Thursday, June 20, 2013

Benjamin Black is history, and so can you

John Banville signing
at Gutter Bookshop,
Dublin. Photo by your
humble blogkeeper
One of the last sights I saw in Dublin last week was John Banville signing books for a crowd that I'd guess was mostly Banville fans but had turned out on the occasion of a book he wrote as Benjamin Black.

Holy Orders is the sixth novel in Banville/Black's series about Quirke, a police pathologist in 1950s Dublin, and Black showed that he has his historical-novelist head screwed on right.

"Rome was our capital" in the 1950s, Banville told interviewer Olivia O'Leary at Smock Alley Theatre, Ireland's politicians taking their cue from the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, he said, he refuses to give his characters the benefit of hindsight. They don't know what the church is doing to them, and they — or Quirke, at least — can't learn from it. No characters spouting reassuringly progressive sentiments here, and the gap between what the characters know and what the readers know is a nice source of tension.

Here's part of what I wrote about the fourth Quirke novel, A Death in Summer:
"John Banville distinguishes between the artistic pleasure he derives from the literary novels he writes under his own name and the craftsman’s pleasure he gets from the crime fiction he writes as Benjamin Black. This makes it fair to ask a craftsman’s questions of the Black books: How well do the parts fit together? How smoothly does Black execute them? Are they beautiful? Do they work? Does the finished product perform the functions essential to an object of its kind?"
Get all the answers in the complete review, which appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

With Banville's remark about characters and hindsight in mind, what must a contemporary author do to make historical fiction work? 

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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79 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

But did he sign as Benjamin Black or John Banville?

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a good question, and I don't know if the punters were offering Black or Banville books for signing. My neighbor at the reading asked if I was there for Olivia O'Leary or John Banville.

"I'm here for Benjamin Black,: I said. He said he had not read the Black novels.

But I'll tell you: the small theater was full, and the bookstore was packed for the signing.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well Banville told me that he finds crime fiction a contemptible genre and the only crime writer he could bear to read was Simenon because it enabled him to practice his French. He went onto to say that while it took him a year to write his real books a Benjamin Black he could toss off in six or seven weeks.

I warned him that Conan Doyle wanted to be remembered for his serious fiction but instead was doomed to be remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. He dismissed such concerns. His real fiction would stand the test of the time while presumably the crime fiction brought in the readies (he had already sold the Black novels to the BBC then I think).

I admired Banville for his forthright cynicism but not much else. He viewed the people who bought his books with a thinly veiled contempt which I found rather disconcerting - a Krusty the Clown approach to his audience.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Historical fiction is an odd label that defies definition. What makes a novel historical? How far must the action be removed from the present to make it historical? Is the distance measured in centuries, decades, years, months, days, or hours? Isn't all fiction--excepting speculative, futuristic fiction--historical in one way or another? To my mind, perhaps all fiction is historical. To some modern literary theorists, the text, when completed, ceases to be property of the author or the moment; the text becomes instead--at the instant of completion--part of an interesting tension between the future (readers) and the past (the history of its production). Thus, all fiction is historical.

But, putting that quibble aside, inviting others to weigh in on it, I go back to your question about how to make historical fiction "work." It seems to me the first responsibility is in the form of research and detail for purposes of accurately and even excessively representing setting (i.e., all contexts). [Please ignore the lazy adverbs.] If the contexts are superficial, the reader will not "buy into" the historical representation.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I had a feeling this post about Benjamin Krustovsky might draw you out of the woodwork.

Declan Burke's interview with Banville in Down These Green Streets, combined with my own reading of one of the Black books, gave me a nuanced view. On the one hand, the man dashes off his crime novels. On the other, I think he deems them worthy of respect. On yet another, based on the one book I read, he's not as good a crime novelist as he thinks he is.

But listen for the RTE Radio broadcast, possible in August, and the question I asked him.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

See also D. G. Myers' thought provoking comments on historical novels:

http://dgmyers.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/historical-novels.html

Among literary critics working today, Myers is among the most interesting and accessible.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: Banville has also said nice things about Donald Westlake, who wrote in English, so his contempt for crime writing is leavened by a pinch of good taste.

And read my Inquirer review. I use you (and others) to answer his odd statement about crime writing and humor. And I should amend my previous comment. I should have written than Banville doe snot (or did not) know crime writing as well as he thinks he does.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

If someone wrote a story where an Olivia O'Leary was interviewing someone named Benjamin Black, readers would think that writer was being a little too cute about the names.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Regarding Banville's lack of knowledge about crime fiction, does a writer of crime fiction have to know it well in order to write it well? I would not think so unless the reader is demanding conformity to a set of orthodox expectations (i.e., formulaic rules).

Look at it this way: crime stories have been around forever. Just ask Cain (i.e., Adam's unfortunate son). So, perhaps we ask too much if we want crime writers to do anything more than understand the most ancient roots: someone is done in, someone did it, and someone has to figure out who did it. In the case of Cain, the formula is there. Every writer since then is simply embellishing the original.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

He doesnt know crime writing at all and is proud of the fact. His stance is that reading too much crime fiction is a sure fire method for lowering the IQ. I'm convinced that he considers the people who buy and like his crime books to be poor deluded fools. If the suckers keep buying 'em he'll keep churning 'em out.

I'll bet he tossed out the name Westlake because he read him once while stuck in an unseasonably damp holiday cottage in the Medoc and thought it was ok.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., good questions all, and you are fortunate in the accident of your dellow commenter. I mulled the matter as I put up the post, and the examples of Adrian McKinty recent (and highly worthwhile) I Hear the Sirens in the Street and The Cold Cold Ground came to mind. He set both in the early 1980s, in the place where he grew up, at a time when he was old enough to know what was going on around him. Yet he had to do research to get details right. Are the two novels historical fiction? Let's see what he says.

But Banville's remark fulfilled nicely one criterion, the violation of which brings complaints from readers: that a given book imposes social or political or psychological values in a glaringly anachronistic manner (or, to avoid offending you, a manner glaring in its anachronism.)

June 20, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

RT

I think thats a good point. The problem is that he doesnt write it well. His crime fiction is formulaic, obvious and dreary. Lowest common denominator stuff. Hack work.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., thanks for the heads-up on Myers. One does not often see "literary critic" modified by "accessible" these days.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter, RT

I'm not convinced anachronisms are so terrible.

Have you ever seen the movie Swoon - filled with deliberate anachronisms and something of a minor masterpiece.

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are distinctly twenty first century books written in an odd atemporal prose style but again utterly brilliant despite (or maybe even because of) the anachronisms.

A well told story need not follow any rules but its own internal logic.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If someone wrote a story where an Olivia O'Leary was interviewing someone named Benjamin Black, readers would think that writer was being a little too cute about the names.

Gee, Seana, you didn't even mention that the interview happened in Smock Alley and the follow-up signing in the Gutter.

Dublin is a magical city.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Myers is accessible because he is a passionate reader who seeks to share his passion; most lit-crit types--influenced by late 20th c. French B.S.--do not really enjoy reading, and that shows in their self-righteous, navel-gazing criticism. By the last comment, you can easily imagine that I remain persona non grata among my academic colleagues. NB: Myers is a longtime "blog friend," so I might be a bit prejudiced in his favor, just as you might be a bit prejudiced (with justification) in favor of Adrian McKinty. Now, I must bounce over to my library site in hopes of scoring some McKinty titles. Yeah, I know--I am a bit late to the party! But, hey, I'm trying to catch up. Sorry, Adrian.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., a writer of crime fiction certainly need not know it to write it well. But see my Banville review. When he professes awareness of its conventions, then handles those conventions in the most ham-fisted way, and when he makes odd statements, such as that the conventions of crime fiction do not allow humor, he betrays nor innocence, but arrogance. His word statement about humor reminds me of the remark one will read occasionally even know that sucha nd such a novel is proof that crime novels are no longer just whodunits. No, and they have not been forat least 80 or 90 years.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I think he actually sat for an interview with Westlake and, if memory serves me well, he may have written the introduction to one of the volumes in the University of Chicago Press reissue of the Parker novels. His admiration of Westlake just may be genuine.

Banville's attitude to crime writing is a werid mix. The condescention is certainly there, but I think he likes and appreciates writing the stuff. My cheap guess is that he likes writing crime, likes what it can do for him, likes the challenge of doing it, but is a bit of a shit into the bargain.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

But perhaps there is still room for the basic whodunits? What is so wrong with the good old days? You know, sometimes innovations are merely window dressing. Damn, I am beginning to sound like the dinosaur I have been noticing in the mirror. Egads!

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

er, R.T., make that "fellow," rather than "dellow" commenter above.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Banville is wise to stay away from humour in his books...I think his fear is that once the djinn is out of the bottle the reader might start laughing at everything. Mockery is the scourge of the puffed up and arrogant and insecure.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

As for typographical errors in your postings--which I occasionally point out because I cannot resist the tongue-in-cheek bully impulse to do so--I must remember that I live in a glass houes, so I should refrain from throwing stonse.

NB: I just checked out the Kindle version of the first in the Troubles trilogy. (Sorry, Adrian, I did not buy it.) The second waits in the wings via Amazon. (Well, at least that should involve some sort of royalty, Adrian.) Hey, forgive me. I'm an impoverished teacher.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

His crime fiction is formulaic, obvious and dreary. Lowest common denominator stuff. Hack work.

But, in the one example I've read, hack work leavened with an occasional beautiful sentence or wonderful passage. I've never seen such an odd combination.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I stand corrected on Don Westlake then.

No I dont think he does enjoy it. Some of that joy would leak through into the books and it doesnt.

Although perhaps you're right. When I've encountered him he seemed to be a seething bundle of neurotic emotions and I suppose enjoyment in the work could have been in there in the mix.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, jarring anachronisms that result from laziness or ignorance are terrible. I will never forget the novel set in 1953 that I put down, probably never to pick up again, because its opening page included the word clusterfuck, and for no hallucinatory, time-scrambling reason that I could detect.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well yes. If its just laziness or clumsiness feel free to despise. But if there's a logic to it you can either embarce the logic or not? Did you read the novel HHHH? I was bowled over by the internal logic but I can see how others might not be.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

RT

I'm not a huge deconstructivist fan but I have to say that I quite liked this book:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Purloined-Poe-Derrida-Psychoanalytic/dp/0801832934

I'm not recommending it to you, just mentioning it, I think if you started reading it it might give you a stroke.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you're doing a brilliant selling job for Myers. I'll be intimately familiar with his work by the beginning of next week.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

For one reason or another, I've read a fair amount of Myers, and though I always tend to find him interesting and even entertaining, I sometimes wonder if he's ever read anything he does like.

Not that he wouldn't be an intriguing guy to know.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Seana, I encourage you to read more of Myers' postings. Trust me. He is a huge fan of many writers' works. (e.g. Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Charles McCarry, Willa Cather, Vladimir Nabokov, and more!) Whether he likes or dislikes something, he pulls no punches.

I need to stop "pimping" for Myers' blog. This is getting downright indecent!

June 20, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

No, you've done a good thing. I'm very interested in his blog. My only problem with him is that he is what I call a "strong reader", who can sometimes make a case against an author I actually like to read. It can be a case of not what he says, but what he doesn't say.

He does seem to have it in a bit for contemporary novelists.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But perhaps there is still room for the basic whodunits? What is so wrong with the good old days?

I presume that's a bit of impish humor on your part because that's a straw-man argument. Of course there's still room for traditional mysteries. But people for whom the existence of other kinds of crime stories is news should not be allowed to write about crime fiction. They lack sufficient knowledge.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I feel a bit like Claude Raines: "Impish? Impish? I'm shocked!"

Seana, scroll down the left margin of D. G. Myers' Commonplace Blog, and you will find plenty of links to contemporary writers. Off the top of my head, for example, I recall his fondness for Sarah Waters and Charles McCarry. There are plenty more. Myers, of course, for the most part is interested in what I would dare to call to "literary" fiction, but that is probably an unfair characterization. To my mind, Myers is a bit like a friendly, benign Harold Bloom. (David will probably hate that comparison, but I mean it in the most flattering way.)

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Peter

Banville is wise to stay away from humour in his books...I think his fear is that once the djinn is out of the bottle the reader might start laughing at everything. Mockery is the scourge of the puffed up and arrogant and insecure.


Adrian: I'll give him credit for tactical wisdom, then. And I'll try to think of a book I enjoyed that had no humor in it.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T. has left a new comment on your post "Benjamin Black is history, and so can you":

As for typographical errors in your postings--which I occasionally point out


1) I should refrain from letting other, less important matters distract me from accurate, incisive, entertaining, and, above all, error-free comments.

2) Mistakes do creep in because, like many newspapers, this blog lacks copy editors. Unlike newspapers, I give a shit, though.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, maybe Declan just brings out Banville's gentle side. There's a bit in the Down These Green Streets interview where Banville sounds positively self-aware, humble, and self-affacing.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

R.T.

My apologies. I was mixing up D.G Myers with B.R. Myers, who wrote A Reader's Manifesto, and has a similar project in relation to fiction. Here's a link to an article of his. Meanwhile, I'll happily read D.G.'s blog posts.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well yes. If its just laziness or clumsiness feel free to despise. But if there's a logic to it you can either embrace the logic or not? Did you read the novel HHHH? I was bowled over by the internal logic but I can see how others might not be.

Adrian, the clusterfuck error utterly discredited the writer in my eyes. It showed me she had no ear. The problem was not that she used a word that had not yet been used at the time of the novel's setting, it was that she used a word so redolent of an era other than the novel's that i jerked me right out of the story.

I have not read HHhH. Worth a look, is it?

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, not that it really matters, but I learned only relatively recently that Derrida was Jewish and Algerian. He turns up in a fat collection of North African writing I bought a few months ago that R.T. could probably read without danger to his circulatory system.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I feel a bit like Claude Raines: "Impish? Impish? I'm shocked!"

R.T.: You've taught Shakespeare. Maybe I should have called you puckish. And does Harold Bloom's name occur often next to "benign" and "friendly"? The man likes Jane Austen, so he's all right with me.


June 20, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I found HHHH to be excellent. Very French.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I don't know either of the Myerses, but I am wary of people who write manifestos.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I was thinking of writing a manifesto the day before I quit my job, or, if you read too much Joyce, a mamafesta, but on balance I'm glad I didn't bother. Not against them, though.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Adrian and Peter...I remember slogging through Derrida in grad school. I vowed then to let him go his way while I went my way. In other words, you could hardly say anything that would entice me to read anything now with Derrida in the title. Yeah, I really hated him! Of course, he did help me realize that most modern lit crit is BS.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, maybe we can combine on a screed against manifestos.

Mamafesta? That sounds like a drunken weekend in Tijuana.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., my lit crit prof was more than a bit of a shit. Readers should not be forced to study that stuff until they've read many, many, many books first.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: I like its opening. Maybe I'll move it to the top of my list once I've read Irregulars, Kevin McCarthy's follow-up to Peeler. I met him for a few pints in Dublin and got the book--a most satisfactory arrangement.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Gavin said...

I didn't particularly like Black's first book, so haven't read any others, but (parts of) this discussion are reminding me how much I hated Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. That book really felt like a "descent" by a literary author into a genre she knows very little about, and just didn't care enough to think about.

Someone asked up-thread if you can be a good genre writer without reading much in-genre, and I think it's very hard. Partly it's because there's a certain lowest-common-denominator idea everyone has anyway (my wife, frex, thinks all crime novels are whodunnits and all science fiction novels have spaceships). So if you don't read in-genre, you end up throwing in these stupid things because you think they're required by the form. (So Case Histories has a character try to kill someone by laying dynamite all over his house -- I think that sort of thing went out in the 30s).

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Gavin said...

On the question of historical fiction, I think that ahistorical prose often works better, because it's hard to write like, say, an 18th century person. David Mitchell can pull it off, as can Susanna Clarke, and that's about it in my limited experience of the genre.

Even getting into old-time mindsets is very hard. That part's not so bad if we're talking about the 19th century, but it drives me nuts to read, say, a mystery set in Medieval Europe where the detective character has stepped straight out of the 20th century. (With a respectful nod to Name of the Rose, which should've totally set my teeth on edge, but somehow didn't. I guess it's an example of how the really good authors get away with stuff that lesser authors shouldn't try).

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gavin, Banville/Black's counterparts in A Death in Summer to the attempted murder by dynamite are:

(a.) A murder clumsily staged to suggest suicide

(b.) An outsider who sees what police miss.

(c.) The witness who lets slip a detail that contradicts something Quirke had previously heard from another interested party.

(d.) The suspect who: "clamped a hand to his mouth and stared at the policeman with rounded eyes. 'Oh, Lord,' he exclaimed, 'now I've done it - I've let slip a vital clue.' "

I had heard no complaints from the crime fiction community about Case Histories, though many about Banville/Black. I wonder why that is.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gavin, you might try Ronan Bennett's Havoc, in its Third Year for a novel that offers a convincing view of a time past, seventeenth-century England amid Puritan persecution of Catholics. That superb, affecting novel is helped by, among other things, the author's very slight archaism of language. Whether this faithful to seventeenth-century speech, I don't know, but it reminds readers that we are in a time and place other than our own without, however, becoming stagy or obtrusive.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Gavin said...

Peter,

I think that (a), (b), & (c) are cliches, but not necessarily stupid. (Although, come to think of it, I've never read a plot based around (a) that was any good that I remember. On the other hand, even Ed McBain used it -- so it's got a pedigree. On the third hand, I hated that particular 87th precinct novel). That is, I can imagine an otherwise intelligent person thinking that it was a good idea to fake a suicide to cover up a murder.

But they dynamite one (at least, the way she used it) just boggled my mind. Maybe because it came on top of the same guy trying to whack his victim with a hammer, then run him off the road. And this is all from a side-plot, not even the main story. Argh, I could rant about that book all day.

Having said that, I haven't read the Benjamin Black book, and I'm not likely to, so it could be just as mind-bogglingly stupid. But his first one didn't bother me that much. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone particularly, and it wasn't my cup of tea, but it didn't push any buttons either. I'd even say it was better than, say, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to throw in another novel whose reason for success eludes me.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The devices are not necessarily stupid, but the clownish self-conscious of (d) is that and worse. (c) is a crushing letdown because it seems Black's easy way out of a beautifully written scene.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Also, Banville's stated awareness of crime-fiction conventions made me especially alert to how he used them. In A Death in Summer, the answer is: not well.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

This discussion about conventions is interesting. If I hear you, Peter, you seem to be saying writers ought to conform to crime novel conventions. But which conventions are appropriate? Doyle's? Collins's? Christie's? Hammett's? Chandler's? Shall we be locked into conventions of the 50's, 60's, 70's or 80's? What about British forms? What about American forms? What about French forms? By now, I suppose, you get my point: conventions are time-bound, and they need to be subject to adoption, adaptation, and/or abandonment. In terms of so-called "literary" novels, I am rather glad the conventions of Dickens and Eliot, Fitzgerald and Dos Passos, Steinbeck and Wolfe, and Vonnegut and Brautigan have been variously adapted and/or abandoned. Without adaptations and abandonments we would not have writers like John Fowles, E. L. Doctorow, Julian Barnes, Louise Erdrich, and others (just to name an eclectic bunch). So, I say, what is the big deal about Banville/Black and conventions? He either writes well or he doesn't. Conventions ought not be the criteria.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You don't hear me. Either that, or you're indulging in the Socratic method again, you old pedagogue. What I say is that breaking conventions for the sole purpose of breaking conventions is childish, self-indulgent, and, in the case of A Death in Summer, arguably mean-spirited. And he does not do it especially well.

Besides, Banville himself has raised the issue of crime-fiction conventions in respect to his writing as Black. And the division between writes well/doesn't is not so clear-cut in the case of the one Black novel I've read. He writes beautiful passages, one or two of which I discuss in my review. He wrote those passages more than well.

His handling of crime-fiction conventions (which he has lamented even as he proclaims their necessity), on the other hand, is not especially original or amusing. In one of the cases I cited, it obtrudes on and ruins a beautiful scene. In another, it's cack-handed, insulting, obtrusive, and unfunny--not written well, in other words.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Black as Banville is the biggest convention-worshiper of them all, by the way. He can't seem to stop thinking about the things or break free of them.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Am I being obtuse if I insist that the word "convention" still is not being defined. Hey, it wouldn't be the first time I've been called obtuse. Hell, if I can be ID'd as an old pedagogue, part of which is true (i.e., old), then any label is no surprise.

What I'm getting at (without being Socratic) is this: What conventions (whatever they are) are really being talked about here?

On the other hand, perhaps my question is simply annoying and rhetorical. Feel free to ignore the old pedagogue.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

my review of A Death in Summer lists four conventions (or tropes, if that makes the lit-crit in you feel better) that Black uses in the book; a link in the body of this post will take you to the review. I don't take him to task for using devices lifted from other crime novels. I do criticize him for using a trope while affecting to make fun of it.

I may not convince you of anything, but the review should give you a better an idea of what I mean.

In fact, here's the relevant portion:

"Banville ... has said that he vowed to avoid cliches when he set out to write crime fiction, but he indulges in two of the oldest at the very start:

"(a.) A murder clumsily staged to suggest suicide

"(b.) An outsider who sees what police miss (or a semi-outsider in this case ... This may literally be the oldest trick in the crime-fiction book, dating at least as far back as Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter" in 1844.

"Banville, gifted though he may be when wearing his literary hat, has an uneasy relationship with crime-fiction conventions, even as he acknowledges their necessity to the genre. Early in
A Death in Summer, he gives us a nervously beautiful interview between Quirke and a suspect's desperate wife. The woman is shrunken, shabby, wheedling, put-upon, and bitter. Quirke grows impatient with her whining. The scene is harsh, edgy, and real - until Banville pulls out another cliche: The woman lets slip a detail that contradicts something Quirke had previously heard from another interested party.

"Banville's unease with the convention is only emphasized later when, in a rare meta-moment, he has another character make fun of it:

"`Sumner clamped a hand to his mouth and stared at the policeman with rounded eyes. "Oh, Lord," he exclaimed, "now I've done it - I've let slip a vital clue."' "

"Banville is new to writing crime (his conversion came when he read a few of Georges Simenon's non-Maigret "hard novels" in 2003), and he has strangely constricted ideas of its possibilities. "For some reason," he has said, "the conventions of crime fiction don't allow for humour.'"


June 21, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Fair enough. I will make this concession: my point is pointless.

Your use of the word "trope" reminds me of a moment in grad school. The prof asked the class for a definition of the word "trope." I volunteered a sensible albeit dictionary-styled answer. He denounced me as being wrong, and proceeded to explain his use of "trope" in the form of a musical metaphor. (Hey, you had to be there to figure that one out.) After class, I--putting my best humble foot forward--confronted the prof and argued that I was correct and did not deserve his repudiation. He apologized. However, he never followed up later with a concession in the classroom. So, I remained tarred by his put-down, and he remained exalted in his professorial self-importance. What does all of that mean? It means that I need to remember his example: sometimes I am wrong in my approach to certain subjects, and I need to make concessions when appropriate. -30-

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, your point is pointed. You were warning me not to fall under the sway of the cult of originality.

Hey, embarrass your professor now.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

This may be one of your longest threaded (meandering) discussions, and I apologize for contributing to the meandering. In any case, to get back to your posting, I am intrigued by the implicit question: Why do writers dabble in different genres, but--in doing so--hide behind pseudonyms? Yes, I know there is an answer based on marketing considerations, but I think there is something more interesting going on here--and it is related to writer's egos. Consider this: Banville is pleased with himself as a writer of "literary" fiction (Booker Prize material), but he must become Black (which is in itself rich in some sort of perverse irony) in order to write crime fiction. Hey, he ain't the only one, but since he is pretty much on your must-not-read list, he is fair game for the analysis. But wait a minute! Perhaps that last word is the key: analysis. Are we dealing with psychological issues in writers with multiple personae?

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Banville was asked if Benjamin Black was a different person. No, he said, merely a different aspect of the same person, just as each of us (he said) brings to bear a different aspect of himself in each aspect of his life, "just as I am at night, when I change your words." (That was Banville citing his experience as a newspaper subeditor.)

My layman's guess is that Banville has taken unfair criticism for his statements that he writes his crime fiction much more quickly than he does his literary work. My quibble is with the result, not the fact, of that quickness.

This is certainly one my longer recent threads, but the longest ever? Nope .

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I neglected to add that, psychological and marketing implications of noms de plume aside, I have no quarrel with Banville adopting different modes of work for different style of writing.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Finally, for anyone interested in further discussion of historical fiction, I invite your attention to Chapter 21 (History in the Novel/The Novel in History) in Thomas C. Foster's book, How to Read Novels Like a Professor. He is professor of English at U of Michigan (Flint), and he has 3 books (or more) to his credit aiming at making literature more accessible to all readers. He is also, by the way, a big fan of Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse novels; so I guess he might at least have some traction among those who chat about crime novels.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

"aiming at making"? Yikes, where on earth did I come up with that monstrous phrase. Cripes! I need an editor!

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I see that Foster's preface calls Roland Barthes "more than a little impish" (italics mine).

Repeat "aiming at making" a hundred times You'll work yourself into a state of enlightenment.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You might also be interested in learning that John Connolly has said people in crime fiction who sneer at "literary" fiction are making a mistake and, possibly, doing their genre no good.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

The labels attached to fiction (i.e., crime, fantasy, literary, etc.) annoy me. I understand why publishers, bookstores, reviewers, and critics use them: they are easy marketing, organizing, and conversational categories. However, in my fantasy world, there would be only two labels: readable and unreadable. Of course, the latter label, by definition, could not exist. After all, who would publish, sell, or review unreadable fiction?

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"After all, who would publish, sell, or review unreadable fiction?"

"Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace"

June 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

His real fiction would stand the test of the time while presumably the crime fiction brought in the readies.

Adrian, when did you talk to Banville? by the time Declan interviewed him, he was speculating with some amusement that he might be remembered as Black rather than as Banville.

June 21, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think my encounter with him was in 2009, by 2011 when Dec talked to him his Black books had been optioned by the BBC, serialised in The Irish Times, reviewed as serious literature in The New York Times and the New Yorker and entered the best seller lists in multiple countries...But his proudest boast (he boasted of it with me as if I didnt already know) was that he won the Booker Prize as John Banville. His wikipedia pages says or used to say that he frequently gets mentioned as a potential Nobel Laureate which I dont think happens that much outside of his own house.

June 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I presume you're not excited that he's writing a Philip Marlowe novel--at the behest of the Chandler estate, he made sure to mention.

I probably liked parts of A Death in Summer better than you like anything you've read by Banville/Black. Still, I was gobsmacked praise from critics who wrote not that it was the equal of his work as Banville, but that it was a masterpiece of noir. That, it is decidedly not.

Elsewhere on the same island, I'm reading City of Bohane, Kevin Barry. It has atmosphere out the wazoo. Do you know it?

In re your current post, I bought and read Barry Cunliffe's little book about the Celts at the Newgramge visitor center five years ago when I was waiting for my tour to depart.

June 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right. So Banville might have thought it prudent to tone down his disdain for crime writing once he saw he was making a success of it.

June 22, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think Banville is an awful choice for a Chandler novel. Yes Chandler's childhood years were spent in Ireland and Chandler went to the same school as PG Wodehouse so he grew up in a pre war British Isles literary milieu that Banville may be familiar with, but Banville is a very provincial novelist with a limited understanding of America that will not serve him well in this endeavour.

June 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I know nothing about the project. Who knows? Maybe he'll contrive to bring Marlowe to Ireland.

He does say Chandler showed him crime writers could write with style. I'm nut sure this augurs well for a Marlowe novel.

June 22, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Peter, I believe that is "naugers".

June 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, but you're right. I'll be eating a numble pie over my mistake.

June 22, 2013  

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