Doctor Copernicus, 1976
The Newton Letter, 1982 (novella)
The Book of Evidence, 1989
The Untouchable, 1997
Long Lankin, 1970, revised 1984
The Broken Jug, pb. 1994 (adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s Der zerbrochene Krug)
God’s Gift, pb. 2000 (adaptation of Kleist’s Amphitryon)
Reflections, 1984 (adaptation of his The Newton Letter)
Birchwood, 1986 (adaptation of his novel)
The Last September, 1999 (adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen’s novel)
In the 1970’s, John Banville (BAN-vihl) emerged as one of Ireland’s most important modern writers. Born in the town of Wexford in the southern part of Ireland, Banville was educated near his home, first at the Christian Brothers School and later at St. Peter’s College. He did not go on to attend a university. From 1966 to 1967, he lived in Greece. He later moved to Dublin, where in 1969 he married Janet Dunham. The following year, he began working as a copy editor for The Irish Press, a job he continued to hold even after his reputation as a writer was well established.
Banville’s first book, Long Lankin, was published that same year. A collection of short stories and a novella set in modern-day Dublin, the book offers an interwoven portrait of characters trapped in the confusion and bleakness of modern life. Casting a dark shadow over the stories is the English ballad that provides the book with its name; Long Lankin is a haunting tale of love and death that serves as the thematic basis for Banville’s characters and their lives. The book was greeted with praise from literary critics, who pointed to Banville’s fictional debut as a work of exceptional talent and promise.
Banville’s first novel appeared in 1971. Nightspawn draws on the author’s own sojourn in Greece for its setting and its depiction of the events leading up to that country’s 1967 military coup. Its central figure and narrator is Ben White, a character who figured prominently in the Long Lankin stories, making Nightspawn in some ways a sequel to Banville’s earlier work. Ostensibly a thriller, the book blends mythic images with historical events as it explores the functions and limitations of modern literature. The book drew a mixed critical reaction, receiving praise for the beauty of its language and criticism for its convoluted plotting.
In his second novel, Birchwood, Banville takes on the traditions of Irish literature with a modern slant. The work is set in a large country house peopled with eccentric, sharply drawn characters. Banville gives this setting a contemporary twist, as the book’s narrator chronicles his childhood in such a house and his subsequent experiences with a traveling circus, which he joins on his quest for his perhaps imaginary sister. An examination of truth and memory, the story is filled with strange happenings–a death by spontaneous combustion, a band of transvestite revolutionaries–all set against the backdrop of the great potato famine and related with what even Banville’s critics admitted was startling originality. The year of the book’s publication, Banville received both the Allied Irish Banks prize and the Arts Council of Ireland and Macaulay Fellowship.
In 1976, Banville wrote the first of three novels inspired by Arthur Koestler’s 1959 book The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, a study of several famous astronomers. Doctor Copernicus offers a vivid portrait of the chaotic late fifteenth-early sixteenth century world in which the great astronomer lived and worked, blending fiction and fact as it explores the relationship between the Polish scientist’s theories and the society which shaped him. Central to Banville’s novel are the ties he finds between science and art, with Copernicus’s theories helping him to express and define himself. The book received both the Irish-American Foundation Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Banville followed Doctor Copernicus five years later with Kepler, the second of the Koestler-inspired novels. Perhaps the most accessible of Banville’s novels, the book is nevertheless cleverly structured in accordance with its subject’s theories of planetary orbits. Banville posits a relationship between Kepler’s often unhappy and disjointed personal life and his passion for searching out order in the cosmos. Caught on the cusp between the medieval and modern worlds, Kepler is both superstitious and insightful (one of his tasks is to devise astrological charts). Kepler, like Doctor Copernicus, was widely praised for its historical narrative and its compelling development of character. The novel received the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1981.
The third novel in the series is The Newton Letter. Unlike its two predecessors, the book abandons the trappings of the historical novel and returns to its author’s fascination with literature and the creative process. Told in the form of letters from an unnamed narrator, the novel chronicles the narrator’s efforts to finish a book he is writing on Sir Isaac Newton, a task made increasingly difficult by his growing absorption in the lives of his neighbors. As he studies a letter from Newton detailing the astronomer’s own breakdown, the writer himself suffers a similar inability to marshal his thoughts and emotions. Martin Swales, writing in the London Review of Books, described The Newton Letter as “a compassionate and vibrantly intelligent novel–and also a timely one.”
Banville continued his exploration of life and literature in Mefisto, a self-reflexive novel in two parts. Its story is the life history of Gabriel Swan, whose reminiscences are an indistinguishable mixture of reality, memory, and imagination. Like many of Banville’s characters, Gabriel is on a personal quest, sometimes guided by his own Mephistopheles, the mysterious Felix. With Mefisto, Banville once again addresses the rich legacy of Irish literature, drawing on William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett in the book’s structure, style, and many literary allusions. It is a novel that continues Banville’s ongoing thematic preoccupations and helps solidify his reputation as one of the most challenging and gifted of contemporary Irish writers.
This novel also functions as a bridge between Banville’s “science trilogy” and a second trilogy, consisting of The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena. Centered on an amoral protagonist, Freddy Montgomery, these works replace science with art as a focal point. More intellectually hermetic and stylistically brilliant than the earlier trilogy, these works also supplant the question of the relationship between science and meaning with one about the connection between art and morality.
The anti-hero protagonist of his next novel, The Untouchable, is Victor Maskell, an art historian who once worked for British intelligence but who is revealed as a double agent spying for Russia. The character is based on a real-life figure, Sir Anthony Blunt, an art historian whose treason was uncovered in 1979.
In Eclipse, renowned Shakespearean actor Alexander Cleave has a breakdown on stage and retreats to his boyhood home. There, he experiences ghostly recollections of an unpleasant childhood and forms a bond with the house’s caretaker and his teenage daughter. Cleave considers his ruined career, his failing marriage, and his poignant relationship with his estranged daughter, Cass. Banville’s followup, Shroud, tells the story of the death of Cass Cleave from the angle of her lover and the father of her never-to-be-born child.
The ambition of these works, Banville’s position as literary editor of The Irish Times, and his frequent book reviews for important English and American periodicals made him the most successful and most prominent Irish novelist of his generation.