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