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The Silver Swan

By Benjamin Black

(Picador, £16.99stg)

Why does a writer with an established reputation adopt a pseudonym? In the context of Irish literary history, the practice tends to have been eschewed by those who managed to make good their escape (Joyce, Beckett), and is more associated with those who got stuck here (Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na Gopaleen). Stephan Dedalus and Shem the Penman may have been authors (albeit largely unpublished), but they were fictional characters before they were authors, and their names never appeared on the covers of their creator’s books (except, in the case of the former, as part of a title). O’Nolan, on the other hand, forced to deal with ‘the daily spite of this unmannerly town’, found his writing personality refracted through multiple incarnations, perhaps in an attempt at psychic self-defence. Either that, or else he didn’t want his bosses in the Civil Service to know what he got up to in the evenings.

Things have changed since those bad old days, of course, and with ease of technological information exchange and relatively inexpensive and much less onerous travel arrangements – to say nothing of a less stringent local moral climate – it matters much less where we live. Besides, John Banville is hardly the most vulnerably defensive of contemporary Irish writers, nor indeed the most needy of the society of his peers, and the consequent social acceptance and approval. Yet he has now published two crime novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black: last year’s Christine Falls, and new arrival The Silver Swan. Both feature the world weary Dublin pathologist Quirke as the central sleuth, a figure it is probably hoped will join Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus or Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen in the pantheon of crime-fiction detectives, although, as can be seen, Quirke is not a policeman, but a doctor. Another key difference is that Black’s books are a species of historical novel, set in the 1950s, although Dublin is undoubtedly as significant a character for Black as Edinburgh is for Rankin and Italy is for Dibdin.

 

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It is probably better to read the first novel first, although they can certainly be read independently, and/or in reverse order. Quirke (he is never dignified with a first name), although not an aesthete or art historian, is in many ways a typical Banville anti-hero, even if he is not written in the first person. An orphan, rescued from the Letterfrack-like Carricklea by Judge Griffin, he displaces natural son Malachy in his stepfather’s affections. He is a doctor for the dead, in contrast to Malachy who, as an obstetrician, is attendant on birth. He drinks too much, and is estranged from his unacknowledged daughter Phoebe, who has been brought up by Malachy and his wife, Sarah, who is in turn the woman he should have married and from whom he is similarly alienated. Instead, he settled for her feistier sister Delia, who died in childbirth, and for who he is in a kind of guilt-drenched, elongated mourning. But he is at odds with his entire milieu, since the Griffin males are stalwarts of the Knights of Columbanus-like Knights of St. Patrick, while Quirke has never been much of a believer. He uncovers a Catholic conspiracy in the trafficking of orphans, but due to the moral complexity of the situation (to say nothing of closed ranks) is unable to do anything about it. He is, incidentally, not the first Quirke to appear in Banville’s/Black’s fiction, since a character with the same moniker was an intruder in Eclipse. Nor, for that matter, is Hackett the detective the first Hackett either, as there was a civil servant of that name with a walk-on part in Mefisto, and even another detective christened Hackett in Athena.

Christine Falls, then, is a more panoramic, social novel, with the Mother of Mercy Laundry a thinly disguised Magdelene Laundry, and references to the contemporaneous Animal Gang. Like a roman a clef, McGonagle’s is McDaid’s, and Barney Boyle is Brendan Behan. The Silver Swan is more idiosyncratic and personal, engaging as it does with underground sexuality and drug addiction. It could be argued that in dealing with these topics it introduces some anachronistic elements, since one wonders exactly how much of this kind of thing was going on during the decade in question. But then, Banville was in the land of the living then, and I wasn’t, so perhaps he is privy to some knowledge which I am not. Not that there is anything to stop him simply making it up.

So what is Banville at? Let us immediately discount vile slurs emanating from some quarters – including scribblers who keep themselves well-heeled through producing lightweight poolside reads – that the sole motivation is ‘filthy lucre’. Even if it was, he is more than entitled to it, not having made a packet for much of his writing life. Rather, perhaps like writing in a second language was for Conrad, Beckett, Nabokov and Kundera, genre writing imposes certain constraints which can foster fruitful freedoms. One is forced to pay greater attention to detail, or to details to which one doesn’t usually pay attention. With literary fiction, the increased focus is on language itself. With genre fiction, it is on aspects of writing deemed essential to the given genre.

My own theory is that opting for crime fiction, and writing it under a pseudonym, frees Banville from the postmodern knowingness and self-consciousness with which he had painted himself into a corner in some of his more recent novels, and provides him with an avenue for reverting to straight-forward, plot-driven, character-delineated, traditional storytelling – and all without having to admit a kind of defeat, and give the lie to ‘experimental’ fiction.

Of course, this hypothesis is not watertight, as Paul Auster’s mid-80s New York Trilogy brilliantly incorporated themes, tropes and techniques from detective fiction into a postmodern literary work. But every artist solves his own difficulties in his own way.

Or maybe it’s all just a way of writing more quickly, as evidenced by Banville’s average five year gap between novels and his alter-ego Black’s two in consecutive years. Less searching for le mot juste results in more getting on with the story. Yet, for all that, how many crime novels can you think of which would end with such a luminous figure as, ‘…the big dark-blue cloud, which had been rising steadily without his noticing, deftly pocketed the moon’s tarnished silver coin.’? You can’t hide a good writer, or a writer who can write.


First published in Magill, December/January 2007/8



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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