BOOK REVIEW / Off to the pub for cold comfort: Ghosts - John Banville: Secker & Warburg, pounds 14.99
Ghosts revisits the nebulous echoland of Eliot's The Hollow Men, a place where one might feel the presence of 'poor, pale wraiths pegged out to shiver in the wind of the world like so much insubstantial laundry, yearning towards us, the heedless ones, as we walk blithely through them'. Yet this is no good old-fashioned yarn about revenants - it's a chamber-piece for marionettes whose stop-start jerkiness dictates the novel's bumpy, disjointed rhythm.
Banville is also revisiting scenes from his last novel, The Book of Evidence, in which a man is convicted for the murder of a young woman. Now, released from prison but still haunted by his crime, the man has fled to an unnamed island where, in the company of a professor of art history and his assistant, he has embarked on a study of the French painter Vaublin, alternating this with occasional duties as a narrator. Their sequestered calm is interrupted when a strange party of visitors fetches up on the island after their boat has run aground, from which the book's action - if that isn't too vigorous a word - proceeds. Early intimations that this will be a rerun of The Tempest are soon banished - Ghosts is no parable of redemption. Very little happens in terms of narrative: Banville has entrusted the book's spell almost exclusively to the writing. But while he has certainly given the prose some beguiling contours - those sentences are measured out with slide-rule precision - a feeling of disconnectedness prevails.
The novel seeks to recreate the stillness and serenity of a painting, so we are asked to admire, for instance, 'an incongruously lovely, peach-coloured light such as might bathe a domestic interior by one of the North Italian masters'; this would be fine to listen to inside an art history lecture, but it tends to stall a novel's forward momentum. Even painterly prose needs something to feed on - Banville's tableaux vivants are bathed in aspic and so ostentatiously unreal that any interest in their vaporous presence, or rather absence, is drained off within 30 pages.
There is something perversely brave about a book so little concerned with the ordinary satisfactions of suspense. Ghosts reminded me not so much of a painting as a film, Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais' enigmatic variations on a story about a couple trying to decide whether they had met each other the year before. The detached performances, interminable tracking shots and cultivated ennui feel loaded with significance, though puzzling over how significant proves about as useful as unpicking a bed sock, only rather less dramatic. So it is with Ghosts, a book which seems lost inside its own cloistered self-regard. Just once the perfect glacial surface of the prose is broken, in a sequence which follows the narrator on his release from prison into the cold comfort of a pub (where the drinkers are, predictably, 'indeterminate types hunched over their pints in the furry grey gloom').
From this lonely bar he telephones his wife, and a halting conversation just about gets going when his money runs out: 'I gave her the number and hung up and waited. She did not call back. The absence of that ringing still tolls faintly in my memory like a distant mourning bell'. Here, at last, is a moment in which real flesh-and-blood frailty is exposed, a concentration of feeling that breaks clear of the novel's pinched frame. 'Details, details: pile them on', the narrator remarks dryly at one point. This book has detail in abundance - what it needs is a bit of drama.
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Three-year-old boy shoots pregnant mother and father in New Mexico
- 2 Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
- 3 Jewish community urged to boycott Cornwall village after residents vote for 'Hitlers Walk' sign to be reinstated
- 4 Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing gay-rights campaign snubbed by Prince William and Kate Middleton
- 5 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
Daniel Radcliffe deemed 'not marketable' without his English accent
Gorillaz Phase 4: Cartoon supergroup is back as new artwork is unveiled
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
As Better Call Saul launches, here are the other spin-off shows we need to see
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
President Putin is a dangerous psychopath - reason is not going to work with him
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign