired, though the mysteries will keep on coming. (Except in Spain, where this open literary secret will persist. Which, again, sounds like some perplexing interrogation of identity out of a Banville novel.)

Either way, for the last 15 years, Black has offered up a version of Irish history that—for whatever reason—Banville never did. That there are cops and corpses and kidnappings in the Black universe does not make the questions they pose any less important or interesting.

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