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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 2 ‘Progressive Failing’? The Science Tetralogy


The achievement of the four works that make up the Science Tetralogy, one of the most ambitious Irish literary projects of the 1970s and 1980s, confirmed Banville as one of the finest formal technicians in Irish fiction since Beckett. While Nightspawn and Birchwood are notable for their post- modernist playfulness, the first two works of the Science Tetralogy her- alded Banville as a writer of substantial narrative talent and philosophical competence. Doctor Copernicus (1976) and Kepler (1981) both showcase Banville’s gift for compelling plot and character development. Yet these two popularly accessible earlier novels are complicated by the final two works of the series: while The Newton Letter is a low comedic farce, it is Mefisto (1986), an altogether more dif ficult, obscure work, which brings the Science Tetralogy to a pessimistic end. Banville’s alignment with certain liberational tendencies of modern- ism – self-ref lexive, hermeneutical, episodically self-aware – is tempered by a recurrent insistence on the failure of art. Failure is so prevalent in Banville’s early texts that it appears to be inescapable. This conceit, which has its origins in Beckett, is a structuring device in Banville’s early fic- tion; with Nightspawn, for example, he claimed that he had actually ‘set out to fail’.1 Of course, the sense that art will always fail in its project to construct an accurate picture of reality is always ironized in Banville by the sense that failure is the reality of art. This view of art is not without political significance: Banville saw in Beckettian...

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