Mrs Os­mond

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

His first book hav­ing been pub­lished al­most 50 years ago, John Banville has long been the most dis­tinc­tive Ir­ish nov­el­ist of his gen­er­a­tion, his work quite un­like that of any other Ir­ish writer.

Not for him the re­al­ist con­cerns of a John McGa­h­ern or a Wil­liam Trevor; in­stead, his fic­tion has been rig­or­ously high­brow, de­fi­antly poetic and evinc­ing a Euro­pean rather than an Ir­ish sen­si­bil­ity. This is prob­a­bly why he’s cel­e­brated less at home than abroad, where he’s among the most hon­oured of Ir­ish writ­ers, though his 2005 win­ning of the Man Booker prize for The Sea was not with­out con­tro­versy — one prom­i­nent English critic deem­ing it a “trav­esty” that the award had gone to a nov­el­ist “whose emo­tional range is lim­ited and whose prose ex­hibits all the chilly per­fec­tion of a wax­work model”.

Since then, Banville has come up with more nov­els of “chilly per­fec­tion” while also show­ing that he has other strings to his lit­er­ary bow.

A year af­ter his Man Booker win and un­der the name Ben­jamin Black, he pub­lished Chris­tine Falls, the first of (so far) seven mys­tery nov­els set in the Dublin of the 1950s, while three years ago he wrote The Black-Eyed Blonde in the man­ner of Ray­mond Chan­dler, and with Chan­dler’s most FIC­TION John Banville

Vik­ing, hard­back, 375 pages, €17.99 fa­mous char­ac­ter, pri­vate eye Philip Mar­lowe, as its nar­ra­tor.

And now, here he is pay­ing homage to an even more es­teemed lit­er­ary mas­ter, Mrs Os­mond be­ing a se­quel to Henry James’s great novel The Por­trait of a Lady, which was pub­lished in 1881 and told the story of Is­abel Archer, a spir­ited young Amer­i­can seek­ing to find her proper des­tiny in Euro­pean so­ci­ety but end­ing up mar­ried in Rome to fel­low Amer­i­can Gil­bert Os­mond, a scoundrel only in­ter­ested in the for­tune she has in­her­ited.

The novel ended am­bigu­ously, with Is­abel in Eng­land for her cousin’s fu­neral but seem­ingly headed back to Rome, where her hus­band and his sin­is­ter friend, Madame Merle, await her sub­mis­sive re­turn. In­deed, James him­self con­ceded in his note­books that he hadn’t “seen the hero­ine to the end of her sit­u­a­tion” and that “the rest may be taken up or not later”.

Well, 136 years later Banville has done just that and splen­didly, too, in a novel that brings Is­abel’s story to a con­clu­sion that’s as sat­is­fy­ing as it is ab­sorb­ing — and all in a Jame­sian man­ner of which the mas­ter him­self prob­a­bly would have ap­proved.

It may take the reader some time, and prob­a­bly with­out much suc­cess, to dis­tin­guish the Jame­sian style from that of Banville, and at the out­set it seems to be all Banville and his fond­ness for ar­cane lin­guis­tic id­ioms. Thoughts are “chid­den”, cur­tains are “crepi­tant”, hours are “matuti­nal”, in­ti­macy is “con­tigu­ous”, while Amer­ica is not so much a place as a “foundered be­he­moth”.

Such flour­ishes be­come less com­mon, and cer­tainly less no­tice­able, as the story pro­ceeds, and any­way are out­num­bered by the fre­quent flashes of in­sight and wit. Is­abel’s suf­frag­ist friend Florence Janeway was “a per­son of pam­phlets and polemics, of pa­rades and protests”, while the fright­ful Ser­ena Merle “had for an un­con­scionable time been ‘some­what over 40’.”

Is­abel her­self, in the eyes of her friend Florence, although not yet 30, was “a young woman whom dis­en­chant­ment had al­ready made to seem al­most mid­dle-aged”. And when Is­abel con­sid­ers the du­ra­tion of her ghastly mar­riage, she re­flects that “they had not been many, the years, but they had been long”.

And in a book that moves from Lon­don to Paris and from Florence to Rome be­fore end­ing up in Lon­don once more, Is­abel notes of the French cap­i­tal: “Paris she did like, de­spite the per­sis­tent pres­ence there of French peo­ple”.

There are many such drol­leries through­out, though the se­ri­ous­ness of Is­abel’s sit­u­a­tion re­mains to the fore in a novel that’s mod­est enough in length (at 375 pages, about half that of the James) yet with a real sense of spa­cious­ness as its hero­ine con­sid­ers her op­tions.

Re­al­is­ing that she had been duped into mar­riage “for my money” by a de­ceit­ful suitor and his treach­er­ous ac­com­plice, she tells Miss Janeway that she in­tends “to pur­chase my

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