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When people talk about literary antecedents for John Banville they often cite his Irish soulmates Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, writers whose mischievous streak lives on in Banville’s contemporary world of gods, ghosts, verbal dexterity and sexual adventurousness.
Less obvious, until his latest fascinating novel, "Mrs. Osmond," is his kinship with Henry James, the great American expatriate novelist who is as well-behaved as Wilde is naughty and as pragmatic as Joyce is experimental.
James is every bit their match, though, as a student of people and institutions, and as a master of elegant prose. Ditto Mr. Banville, so his “sequel” to “Portrait of a Lady” adds another dimension to his resume. I usually hate books like this. When it comes to famous literary folks, they deserve to rest in peace in the ether of how their authors left them, rather than have their spirits disturbed by lesser talents — witness “Death Comes to Pemberley,” P.D. James’ horrible and uniquely unnecessary add-on to “Pride and Prejudice.”
But Banville, a Man Booker Prize winner, pulls it off and not merely as a kind of collegiate exercise, as in: What do you think Isabel Archer did after “Portrait of a Lady” ended? Did she resume her loveless marriage to the cad, Osmond? Discuss.”
I can’t say why James left Isabel's fate hanging or why Banville was haunted enough by it to continue the story. I haven’t spent much post-collegiate time in James’ company, preferring that of his far less dense pal, Edith Wharton.
Did Banville think that Isabel deserved a better shake, considering her pre-feminist independent streak? Perhaps, as her friend Henrietta Stackpole implies in “Mrs. Osmond,” she should have been a contender, not just someone who let the norms of society dictate her actions.
Banville also stresses, though, that Isabel's devotion to Osmond’s daughter from another marriage, Pansy, has prevented her from pulling a “Doll’s House” exit. In not doing so, is she betraying all the love and faith that her cousin and benefactor, Ralph Touchett, put in her by leaving her so much money? Banville does a fine job, by the way, of filling us in on James’ plot developments. Have no fear if you haven’t read, or have forgotten, “Portrait of a Lady.”
The real trick that he pulls off is to make the characters in the new book not only Henry James’ characters, but also his own. The prose, likewise, is written with James’ mannerly slow pacing, but also with Banville’s modernistic sense of how to construct a plot that moves along. He’s respectful to his master’s voice, but not paralyzed by it.
So what’s new with Isabel? She is certainly no more sure of herself than she was 100 years or so ago. Together with her maid Staines she’s hanging around London as the book begins. Here’s an example of Banville overlaying his contemporary concerns with the human condition onto James’ more conservative observations. Isabel is surprised to see a man weeping in the middle of a London street, but then wonders why she’s surprised:
… Yet now it occurred to her, who had lately suffered so many blows to the spirit, to wonder why it was not more common, why it was not an everyday occurrence, to be witnessed at any time at any street corner — why were we not all given to periodic outbursts of public wailings? For in the scale of things, she was sure, the weight of the world’s sorrow would sink the balance so sharply that the pan on that side would make a brassy bang on the counter-top.
There are other touches of creeping modernity, as when Isabel invites her maid to have dinner with her in a public place, bringing “pain and humiliation on both sides.” Like James, Banville is saying we’re all creatures of our times, no matter how progressive we think we are and how regressive we think our predecessors were.
Banville is clearly also having fun with forms that aren’t really his own, such as ending many chapters as if they’re cliffhangers awaiting the next installment. And does he give Isabel, in the end, a better deal than James did when she returns to Italy and confronts Mr. Osmond? Let’s just say that life, for Banville’s characters, is a pursuit rather than an ending.
One thing stays true from James to Banville. Even with some frustration, almost everyone in “Portrait of a Lady” enjoyed spending time in Isabel Archer's company. The same is true for Mrs. Osmond, both for the characters in the book and for the readers.
John Banville will be appearing at the Harvard Book Store on Friday, Nov. 17.
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