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John Banville

Art and Authenticity

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Eoghan Smith

This study explores the fiction of John Banville within a variety of cultural, political, ethical and philosophical contexts. Through thematic readings of the novels, Eoghan Smith examines the complexity of Banville’s view of the artwork and explores the novelist’s attraction and resistance to forms of authenticity, whether aesthetic, existential or ideological.
Emphasizing in particular the influence of Banville’s major Irish modernist precursor, Samuel Beckett, this book places the local elements of his writing alongside his wide-ranging literary and philosophical interests. Highlighting the evolving nature of Banville’s engagement with varieties of authenticity, it explores the art of failure and the failure of art, the power and politics of the contemporary imagination, and the ways in which this important contemporary writer continues to redefine the boundaries of Irish fiction.

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Introduction

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Against Everything: Banville, Irish Writing and the Idea of Failure John Banville has occupied a central position in contemporary Irish lit- erature since his emergence in the early 1970s. Often seen as a quintessen- tial postmodernist, Banville has frequently challenged and expanded the limits of what has traditionally been considered ‘Irish’ writing. Particularly notable for its stylistic virtuosity, formal experimentation and literary and philosophical allusiveness, his work has sometimes been accused, not always fairly, of displaying highbrow aestheticism and overabundant self-regard. As a book reviewer and one-time literary editor for The Irish Times, Banville has been discerning in his choice of material, tending towards intellectual ‘high cultural’ works, often with little general appeal. His specialization in alienation is consonant with much of twentieth-century bourgeois art: the scientists, academics and aristocrats who fill his narratives, and who find the commonplace world incomprehensible, are sombre, philosophizing intel- lectuals who, in the search for incontrovertible truths and personal authen- ticity, cannot come to terms with the mundanity of ordinary existence. All of Banville’s narratives detail ef forts to overcome a fragmented experience in pursuit of some kind of totalization, whether that is in the guise of a scientific system, a cultural or political identity, a ‘pure’ art form or a reconciliation of the self. The various names he gives this idea of totali- zation – ‘harmony’, ‘the thing-in-itself ’, ‘order’, ‘purity’, ‘authenticity’, ‘pres- ence’, even ‘being said’ – have their origins in eighteenth-century theories of aesthetics, and can be traced throughout romantic and modernist literature...

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