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John Banville

Art and Authenticity


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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Chapter 1 ‘Pure Refinement’: Questioning Art and Politics in Birchwood and The Newton Letter


In terms of his critical history, perhaps few other texts by Banville have done more than Birchwood (1973) to segregate those who take the view that he is an author engaged with Irish politics, however obliquely, from those who have regarded him as supra-nationalist in intent, liberated from the constraining designation of ‘Irish writing’. Indeed, Birchwood exposes this fault line by internalizing the struggle between individual autonomy and historical determination as a failed quest for ‘harmony’. For better or worse, the antithetical dynamics in the novel – of the symbolic and the real, the intellectual and the material, the timeless and the historical – appear to be so mutually hostile in the narrative as to be irreconcilable. In this respect, what can be said is that Birchwood has often proved to be Banville’s novel that is most receptive and resistant to an ‘Irish’ reading. This alone has much to tell us about how troublesome the concept of an Irish philosophical novel has been. Interpreting The Newton Letter (1982), Birchwood ’s counterpart, within an Irish context poses another kind of problem. Because it is the third part of the Science Tetralogy, and within the conceptual framework of that series, there seems no particular reason to emphasize the political significance of the Irish referents over, for example, the Bohemia of Doctor Copernicus. However, since the inescapable local context for both novels is the use of the Big House genre and the inf luence of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the question of whether Birchwood,...

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