Banville as Ventriloquist

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

John Banville. MRS OSMOND. Viking, 2017, 376 pp
ISBN: 978-0-241-26018-0
RRP: $29.99 h/b

Most people would have no difficulty imagining what to expect if the title of a book contained a name like Harry Potter or Atticus Finch or Philip Marlowe. Those are literary creations who have gone into everyday discourse with an understanding of what they mean. John Banville takes the idea even further by naming this book after a character who is probably unfamiliar to many, including – admitted with only minor embarrassment – this reviewer. Mrs Osmond is the central figure in the Henry James classic The Portrait of a Lady.

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John Banville

That may imply that a reader should be familiar with the James book in order to appreciate this one, but in fact that is not the case. The story, insubstantial as it certainly is for the number of tightly-packed pages it takes to be told, stands on its own.

The lady of the title and all the principal characters are wealthy Americans, living in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. The action takes place in London, Paris, Florence and Rome in a slow and logical sequence, with little by way of the kind of confused timescales or multiple narratives favoured by modern writers.

In fact, Banville’s book is so close to the style and language of the era which it describes that some reviewers have attached the phrase ‘literary ventriloquism’ to it, sometimes with a hint of patronising disparagement. It takes the story of the eponymous heroine and the other characters in the original and follows their fortunes to a bloodless but completely satisfying conclusion.

For the ordinary reader, however, the story is almost secondary to the exquisite prose, page after page, chapter after chapter of dazzling virtuosity. It is like a juggler or magician showing off more and more baffling tricks or illusions, the kind of thing that you can watch with admiration and think only of the practice that must have gone in to such mastery. But those who are familiar with Banville’s writing will know that it is what he has been doing for a long time and while this book does not have the sometimes numbing intensity of The Sea or The Infinities, it makes up for it with a light, almost mischievous flamboyance.

Mrs Osmond is the kind of book you can take up anywhere to read and admire. This reviewer admits to having completed two other books by normal writers while savouring its delights. You are stopped with phrases like ‘exquisitely barbered trees’, ‘Nature’s lightsome and airy beneficence.’, ‘a lofty person of wintry aspect’, ‘a queasy smile’, ‘a cup of formidably aromatic tea.’ One character is described as ‘the subject of the intensest rays of aristocratic attention.” Mrs Osmond herself had an “inflexible sense of duty, that spiritual affliction inherited from her Puritan forebears.”

These are quoted merely to give a sense of the almost extravagant scattering of adjectives and adverbs in prose that moderns might break into lines of random length and call poetry. Some sentences ramble on for half a page but the reader never loses sight of the subject and predicate wherever they are placed. Even the small annoyance of breaking a moment of slightly elevated tension by three or more pages of luxuriance is forgiven as part of the ventriloquist’s art.

It is a widely held opinion that John Banville is preeminent among modern Irish novelists. This book is powerful evidence for that opinion. It may well send readers to their local public library in the hope of finding a copy of the Henry James original.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.

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