Thoroughly modern myth : BOOKS : FICTION

ATHENA by John Banville Secker £12.99
Click to follow
NOVELS written in the light (or grim shade) of some event that has had a momentous, redefining effect on the narrator before he even took up his pen are not uncommon. Whole trilogies along such lines are a rarity. Athena is the third instalment in what could be described as the ongoing posthumous autobiography of the cultured Irish gentleman-gone- to-seed, Freddie Montgomery, or as the soliloquised memoirs of the self he became after undergoing the crucial evolutionary experience of taking the life of a young chambermaid.

This girl had caught him in the act of stealing a 17th-century painting, and Montgomery's record of the preamble to and immediate aftermath of the murder can be found in The Book of Evidence (1989). The bitter comedy of that novel sprang from the mismatch between the brute conditions into which Freddie's act had pitched him and the continued fastidiousness of his speculative self-regard and conjectures on motive, randomness and fate. In the midst of mess, an obstinate, admirable-ridiculous effort at precision.

As Ghosts (1993) and now Athena demonstrate, this narrator's solipsism can also cause an irritation greater, you suspect, than Banville has gambled on. Towards the end of the first book, Montgomery reached the seemingly breakthrough conclusion that his essential sin was a failure of imagination. He was able to kill the girl "because for me she was not alive". But his method of atonement ("my task now is to bring her back to life. I am not sure what it means, but it strikes me with the force of an unavoidable imperative") has a grandiose metaphysicality that doesn't convince you - as much as, say, the resolve to go and drive relief trucks in Bosnia would - that the swaddling clothes of solipsism have been shed.

In Ghosts, the attempted expiation-through-rebegetting by the now-released murderer turned on the authenticity of a painting which proved to be a fake. Athena, by contrast, achieves a guarded positiveness at its close after one of a cache of paintings which had been dismissed as fakes is identified as the genuine article.

Whether the novel itself is the real thing is another matter. The narrator has now changed his name by deed poll to Morrow (with its consciously Wellsian echo) and is living in Dublin. With studied and awkward switches from the evocative to the third person ("And yet, you, she - both of you!"), the story is addressed to the 27-year-old woman who has just disappeared after a passionate affair with Morrow. He decides to refer to her in the text as A, which was not her initial: "Think of all the ways it can be uttered, from an exclamation of surprise to a moan of pleasure or pure pain." Eh, eh, indeed.

It's also, although the narrator does not spell this out, the first letter of Athena, a goddess whose irregular entry into the world (axed out of the head of her father Zeus) will give her special significance for a man intent on symbolic parturition. An alert reader will see roughly what is coming, though not how it's arrived at.

A shady developer called Morden recruits Morrow to evaluate and catalogue a cache of peculiar 17th-century paintings on mythological subjects. In a secret room where these works are stored, Morrow embarks on an increasingly sinister affair with A, whose precise relation to the underworld gang only becomes clear right at the end. In Ghosts, the narrator claimed not to have "anything more than the haziest recollection of that universal palliative [sex]". In Athena, once A has heard "the rusty cog-wheels of [his] long-disused libido squeakingly engage", he makes up for lost time.

But the hammer-blows with which Freddie killed the chambermaid in the brilliantly written murder section of The Book of Evidence did not stir up in me anything like the same moral queasiness as do the whip strokes that consciously echo them during A and Morrow's sado-masochistic sex sessions ("Hit me, hit me like you hit her"). This is because you can believe in the former, whereas the latter comes across as a stylised, distasteful contrivance that allows Morrow to recall and symbolically redeem his former crime in the one act. The blows killed the maid; they make A, obligingly a "devotee of pain" come alive, the instrument "more wand than whip". Like the fact that The Birth of Athena proves to be the one genuine painting in Morden's trove, it's all too neatly, antiseptically patterned - worked, in fact, to death.

Finally, Morrow is abandoned by A but left a lot of money by his eccentric Aunt Corky, whose decline forms one of the novel's strands and who, conveniently for its themes, also turns out to have been more than a bit of a fake. Perhaps it's just the last word in mannered self-reflexiveness that this final book of a trilogy (in striking contrast to the first) should fail to feel like the genuine article.