A Murderer’s Life

The Book of Evidence

By John Banville

 

Though he has been hailed by critics as one of Ireland’s major living novelists, and though this year marks the 20th anniversary of his first book, John Banville has remained unfamiliar to American readers. Why? Perhaps it’s his penchant for ambiguity and equivocation; or perhaps it’s his devotion to such unsexy subjects as the astronomers Copernicus and Kepler. All this may change, however, with the stateside publication of The Book of Evidence (Scribners. 220 pages, $17.95). The winner of last year’s Booker Prize, Mr. Banville’s beautifully composed and impeccably shaped seventh novel takes the form of a recit by a 38-year-old scientist named Frederick Charles St. John Vanderveld (Freddie) Montgomery, who is being held in an Irish prison for murder.

Freddie doesn’t deny his guilt. But he is eager to tell the story behind the crime. This he does, shuttling between a chronicle of recent events and a discontinuous account of his earlier life: his privileged Irish childhood, his stint on a California faculty, and — following his marriage to one Daphne, whose “moral laziness” strikes in him a responsive chord — his abandonment of science and academia for the indolent life of a Mediterranean gadabout.

And what a life! For more than a decade, the Montgomerys drift from one island to another, tarrying at harborside bars and regarding the world with “grand detachment” and a false sense of their own inviolability. It is this false sense of inviolability, in fact, that precipitates Freddie’s downfall. For, simply in order to amuse himself, he blackmails a small-time drug dealer for a large sum of money. Freddy spends the money, only to learn afterward that it came from a local big wheel who expects repayment and is threatening the lives of his wife and son. Unable to repay, Freddie hies himself to Ireland to liquidate his late father’s art collection.

When he arrives at the family manse, however, Freddie discovers that his mother has sold the collection to Binkie Behrens, the rich father of his old flame Anna, and has squandered the money on horses. In desperation, Freddie steals a 17th-century Dutch portrait (possibly a Rembrandt) from the Behrens mansion and kills a family maid.

What makes him commit such a senseless crime? What, for that matter, makes him live such a senseless life? Freddie argues that it’s not really his fault, for there’s no free will (he acted, he says, “almost without thinking from the start”), and therefore perhaps there’s no such thing as moral culpability. “There is just the ceaseless, slow, demented drift of things,” he says.

An equally important factor, though, is Freddie’s self-image. He always has had a sense of himself as “exposed and invisible … [as] something without weight, without moorings, a floating phantom”; after the murder, he looks forward to being “unmasked” because only this, he thinks, will give him “weight, gravity, the sense at last of being firmly grounded. Then finally I would be me, no longer that poor impersonation of myself I had been doing all my life. I would be real. I would be, of all things, human.”

Freddie claims that incarceration provides “time and leisure really to get to the heart of things.” But Mr. Banville wants us to realize that Freddie never does get to the heart of things — that there are matters about which Freddie (who continually teases us with his power, as narrator, to revise reality) is deceiving not only us but himself.

He is coy, to be specific, about carnal matters. Freddie inhabits a world of erotic secrets and is surrounded by ambiguous sexuality. Daphne, we learn, was once involved with Anna Behrens; Freddie’s mother is involved with a stable girl. And Freddie? In Ireland he haunts a gay bar called Wally’s, and after the murder holes up with a reputed homosexual; in prison, he expresses a desire for a “catamite,” a wish that seems to be granted by novel’s end. He is always describing men’s hands. Yet he claims to find homosexuality repugnant and insists, “I am not queer.”

Like Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, then, The Book of Evidence is a cannily constructed novel about sex, betrayal and self-deception, a novel whose narrator’s testimony is egregiously unreliable and laced with internal contradictions. Mr. Banvllle’s book also recalls other, mostly French, novels, among them Andre Gide’s The Immoralist (which, like Mr. Banville’s book, depicts the consequences of sexual repression) and Albert Camus’s The Stranger (which concerns a senseless murder).

Yet The Book of Evidence does not feel at all derivative. On the contrary, one comes away from it awed by the freshness of its descriptions and imagery and by the vigor and exactness of its diction. Of particular interest is Mr. Banvllle’s attention to subtleties of light and shadow, a trait that reminds one less of any other writer than of the Dutch painters. One could do worse, indeed, than to describe The Book of Evidence as a literary version of a Rembrandt portrait; for it is, above all, a character study –dark, enigmatic and intensely captivating.

WALL STREET JOURNAL