Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The poetry of narrative: on Banville's Shroud

I have strong resistance to the opening paragraphs of novels. All novels. Non-fiction is different. In non-fiction, there is a set of rules that are the usual rules of communication; one accepts them as one accepts the rules in order to listen and to speak. I speak, you speak. That is clear enough. Nausea arises here only in what is communicated, not how. The rules with fiction are more problematic. Who speaks? Why speak? How speak?

Without an answer, there is something unpleasant in assenting to an artificial imperative, the assertion of a particular vision; the focus on one thing and not another. Unpleasant like the faint nausea of the initial stutter and sharp turns of a car journey.

Example: I have just read John Banville’s Shroud because of Mark Sarvas’ enthusiasm at The Elegant Variation. It’s a novel narrated in part by Axel Vander, a composite character based on the lives of infamous critical theorists Paul de Man and Louis Althusser, both shadowed by scandal: de Man for his pre-War fascist journalism, and Althusser for murdering his wife. Vander is confronted with potential exposure:

The name, my name, is Axel Vander, on that much I insist. That much, if no more. Her letter was delivered to me one morning a world ago in the pleasant town of Arcady by a helmed and goggled Hermes on a bike. The message it carried was one I had been waiting for and dreading all my life, what I think of as my life, my real life.

The prose is seductive. But those words: helmed and goggled; they made me slightly nauseous. Eventually though, one gets used to the exiquisite articulacy and, one might say, the poetry of the prose. As a reader, one is enriched. But is such language necessary?

Recently a philosopher with a profound interest in literature suggested to me that there is mileage in thinking about the difference between the way we tell another person about a poem and the way we tell another about a novel. If you were asked to describe, say, Larkin’s This be the Verse, you would most likely recite the lines, whereas with Shroud, you would summarise the narrative; at least, you wouldn’t recite the novel! So, to call the latter’s prose 'poetic', as it undoubtedly is, and which not one of Banville’s admirers would deny, suggests that its language is inherent to its achievement, and that one merely has to point to certain mots juste to confirm its novelistic worth. But of course, that would be wrong. So what is this novel's achievement?

In order to answer this, I need to note two other books. When the recent Man Booker longlist was announced, I registered the titles and noticed Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers waiting in pristine condition on the library shelves. So I picked it up and read the opening page. It was like bingeing on Christmas cake. Amazon’s customers attest to its 'beautiful language', and one even calls it a 'gorgeous poem of a novel'. One line on the first page refers to the 'xylophone' of a jetty, which is certainly effective in conjuring the presence of the object, but when every sentence contains such poetry, it is stupefying. Usually, I say that what I love in novels is not the anticipation of finding out what happened next but the abidance in the tension between the poetry of the moment and the urgency of the narrative. Writing that eschews cliché can be refined for eternity. There is no forward momentum and, therefore, no tension. No wonder Aslam took eleven years to write the novel; he’s one person who couldn’t put it down!

In the G-H section of the library, there was another recent favourite of Mark’s in the library: Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. Buoyed by the success of the Banville, I was keen to see what this novel was like. I was surprised by the traditional mode of narration; the prose is conventional, unsurprising, not ostentatiously poetic. Much as I wanted to read it, the prospect felt like a long, predictable journey.

So how does Banville’s novel navigate by the Scylla and Charybdis represented by these two novels? He does it from the very beginning.

Who speaks? It is her voice, in my head. I fear it will not stop until I stop. It talks to me as I haul myself along these cobbled streets, telling me things I do not want to hear.

This is how Axel Vander begins his complex story. The question of narration is part of the narrative itself. Who is compelling him to tell his story? Vander’s fancy prose style is what you might expect from a possible murderer. As readers, we’re ‘helmed and goggled’ by the prose. Vander’s contradictory impulses, to conceal and to reveal (to blind us with insight) are not exposed as a failing but revealed as inherent to speech. Banville’s achievement is to make the questions who, why and how resonate in every sentence and propel the narrative forward. This is how poetry inheres in a novel.

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