Entertainment Books

Monday 22 September 2014

John Banville's greatest hits - but where is Benjamin Black?

Published 25/11/2012 | 06:00

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Here's the ideal Christmas present for timid readers who have been led to feel that this most high-minded of Irish writers was somehow beyond them: everything you wanted to know about John Banville but were afraid to ask.

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Well, perhaps not quite. Banville has the reputation, often encouraged by himself, of being "difficult", someone who's forever playing games with language, narrative, memory, identity and, indeed, with the reader, but anyone seeking a basic explication of his work won't find it here.

Instead, Raymond Bell offers extracts from Banville's 15 published novels, along with some essays, reviews, autobiographical pieces and excerpts from radio plays – arguing in his preface that the fictional pieces he's chosen "require neither the crutch of commentary nor any elucidation" and that "separately, they offer the satisfactions of a short story".

But they don't. Banville has never written other than beautifully, and readers who are coming to him for the first time will be enchanted by the cadences and rhythms of these fictional extracts, yet they're not self-contained in the way of short stories and though in a recent radio interview Bell maintained that "there's a thread running through them", I couldn't discern what this thread might be.

Put it down to my own obtuseness, but Banville seems an odd choice for an exercise that would seem more suited to John McGahern, William Trevor, Colm Tóibín or other writers known for their shorter fiction – Everyman's recent The Best of Frank O'Connor, selected and edited by Julian Barnes, was one such notable compilation.

Barnes also provided a telling introduction as well as informative prefaces to the various sections that followed, whereas Bell contents himself with an enigmatic two-page preface that obfuscates as much as it illuminates. Indeed, so high-flown are its phrases ("sedulously shaping", "thrumming nextness", "mellifluous apogees", "limned into life") that for a moment I wondered if Raymond Bell wasn't perhaps a pseudonym for a mischievous John Banville.

Yes, there's much to be enjoyed in these 500 pages, not least a striking early short story called The Party, which was published by the Kilkenny Magazine in 1966, and if the novel extracts – ranging from 1973's Birchwood to this year's Ancient Light – encourage readers towards further exploration, that's all to the good.

But the book is hardly the "comprehensive guide to the work of Ireland's greatest living novelist" that's promised on the dustjacket. And Banville's alter ego, Benjamin Black, doesn't show up anywhere.

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