Sunday, April 22, 2012

Reading group: The Book of Evidence by John Banville

Jo suggested this novel narrated by 38-year-old Freddie Montgomery, waiting to be tried for the murder of a maid who happened to appear in the doorway while he was bumblingly stealing a Dutch painting from the stately Irish home of long-term family associates. It's an apparent explanation of his actions in which however his motives remain unclear, and in which he paradoxically expresses views that repudiate concepts of motive and cause and effect.

Jo said that she had already read this book three or four times, and she will probably do it again, because although the narrator is so repellant - pompous, self-centred, utterly misanthropic (he refers to 'golliwog' hair and expresses his distaste for 'queers' and his view of women is pretty unreconstructed) and without moral sense (his view of pity is as the only permissible version of the urge to give weak things a good hard shake) - she found it so very beautifully written. We all agreed that the prose, for which Banville is famous, is indeed striking: beautifully modulated sentences and stunning visual descriptions making the whole extremely visually vivid, (including in this case repeated descriptions of the quality of sunlight that one critic has acutely pointed out aptly chimes with the Dutch masters' preoccupation with light), though peppered throughout with archaic vocabulary - he uses words like bespeaks, tarried and athwart - and others requiring reference to a dictionary. Elegant is the word I'd use for this prose, and this is Freddie's prose purportedly, since this is his confession: elegant, sensitive, educated; fastidious yet lush.

He's really revolting, though, Jo said of Freddie, and spent some moments exclaiming about him: the way, at the start of his story, having given up a career as an academic scientist to spend a life of selfish idleness on Mediterranean islands, he toys with a man who amuses him by blackmailing him to lend him money with no intention of paying it back, money that the man clearly hasn't got and must acquire from elsewhere,  and is unconcerned when the man then has his ear cut off by those he borrowed from in turn. Leaned on now however by gangsters for the money, Freddie legs it back to Ireland, leaving his wife and child in the gangsters' 'care'. The way, said Jo, he doesn't seem to care about his wife, or his child - the fact that we don't even find out until near the end that the child is disabled!! The way he abducts the maid without even really having a motive (she's just in his way, but it's not as if he's really panicking or even thinking about what he's doing, and he seems in the ensuing hours to have no conception of the danger from witnesses), the psychopathically clinical way he notes that when he hits her head with a hammer it feels like hitting clay or hard putty! His revolting drunkenness! His utter self-centredness in the way he tells the story!

Still, Jo said, she thought the book was a wonderful read because it was so well written, by which she meant that the prose was so beautiful, and Trevor agreed that the book was really great.

Doug said, though with a rather mischievous grin, that he didn't actually think the character was all that awful, and he found himself identifying with him, and even feeling that in certain circumstances he too could hit someone on the head with a hammer. I think by this he was implying that the prose was so good it drew you into Freddie's psychology, however horrible. Others, however, didn't feel that it did. John said that he was alienated by the self-consciously fine writing, the long passages without variety of tone, the sameness of the obsessive viewpoint without the relief of others. Jenny said she hadn't enjoyed reading it at all: it was made quite clear from the start that Freddie was a murderer and a horrible person, and there was no further development on that notion: all that the book was was an explication of that, and it wasn't an enjoyable experience.

In fact, though, it's very hard to get to grips with the nature of Freddie's psychology. There's huge ambiguity running through the whole thing. As noted, although this is purportedly a confession, Freddie's motives always remain unclear. Initially it seems that he has returned to Ireland to raise the money to pay back the debt and free his wife and child, but both the debt and his family seem quickly to drop from his consciousness, and when he discovers that his mother has sold off the paintings he considered his inheritance, and has spent the money, his main preoccupation seems be the injustice of his disinheritance and the personal slight to himself. When he drives to the house of the dealer and old associate to whom she sold them (and who, it turns out, has sold them on at a profit), and spies the Dutch master, he seems driven not by revenge or financial need so much as a simple falling in love with the painting itself and a desire to possess it - and yet he very soon dumps it along with the body of the maid, and with a consequent farcical and self-important sense of triumph: I would never again need to pretend to myself to be what I was not.

Indeed, Freddie comments on his own lack of definition and the lack of clarity of motive. He has always, he says, had a sense of myself as something without weight, without moorings, a floating phantom. He was always different from others who
did not realise that everything is divisible. They talked of cause and effect, as if they believed it possible to isolate an event and hold it up to scrutiny in a pure, timeless space, outside the mad swirl of things ... to speak even of an individual with any show of certainty seemed to me foolhardy. [My bolds]
Is this honesty or obfuscation? This is the greatest ambiguity at the heart of the book. Freddie's 'honesty' seems often an affectation, a way of justifying his selfishness and misanthropy while yet indulging in it, and a self-centred revelling in his own awfulness, in particular in the descriptions of his actions and physical state after the murder, and his subsequent bouts of drunkenness. This, to me, makes the elegance of his prose an elegance of decadence - an ornate covering for ugliness - and so I couldn't relish it, as Jo could, for its own sake, and for this reason, although I found the novel immensely clever, I didn't actually enjoy reading it. On the other hand, there are shards of what seem to me like real honesty, moments of self-irony, in particular in Freddie's treatment of his attitude to his mother. In the group discussion Ann said that the problem in discussing Freddie's motives was that you couldn't be sure that any of the events he related actually happened: for one thing, he'd been drunk most of the time. Yes, I said, and for another there are quite pointed and perhaps paradoxically honest moments indicating that Freddie is making the whole story up. Right at the start he makes this statement: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Don't make me laugh. On more than one occasion he wonders what to decide to call a character and at one point exclaims, For God's sake, how many of these grotesques am I expected to invent? In other words, Freddie is specifically playing with the concepts of reliable and unreliable narrators, and, as I said to the group, it seems to me that the subject of the whole novel is the fakeness of (conventional) narration, with its assumptions about 'character' and cause and effect. (Although at this, John told me later, Trevor, who was sitting next to me, gave me a very amused and dubious look.) Viewed in this light, the decadence I see in Freddie's prose usefully highlights the point: the way that 'fine writing' can be a blind for flimsiness or superficiality or even lack of moral rectitude. In this light, too, Freddie's abandonment of science seems not so much louche laziness as the result of a metaphysical crisis:
I took up the study of science in order to find certainty. No ... to make the lack of certainty more manageable.
Towards the end of the novel and his confession Freddie concludes that the reason he had been able to murder the maid was that he had failed to see her as a real person, had failed to imagine her properly:
This is the worst, the essential sin, I think, the one for which there will be no forgiveness: that I never imagined her vividly enough, that I never made her be there sufficiently, that I did not make her live ... I could kill her because for me she was not alive.
People had commented how one of the most horrific things about Freddie was the contrast between this failure and the way that he was able to imagine the life of the woman in the Dutch painting he stole, a reproduction of which he now has on his cell wall. This reconstruction of the girl's days in front of Rembrandt's easel and her relationship with her widowed father is very moving, an act of real and surprising empathy on Freddie's part that brought tears to at least this reader's eyes. I said I thought that this signalled a moral development on Freddie's part, but others didn't agree: after all, they said, he was taken by the woman in the painting in the very moments that he saw the maid merely as an object in his way, and John said to me later, isn't it horrific that he can show empathy to an imaginary woman but finds real women a threat? However, it seems to me that a message of this novel is that we should not make that distinction between real life and the imagination - we have to inject the latter into the former, and while story-telling can be fake, it is the power of the imagination that makes us empathic moral beings. And at the end of the novel, when Freddie's wife visits him in prison, he comes to realise that he had never really known or understood her - in other words, never truly imagined her. As for the maid, he sets himself the task of truly imagining her and her life, and at the very end begins to do so:
Today, in the workshop, I caught her smell, faint, sharp, metallic, unmistakable. It is the smell of metal-polish - she must have been doing the silver that day. I was so happy when I identified it! Anything seemed possible. It even seemed that someday I might wake up and see, coming forward from the darkened room into the frame of that doorway which is always in my mind now, a child, a girl, one whom I will recognise at once, without the shadow of a doubt.
However, when I read that quote to John just now, he snorted, and I must say that in view of Freddie's earlier comments about certainty, that without the shadow of a doubt possibly has an ironic ring.

I did say to the group that I thought that Freddie's realisation of his own failure seemed to me to come about rather suddenly, without any prior development, and the others nodded, Doug in particular agreeing that it was clunky. I said too that I had some fundamental problems with the arcane diction: not only did it seem out of character - why would a mathematician use such language? His justification, that he uses a dictionary, doesn't seem adequate - also it is too similar to the diction of the narrator of Banville's The Sea which we read previously, and one begins to suspect that it's Banville's diction rather than Freddie's. As a result, although in many ways I found the novel clever,  I didn't sense enough separation between narrator and author to make me feel comfortably secure in an author's controlling hands, and, although Trevor had said how much he enjoyed the book, he strongly agreed.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here


Mathurine said...

Is it that the author made you uncomfortable or the character? Personally I think when a character makes you feel repelled then the author has probably done their job. I haven't read Banville for a long time and I'm intrigued buy this one. I have "Too Many Magpies" on order at the moment so I'll read that first but I'd like to get this book shortly after I've finished yours. I'm currently writing a book where two men are arguing and both their points are quite cringesome and I'm hoping no one will like either of their view points. If it's published and someone says they hate it I'll actually be happy. Hehehe.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Mathurine, it was the fact that, because of the language I wasn't quite sure where the line was between the two. I appreciate it when an author challenges me about life and I'm more than ready to read about unpleasant characters, but this was a different sort of discomfort, more to do with my sense of authorial control.
Well worth reading, though, very thought provoking, and I recommend it.
Thank you so much for ordering Too Many Magpies - I do hope you enjoy it.
And all the very best with your own novel, which sounds very interesting!

Mathurine said...

Thank you! I certainly look forward to your work arriving (any day now, in fact I was hoping the post man would deliver it today). I tripped on it quite by accident, I'm doing artwork with magpies and during my research on the birds your book popped up in a google search!