Like his artfully duplicitous characters, John Banville has an alter ego. Commonly blurbed “the heir to Proust via Nabokov”, the high priest of the highbrow occasionally likes to put away his vestments and run around Dublin in civvies, calling himself “Benjamin Black” and writing crime novels.
Prior to this, Banville had been known only as a forbidding stylist. When The Sea, a meditation on memory, won the Booker in 2005, it was condemned by one critic as “possibly the most perverse decision in the history of the award”. His writing piled on adjectives like “flocculent” and “caducous” — about as far as you could get from the taut tones of potboilers.
Then he started writing crime fiction and acquired a huge new readership. But the use of a pseudonym still suggested an imagination divided, a desire to differentiate the serious from the popular. Would this identity crisis ever be resolved?
The scene in Snow is 1950s Ireland, where the Benjamin Black novels take place. The plot unfolds in an Irish country house, as did the last Black novel, The Secret Guests (out earlier this year).
It is a novel steeped in the conventions of murder mystery. A priest’s body turns up in the library. The mansion belongs to a stiff-upper-lipped retired colonel. Sent to investigate is an aristocratic, eccentrically named detective, St John Strafford, from whose perspective the story is told. Of course, he’s a misfit, a “Prod” in a land dominated by Catholics. He also works with the Dublin pathologist Dr Quirke, hero of the Black novels.
But here’s the twist: the author of this book is not named as Benjamin Black, as every detail suggests it should be, but John Banville. After years of his pseudonymous cloak-and-dagger act, the furtive Irishman has come out of the shadows. The resulting book shows he’s right to. Snow isn’t just readable and entertaining, it’s as profound and beautiful as anything by John Banville.
It reveals a mellowing late style. The tortured, modernist-inspired prose of his younger self, transfiguring reality with obscure adjectives and baroque metaphors, is no more. Instead he sees the world as it is, with a hard-boiled vision imbibed from crime writing. The metaphors are now cosily familiar, the ordinary described in terms of the ordinary. Thus, a parlour is a “chocolate box of a room”, while snowflakes “glistened like granulated sugar”.
The atmosphere of Ireland in the winter of 1957 — dank, boozy, snowed in — is lovingly evoked. But its social order is in decay. The manor houses of the gentry are falling apart. The Church jealously guards the media and bureaucracy. There’s a foreboding sense of the cultural revolution only a few years away. “The social contract is a fragile document,” says the Machiavellian archbishop, justifying his obstruction of Strafford’s investigation.
The crooked politics manifest themselves in the nation’s sexuality, at once tumultuous and repressed. Women considered “fallen” are imprisoned en masse in “laundries”. Their illegitimate offspring are confined to “industrial schools”, where clergymen exploit them in the name of maintaining order. But it’s not order the Church prevails over, rather a cruel anarchy. In case you missed the point, the murdered priest is named “Father Lawless”, and he’s been castrated, clearly in revenge for past abuses.
Easily the best writing in the book comes when the dead man’s voice is conjured in an unexplained “interlude” (an old letter? A posthumous soliloquy?) that chillingly captures the rationalisations of abuse, with the victim portrayed as loved and the abuser as the real victim. It’s a masterclass in unreliable narration that manipulates the reader just like the Church did generations of children. It’s classic Banville. The paedophile priest — assaulting boys in cassocks, burning them with altar candles — personifies the kind of aestheticised evil Banville is so drawn to. Father Lawless lives in a “secret, enchanted world, where everything is forbidden, and yet sometimes, on some rare and magical occasions, everything is allowed”.
That reference to enchantment, to magic, hints at the literary appeal such villains have, and Fr Lawless would once have been the Nabokovian psychopath at the centre of a Banville novel. Such characters, with their intense, affectless ruminations, were a way for Banville to scale the summit of style (is there anything more psychopathic than a person wilfully and repeatedly using words they know no one will understand?).
But in Snow, this account is a mere interlude. Most of the time, we’re back with Inspector Strafford, his principled pursuit of the truth being the book’s centre of gravity.
For a change, it’s the honest lawman, not the perverted criminal, who is the real proxy for the writer himself, and that reflects a key-change for Banville’s style. Describing Strafford’s method of detection, Banville writes: “It was a matter of noting the details of the situation and arriving at a point of view.” Simple. It goes for writing too. After all these years, Banville has realised it really needn’t be so elaborate.
Snow, by John Banville, Faber & Faber, RRP£14.99 352 pages
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