Thursday, January 05, 2006

John Banville's "The Newton Letter."


John Banville, The Newton Letter (Boston: David R. Godine, 1987), $10.95.

My most recent wrestling match with a computer virus and "spyware," together with Lord knows what else, has cost me a draft of an essay on Nietzsche that I was planning to post at "Philosopher's Quest." It seems to be gone, vanished into an alternative universe, and I can't get into my e-mail anyway. ("Friedrich Nietzsche on Self-Realization.")

I do not wish to re-type about twenty pages, so I will set aside Nietzsche for a while, and turn to literature instead. Hackers have altered the spelling of Nietzsche's name perhaps ten times (so far), a little creativity in inserted "errors" would be greatly appreciated. (Da Capo! "Friedrich Nietzsche on Self-Realization.")

During the subway strike in New York, I found it necessary to travel from the northern to the southern "tip" of Manhattan. It took me about three hours to make the journey, by way of a detour through scenic Hudson County, New Jersey.

The rural splendors of that charming countryside near the aromatic industrial parks of Jersey City, is simply unforgettable to all who have experienced it. I highly recommend a visit to this arcadian territory by each and every one of you. Bring a picnic lunch and a gas mask. I took John Banville's novel The Newton Letter with me on my travels, and an anthology of English Romantic poetry. I read a chapter of Banville's novel, then a poem by one of the greats. By the time I arrived home, I had finished Banville's novel and absorbed a great deal of poetry.

I will review Banville's novel here, hoping that my computer holds out long enough for me to do so. I hope to interest you in this Irishman's writings, especially if you are not someone who reads a lot of great or so-called "literary" prose, but mostly likes "disposable thrillers." I am sure that you will notice a difference in the quality of Banville's writing, which is just as accessible as the average crime novel.

I wrote the above before coming to read Banville's recent Philip Marlowe novel where he channeled Raymond Chandler's style with an eerie perfection. In Banville's books more than in the texts of many others, form cannot be separated from substance. In fact, this linguistic unity of texts and themes may be one of his great subjects.

Banville has now written what he may have intended as a disposable thriller (Christine Falls) which has become a literary novel, one of several featuring his Dublin pathologist Quirke. The artist cannot help making his work good or beautiful. It may be impossible for John Banville to write bad prose. Philip Roth is America's Banville, a few others are just as good, but not as many as there were "long ago and far away" when literary culture was central to our society.

Banville is -- this may surprise him -- a deeply religious writer: "Ideas are universal," F.H. Bradley instructs us, "and no matter what we try to say and dimly mean, what we really express and succeed in asserting is nothing individual." (Copleston, A History of Philosophy, V. 8, p. 225.)

All speech and writing is involved with the ultimate mysteries of religion, especially the inevitable valuing which makes or constitutes our human world, both for good and ill, the meanings in which we must "be" as persons. Language involves universals. We always mean more than what we say. The sinister, serpentine language of the narrative voices in Shroud and The Untouchable -- also The Book of Evidence -- voices which are otherwise distinct, is part of the fascination of those works because it is integral to plots and themes explored by Mr. Banville. ("Is it rational to believe in God?" then "The Wanderer and His Shadow.")

Evil haunts Mr. Banville's fiction. Why so enthralled by the spectacle of human cruelty and its exquisite and unmatched pleasures for deeply disturbed persons in our world, like "error"-inserters from New Jersey? Is this a form of catharsis, Mr. Banville? Do you plan in the privacy of your mind, Mr. Banville, the slow and delicious murder of Ian McEwen or Martin Amis? I certainly understand how you feel about such writers. Let us ponder the end of Gore Vidal and Jonathan Franzen, A.S. Byatt and Toni Morrison, as well as a suitable finale for Philip Roth -- murder at the hands of Nathan Zuckerman, "unbound."

The plot of The Newton Letter concerns a historian writing about -- and thus, inevitably falsifying? -- himself to "Clio" (his muse?), explaining his decision to abandon a book on Newton to which he had devoted seven years of his life. The narrator's self-doubt, uncertainty and fascination with eros, as a defense against mortality, parallels the madness of his subject, Sir Issac Newton, abandoning science for mysticism and alchemy, as he neared the much-dreaded age of fifty.

Is there a warning for the reader of any literary text in this theme? As with every novel, the narratives that we are explode at a long-awaited climax resulting in a tiresome -- if brief -- epilogue before the story closes. Every one of us is a ticking time-bomb.

During the course of a single summer, the protagonist enjoys a sexual affair with a much younger woman, a romantic fantasy with another and older woman, befriends a man called "Edward" (husband to Charlotte, the love-object), who is dying -- though this is not revealed to narrator or readers until the end of the book -- a death to remind all of us of bodily constraint and grim mortality. Like Goethe's 'Werther," Banville's protagonist identifies his "Charlotte" with the female mastery of time and regeneration. Howard Jacobson must have read this novel before producing his own gem, The Finkler Question.

The relationships in my life are longstanding rather than sudden, thirty-plus years in one case, more than twenty in another. No young mistresses for me. No sports car. No indulgence in cybercrime and anonymous or private cruelties aimed against a secretly desired victim.

Is it the victim's talents that are envied? I leave such evil to New Jersey's many lawyers and mafia figures. These are overlapping categories in the Garden State.

There are gestures in the direction of Goethe and German Romanticism, by Banville's protagonist, then we are hit with a dose of realism like cold water in the face on a hot morning. This writer's decision to retire to an Irish cottage, to write and think -- but actually to have sex and drink, mostly -- allows Banville to bring on stage his favorite themes of loss and identity, of the ways in which we fail to see others or ourselves, distorting in the act of remembering or writing, never achieving the certainty or wisdom for which we yearn. He suggests that it was this coming up against the limits of human knowledge that plunged Newton into madness and despair. ("What is memory?")

The novel (more than most) is really about language as the ocean in which we human fish must swim, even as we try to escape it. Hence, the futility of all absolute knowledge claims (the claim that "there is no absolute knowledge" is also an absolute knowledge claim, by the way), and this leads to the self-reflective nature of the work.

Absolute and objective are different concepts. They do not fall into the relativist paradox, even as knowledge of truth and truth itself are often strangers. There may be Absolute Truth which is not absolutely knowable. As always with Banville's writing the stunning beauty in the sentences alone justifies the cost of the book. We realize that the novel, like human lives, is self-refuting and also self-transcending. Look long and hard into this mirror, Narcissus.

But would you believe that all this, this popovian Newton-as-the-greatest-scientist-the-world-has-ever-known, now makes me feel slightly sick? Not that I think any of it untrue, in the sense that it is a fact. It's just another kind of truth has come to seem to me more urgent, although for the mind, it is nothing compared to the lofty verities of science.

A distinction is drawn between mere facts and truth, or consider the suggestion that there are non-scientific truths, and more important ones, usually trivialized by conventional minds. What does Banville mean?

Nothing. The word reverberates. He broods on it as on some magic emblem whose other face is not to be seen and yet is emphatically there. For the nothing automatically signifies everything. He does not know what to do, what to think. He no longer knows how to live.

Echoes of Husserl and Heidegger, together with the entire phenomenological tradition can be heard at this point. And again:

Perhaps this sense of displacement will account for the oddest phenomenon of all, and the hardest to express. It was the notion of a time out of time, of this summer as a self-contained unit separate from the time of the ordinary world. The events I read of in the newspapers were, not unreal, but only real out there, and yet hypnotically vivid in [their] unreality. There was no sense of life messily making itself from moment to moment. It had all been lived already, and we were merely tracing the set patterns, as if not living really, but remembering. As with Ottilie I had foreseen myself on my deathbed, now I saw this summer as already a part of the past, immutable, crystaline and perfect. The future had ceased to exist. I drifted, lolling like a dea sea swimmer, lapped around by a warm blue soup of timelessness.

The novel that I was reading was also a descent into a "time out of time," a journey to an unreal territory of Irish rural splendor, much more inviting than the blighted urban vista seen from the window of my train. I felt myself transformed. Mysteriously, I was wearing a comfortable Irish-knit sweater and scarf as I stared at the green hills beyond my window. Yeats and Wilde drifted into my conscious mind from the wine cellar of memory. My speech suddenly developed a rich Celtic brogue. I discovered an uncomfortable similarity to the protagonist of this yarn, but then I found an even greater likeness to Edward's creator. ("'In Time': A Movie Review" and "Metaphor is Mystery.")

Revising this review I notice "errors" inserted by hackers, altering the text from the previously printed copy, and wonder again at the power of language to disturb and infuriate those who are deaf to its music. Time that is "indifferent in a week to a beautiful physique" (W.H. Auden) undoes everything. There is something about a bureaucrat that does not like a poem. I fear that something in the criminal's essence detests the poet even more.

I suspect that, at the end of the day, Banville has approached the mystery of pointless and infinite malice or cruelty no better than I have in these essays. Aside from revulsion, one feels pity for deprived persons forced to torment others in order to appreciate, indirectly, the nature of concepts and ideas they cannot grasp or passions they cannot feel. Banville's text ends with a reflection on memory, time's passage again, filtered through the prism of the inescapable, desiring, falsifying ego, and its perilous words:

I remember one day he tried to tell me about dying. Oh not directly, of course. I can't recall what he said, what words he used. [Notice that meaning is brought to mind even when words are forgotten.] The subject was the countryside, farming, something banal. But what he was talking about, I suppose, was his sense of oneness now with all poor dumb things, a horse, a tree, a house, that suffer their lives in silence and resigned bafflement, and die unremarked. I wish I could have erected a better monument to him than I have done, in these too many pages; but I had to show you how I thought of him then, how I behaved, so you would see the cruelty of it, the wilfull blindness.

Banville's protagonists are tempted to withdraw into the self, discomfitted by a world that is no longer amenable to our faltering efforts to understand it, puzzling all of us, like the bizarre fellow creatures we see around us, menaced by the shadows of an evil "something" that always hovers at the edge of one's awareness.

Are these the non-scientific truths that disappear when we try to grasp them? To hold that moment in which we are in place there is love and love-making, beauty and artistic creation, community, and the space appearing, magically, on the page where writer and reader meet for an all-too brief instant before the curtain falls. ("What you will ..." and "Images and Death.")

The words "something" and "nothing" are sprinkled through this narrative like salt on a good steak. Why is there something rather than nothing? Perhaps evil is simply part of language, something that comes with the power of speech along with all of the good things made possible by words. Language is the fruit of the tree of forbidden knowledge leading to freedom and moral awareness, but also making the choice of evil possible. True malice and hatred may not be available to the person lacking words for such emotions. Caliban protests to Prospero: "You have taught me language ... And what is the profit in it?" ("What a Man's Gotta Do.")

Suppose that a person breaks into your home and ties you to a chair, then beats your children or your spouse, for the pleasure of seeing your reaction to these events. Imagine that you are a painter. Someone forces you to experience the daily destruction of your canvases, inch by inch, for the delight of causing you pain. Suppose that, over a period of years, persons slander you to friends and family, steal from you, injure you, then seek to justify these actions by commenting on your character flaws or housekeeping skills. (See John Fowles' "Poor Koko.")

The options for victims of such horrors are few: laughter and taking up a new canvas, or despair and madness. I will laugh and take up a new canvas. Banville's historian may also have no other option. We become our words, thoughts, fleeting impressions, sensations, as our broken bodies gradually disintegrate with a sexual frisson into nothingness.

I have a birthday coming up. The word "celebration" seems absurd at fifty. The alternative to new birthdays is worse. In the end, Mr. Banville, readers defeat writers because many will live long enough to read the posthumous works. Revenge for writers comes in the form of the power to speak or whisper in the ear of posterity. If these words are read after my death, my whispered injunction is to read Mr. Banville's works.

Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is a cinematic masterpiece that you must not fail to enjoy and study. After seeing Woody's film, read Banville's "The Book of Evidence." Please relate the two "texts," novel and film, in terms of their shared themes. To the best of my knowledge, there is no published "outline" or "notes" that will do this assignment for you. ("The Wanderer and His Shadow" and "Drawing Room Comedy: A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script.")

The return to the world happens slowly, cautiously. Banville's historian takes up residence at a well-known university, and begins to write again, continuing his dialogue with his muse. I looked up from Banville's book (or is it mine now?) to find that I was back in my city. I felt crowds of people surrounding me, an ocean of human beings in which to swim towards an ever distancing shore filled with strangers who seem to know my name.

If you are glutton for punishment, I suggest:

John Banville, Mephisto (Boston: David R. Godine, 1986). (The first of the meditations on evil and a tribute to Thomas and Heinrich Mann.)
John Banville, The Book of Evidence (New York: Warner Books, 1989). (Evil's response and razzle-dazzle with point of view as well as the "hermeneutic encounter.")
John Banville, Ghosts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993). (The "Tempest" tossed.)
John Banville, Athena (New York: Vintage, 1995). (Wisdom and Beauty and the dangers of possessing either of these "goddesses." "The Judgment of Paris.")
John Banville, The Untouchable (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). (One of the books I am now reading, worthy of a Nobel Prize: John LeCarre, Joseph Conrad, William Somerset Maugham, Henry James and others get a high five.)
John Banville, Eclipse (London: Picador, 2000). ("The Moon and Six Pence.")
John Banville, Christine Falls (New York: Picador, 2006). ("Benjamin Black" is the pseudonym for this mystery writer who may have been "Edgar Best" in a previous life.)
John Banville, Shroud (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). (This is the one that should have received the Booker Prize. "The Future Lasts Forever.")

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