It is paradoxical (or is it?) that writers who have made it their business to map out a particular region of the human psyche across a body of work (the canonical example is Graham Greene – I’d also cite Muriel Spark, and there are several others) tend not to be overly bothered about place in the conventional sense. The whole point about Greeneland was that – barring Greene’s fondness for the image of red laterite roads glowing in the sunset – it could be anywhere, even, in The Human Factor, Berkhamsted. And Spark’s unique cocktail of pert banter, unexpressed longing and existential despair (a negroni for the soul) could equally be served up in brittle Edinburgh, flyblown Peckham or the gardens of the Villa Borghese.
How suggestive, then, that John Banville’s surname could be redeployed without alteration as a toponym. All of Banville’s more recent books, at least all the Banville-qua-Banville books (though not the detective stories written under the name Benjamin Black), are set in the same placeless place in which certain physical characteristics do recur (estuaries, willow woods, old houses with loose shingles, everything shackled up in a kind of perpetual autumn), but are best understood as only partly objective correlatives to a particular state of mind.
The characteristic Banville narrator will be nursing some half-glimpsed disgrace, as one sips at a fine single malt. He will have abandoned a career that brought success and acclamation but which he now sees as fraudulent and pointless. He will be proud, evasive, perverse, wordy. This time round he is Oliver Otway Orme, until lately a painter, recently caught out in adultery but, he supposes, unsuspected of a deeper, lifelong vice – kleptomania.
Do his interests coincide? Does hijacking his friend Marcus’s wife, Polly (to his own wife Gloria’s suspicious indifference), speak to the same inner need as pocketing other people’s knickknacks and gewgaws? Is painting anyway at its heart an act of theft? Why, yes: ‘Let me state it clearly. My aim in the art of thieving, as it was in the art of painting, is the absorption of world into self.’ Later, however, he admits, ‘The stillness that used to generate itself around me when I was at work … differed entirely, in depth and resonance, from the stealthy hush that accompanies a theft.’ Contradictory, yes; unreliable, no – or at least he knows he’s unreliable: ‘The fact is I’m not really here, or the here that I’m here in is not here, really.’ Though, thanks to his terminal narcissism – and the borderline psychopath’s inability to distinguish between desire and love – he sometimes knows less about what’s happening than even he thinks he does.
Nevertheless, he’s a fairly contemptible specimen – more so than some of his predecessors, somehow (even the Nazi academics and incestees-by-proxy). The book, too, is somehow darker: in a vividly observed traffic accident and the never quite squarely regarded central tragedy of the book, the death of Orme’s infant daughter, for which his wife clearly, and not unjustly, holds him responsible, it edges closer than is Banville’s wont to the realms of Gothic (though it’s a classier affair than the ‘Bog Gothic’ of his countrymen Martin McDonagh and Patrick McCabe). We are supposed to be disarmed by the fact that he knows the worst of himself, or imagines he does – not to mention flattered at being asked to sit in on what at times reads like a psychoanalytic session (‘She used to give me sixpences warm from her purse,’ he says of Miss Vandeleur, a distant aunt and an important early ‘mark’ for his thieving habit). But such manoeuvres wear thin after a time, in art as in life. I did find myself reaching for, and gently retrofitting, David Foster Wallace’s assessment of a late Updike hero: ‘It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s unhappy is that he’s an asshole.’
One thing that can’t be denied is the baroque loveliness of Banville’s language. There are a few phrases that suggest the author shares his subject’s secret vice – a fine line from Ancient Light, ‘the hammered gold of autumn leaves’, is recycled, only a little altered, here – but rhythm and cadence are everywhere perfectly poised. Also, one thing about the opulence of Banville’s prose is that you end up with a lot of data, at least some of it reliable. And if plotting and pace are elastic and woozy (an energetically horrendous visit to Polly’s parents seems to take forever; the whole third act is over in a few pages) – well, you could always put in a call to Benjamin Black, who might have made a pretty fair fist of these events himself.
As for the affair, both Orme’s wife and his mistress get some sort of reward for their trouble; both the men in the quartet are subjected to some degree of punishment (in art as in life). For Orme, a brisk reminder of aspects of his family narrative he’d chosen to forget and a brief encounter with a more patient, selfless strain of love than he’s used to mean that a possible rekindling of a lost humanity may be on the cards. It looks, however, as though he won’t start painting again – though that, one suspects, isn’t much of a loss.