Saturday, March 18


THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE begins with the arrogant and verbose Freddy Montgomery being arrested after (we find out later) an inept attempt to steal an oil painting, which resulted in the death of a young woman.

In the street a little crowd had gathered. How did they know who I was, which court I would be in, the time at which I would appear? When they caught sight of me they gave a cry, a sort of ululant wail of awe and execration that made my skin prickle, I was so confused and frightened I forgot myself and waved - I waved to them! God knows what I thought I was doing. I suppose it was meant as a placatory gesture, an animal sign of submission and retreat, It only made them more furious, of course. They shook their fists, they howled. One or two of them seemed about to break from the rest and fly at me. A woman spat, and called me a dirty bastard, I just stood there, nodding and waving like a clockwork man, with a terrified grin fixed on my face. That was when I realised, for the first time, it was one of theirs I had killed.

They clawed at each other to get a look at me. They shouted abuse, and shook their fists at me, showing their teeth. It was unreal, somehow, frightening yet comic, the sight of them there, milling on the pavement like film extras, young men in cheap raincoats, and women with shopping bags, and one or two silent, grizzled characters who just stood, fixed on me hungrily, haggard with envy. It had rained while I was inside, and now the sun was shining again. I remember the glare of the wet road, and a cloud stealthily disappearing over the rooftops, and a dog skirting the road with a worried look in its eye. Always the incidental things, you see, the little things. Then a guard threw a blanket over my head and bundled me into a squad car. I laughed. There was something irresistibly funny in the way reality, banal as ever, was fulfilling my worst fantasies. I was pushed head-first into the police car and we sped away, the tyres hissing. Hee-haw, hee-haw. In the hot, woolly darkness I wept my fill.

By the way, that blanket. Did they bring it specially, or do they always keep one handy in the boot?


Then the book backtracks to show us how all of this happened. Freddy comes home to Ireland for the first time in 10 years, and visits his mother.

She insisted that I come and look the place over, as she put it. After all, my boy, she said, someday all this will be yours. And she did her throaty cackle. I did not remember her being so easily amused in the past, There was something almost unruly in her laughter, a sort of abandon. I was a little put out by it, I thought it was not seemly. She lit up a cigarette and set off around the house, with the cigarette box and matches clutched in her left claw, and me trailing grimly in her smoking wake. The house was rotting, in places so badly, and so rapidly, that even she was startled. She talked and talked. I nodded dully, gazing at damp walls and sagging floors and mouldering window-frames. In my old room the bed was broken, and there was something growing in the middle of the mattress. The view from the window--trees, a bit of sloping field, the red roof of a barn--was exact and familiar as an hallucination. Here was the cupboard I had built, and at once I had a vision of myself, a small boy with a fierce frown, blunt saw in hand, hacking at a sheet of plywood, and my grieving heart wobbled, as if it were not myself I was remembering, but something like a son, dear and vulnerable, lost to me forever in the depths of my own past.


He also reunites with Anna, one of the women from the earlier excerpt I posted here. She is on her way to becoming a spinster, living alone in her dying father's art-filled house.

Though I tried to put her out of my mind I kept returning to the thought of Anna Behrens. What had happened to her, that she should lock herself away in that drear museum, with only a dying old man for company? But perhaps nothing had happened, perhaps that was it. Perhaps the days just went by, one by one, without a sound, until at last it was too late, and she woke up one morning and found herself stuck fast in the middle of her life.


After the crime, Freddy hides in the house of a family friend, and waits for the police to arrive.

I sat in a chair in the drawing-room, gazing before me, my hands gripping the armrests and my feet placed squarely side by side on the floor. I do not know how long I stayed like that, in that glimmering, grey space. I have an impression of hours passing, but surely that cannot be. There was a smell of cigarettes and stale drink left over from last night. The rain made a soothing noise. I sank into a kind of trance, a waking sleep. I saw myself, as a boy, walking across a wooded hill near Coolgrange. It was in March, I think, one of those blustery, Dutch days with china-blue sky and tumbling, cindery clouds. The trees above me swayed and groaned in the wind. Suddenly there was a great quick rushing noise, and the air darkened, and something like a bird's vast wing crashed down around me, thrashing and whipping. It was a branch that had fallen. I was not hurt, yet I could not move, and stood as if stunned, aghast and shaking. The force and swiftness of the thing had appalled me. It was not fright I felt, but a profound sense of shock at how little my presence had mattered. I might have been no more than a flaw in the air. Ground, branch, wind, sky, world, all these were the precise and necessary co-ordinates of the event. Only I was misplaced, only I had no part to play. And nothing cared. If I had been killed I would have fallen there, face down in the dead leaves, and the day would have gone on as before, as if nothing had happened. For what would have happened would have been nothing, or nothing extraordinary, anyway. Adjustments would have been made. Things would have had to squirm out from under me. A stray ant, perhaps, would explore the bloody chamber of my ear, But the light would have been the same, and the wind would have blown as it had blown, and time's arrow. would not have faltered for an instant in its flight. I was amazed. I never forgot that moment. And now another branch was about to fall, I could hear that same rushing noise above me, and feel that same dark wing descending.


John Banville is particularly good at summarizing characters in just a line or two. For example:

A large, red-faced, sweating man in a striped shirt entered the interrogation room. I recognised in him one of my own kind, the big, short-tempered, heavy-breathing people of the world.


She had the unformed, palely freckled look of a schoolgirl, the dullard of the class, who cries in the dorm at night and is mad on ponies.


However, I'll end with this stunning passage, where Freddy first arrives back in Ireland.

I had expected to arrive in rain, and at Holyhead, indeed, a fine, warm drizzle was falling, but when we got out on the channel the sun broke through again. It was evening. The sea was calm, an oiled, taut meniscus, mauve-tinted and curiously high and curved. From the forward lounge where I sat the prow seemed to rise and rise, as if the whole ship were straining to take to the air. The sky before us was a smear of crimson on the palest of pale blue and silvery green. I held my face up to the calm sea-light, entranced, expectant, grinning like a loon. I confess I was not entirely sober, I had already broken into my allowance of duty-free booze, and the skin at my temples and around my eyes was tightening alarmingly. It was not just the drink, though, that was making me happy, but the tenderness of things, the simple goodness of the world. This sunset, for instance, how lavishly it was laid on, the clouds, the light on the sea, that heartbreaking, blue-green distance, laid on, all of it, as if to console some lost, suffering wayfarer. I have never really got used to being on this earth. Sometimes I think our presence here is due to a cosmic blunder, that we were meant for another planet altogether, with other arrangements, and other laws, and other, grimmer skies. I try to imagine it, our true place, off on the far side of the galaxy, whirling and whirling. And the ones who were meant for here, are they out there, baffled and homesick, like us? No, they would have become extinct long ago. How could they survive, these gentle earthlings, in a world that was made to contain us?

Friday, March 10

The Book Of Evidence (excerpt)

In John Banville's The Book Of Evidence, Irish expatriate Freddie Montgomery remembers his year at graduate school in California, where he meets a childhood friend, Anna, and the woman who would become his wife, Daphne.
It was through painting also that I met Anna Behrens—or met her again, I should say. We knew each other a little when we were young. I seem to remember once at Whitewater being sent outside to play with her in the grounds. Play! That's a good one. Even in those days she had that air of detachment, of faint, remote amusement, which I have always found unnerving. Later on, in Dublin, she would appear now and then, and glide through our student roisterings, poised, silent, palely handsome. She was nicknamed the Ice Queen, of course. I lost sight of her, forgot about her, until one day in Berkeley - this is where the coincidences begin - I spotted her in a gallery on Shattuck Avenue. I had not known she was in America, yet there was no sense of surprise. This is one of the things about Anna, she belongs exactly wherever she happens to be. I stood in the street for a moment watching her—admiring her, I suppose. The gallery was a large high white room with a glass front. She was leaning against a desk with a sheaf of papers in her hand, reading. She wore a white dress. Her hair, bleached silver by the sun, was done in a complicated fashion, with a single heavy braid hanging down at her shoulder. She might have been a piece on show, standing there so still in that tall, shadowless light behind sun-reflecting glass. I went in and spoke to her, admiring again that long, slightly off-centre, melancholy face with its close-set grey eyes and Florentine mouth. I remembered the two tiny white spots on the bridge of her nose where the skin was stretched tight over the bone. She was friendly, in her distant way. She watched my lips as I talked. On the walls there were two or three vast canvases, done in the joky, minimalist style of the time, hardly distinguishable in their pastel bareness from the blank spaces surrounding them. I asked her if she was thinking of buying something. This amused her. I work here, she said, pushing back the blonde braid from her shoulder. I invited her to lunch, but she shook her head. She gave me her telephone number. When I stepped out into the sunlit street a jet plane was passing low overhead, its engines making the air rattle, and there was a smell of cypresses and car exhaust, and a faint whiff of tear-gas from the direction of the campus. All this was fifteen years ago. I crumpled the file card on which she had written her phone number, and started to throw it away. But I kept it.

She lived in the hills, in a mock-Tyrolean, shingled wooden house which she rented from a mad widow. More than once on the way there I stood up to get off the bus and go home, bored and half-annoyed already at the thought of Anna's amused, appraising glance, that impenetrable smile. When I called her she had spoken hardly a dozen words, and twice she put a hand over the phone and talked to someone with her in the room. Yet that morning I had shaved with particular care, and put on a new shirt, and selected an impressive volume of mathematical theory to carry with me. Now, as the bus threaded its way up these narrow roads, I was assailed by a sense of revulsion, I seemed to myself an obscurely shameful, lewd object, exposed and cringing, with my palped and powdered flesh, my baby-blue shirt, the floppy book clutched in my hand like a parcel of meat. The day was overcast, and there was mist in the pines. I climbed a zigzag of damp steps to the door, looking about me with an expression of bland interest, trying to appear blameless, as I always seem to do when I am on unfamiliar territory. Anna wore shorts, and her hair was loose. The sight of her there suddenly in the doorway, ash-blonde, at ease, her long legs bare, caused an ache at the root of my tongue. The home was dim inside. A few books, prints on the wall, a straw hat on a hook. The widow's cats had left a trace of themselves on the carpets and the chairs, a sharp, citrus stink, not wholly unpleasant.

Daphne was sitting cross-legged in a canvas chair, shelling peas into a nickel bowl. She wore a bathrobe, and her hair was wrapped in a towel. Another coincidence, you see.

What did we talk about that day, the three of us? What did I do? Sat down, I suppose, drank a beer, Stretched out my legs and leaned back, playing at being relaxed. I cannot see myself. I am a sort of floating eye, watching, noting, scheming. Anna came and went between the living-room and the kitchen, bringing cheese and oranges and sliced avocados. It was Sunday. The place was quiet. I watched through the window the mist moving among the trees. The telephone rang and Anna answered it, turning away and murmuring into the receiver. Daphne smiled at me. Her glance was unfocused, a kind of soft groping among the objects around her. She rose and handed me the bowl and the remaining unshelled peas, and went away upstairs. When she came back in a while she was dressed, her hair was dried and she was wearing her spectacles. and at first I did not recognize her, and thought she was yet another tenant of the house. It was only then that I realized it was she I had seen on the lawn that day at Professor Something's party. I started to tell her about it, about having seen her, but I changed my mind, for the same, unknown reason that I had turned away that first time without speaking to her. She took the bowl of peas from me and sat down again. Anna answered another phone call, murmuring, quietly laughing. It occurred to me that my presence was hardly impinging on their day, that they would have done just these same things if I were not there. It was a soothing thought. I had not been invited to dinner, but it seemed accepted that I would stay. After we had eaten we sat on at the table for a long time. The fog thickened. pressing against the windows. I see the two of them opposite me there in that milky twilight, the dark one and the fair: they have an air of complicity. of secret amusement, as if they are sharing a mild, not very unkind joke at my expense. How distant it all seems, an age away, when we were still innocent, if that is the word. Which I doubt.

I was, I confess it, captivated by them, their looks, their composure, their casual selfishness. They embodied an ideal that I had not known I harbored until now. I was still working at my science in those days, I was going to be one of those great, cold technicians, the secret masters of the world. Now suddenly another future had opened up, as if these two had caused a whole rockface before me to fall away and reveal beyond the swirling dust a vast, radiant distance. They were splendid. at once languorous and dashing. They reminded me of a pair of adventuresses out of the last century. They had arrived in New York the previous winter, and drifted by stages across the country to this tawny, sunlit shore. where they were poised now, as if on tiptoe, hands joined and arms extended, with the Pacific all before them. Though they had been in this house nearly half a year their impress was so light, so fleeting, that the rooms had barely registered their presence. They seemed to have no belongings - even the straw hat hanging on the door had been left behind by a previous tenant. There must have been friends, or acquaintances at least—I'm thinking of those phone calls—but I never met them. Once in a while their landlady would descend on them, a darkly dramatic person with soulful eyes and very black hair twisted tight into a bun and skewered with a carved wooden pin. She dressed like an Indian squaw, festooning herself with beads and brightly coloured scarves. She would surge about the house distractedly, talking over her shoulder and trailing a dense, musky perfume, then fling herself with a balletic leap on to the couch in the living room and sit for an hour telling of her woes - the result mostly of what with a throb in her voice she referred to as man trouble - meanwhile getting steadily, tearfully drunk on calvados, a supply of which she kept in a locked cupboard in the kitchen. A ghastly woman, I could not abide her, that leathery skin and daubed mouth, all that hysteria, that messy loneliness. The girls, however, found her greatly entertaining. They liked to do imitations of her, and made catchphrases of things she said. Sometimes, listening to them mimicking her, I wondered if perhaps, when I was not there, they treated me like this, lobbing remarks at each other in a comically solemn version of my voice and laughing softly, in that jaded way they had, as if the joke were not really funny, just ridiculous.

They thought the country, too, was a scream, especially California. We had a lot of fun together laughing at the Americans, who just then were entering that stage of doomed hedonistic gaiety through which we, the gilded children of poor old raddled Europe, had already passed, or so we believed. How innocent they seemed to us, with their flowers and their joss-sticks and their muddled religiosity. Of course, I felt a secret twinge of guilt, sneering at them like this. I had been captivated by the country when I first came there, now it was as if I had joined in mocking some happy, good-hearted creature, the fat girl at the party against whom only a moment ago I had been pressing myself, under cover of the general romp, in wordless, swollen ecstasy.

Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia, of homesickness, even? Living there, amid those gentle, paintbox colours, under that dome of flawless blue, was like living in another world, a place out of a storybook. (I used to dream of rain—real, daylong, Irish rain—as if it were something I had been told about but had never seen.) Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It's true, at times it crossed our minds, or it crossed my mind, at least, that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves. Was there not a touch of the preposterous about us, with our tweeds and our sensible shoes, our extravagant accents, our insolently polite manners? More than once I thought I detected a suppressed smile twitching the lips of some person who was supposed to be the unknowing butt of our ridicule. Even among ourselves there were moments of silence, of awkwardness, when a half-formed admission hovered between us, like a bad, embarrassing smell. A trio of expatriates meeting in this mellow playground - what could be more novelettish? We were a triangle, for God's sake!

We were a triangle. It happened, the inevitable, one afternoon a month or so after we met. We had been sitting on the porch at the back of the house drinking gin and smoking something with a horrid taste and the oddest effects. The day was hot and hazy. Above us a coin-coloured sun was stuck in the middle of a white sky. I was watching a cloud of hummingbirds sipping at a honeysuckle bush beside the porch steps. Daphne, in shorts and halter and high-heeled sandals, stood up, a little unsteadily, blinking, and wandered into the house. I followed her. I was not thinking of anything - I was fetching more ice, something like that. After the glare outside I could hardly see indoors, everywhere I turned the air had a huge dark hole in it. Idly I looked about for Daphne, following the sound of the ice tinkling in her glass, from the kitchen. through the living-room to the bedroom. The blind was drawn. She was sitting on the side of the bed, gazing before her in the amber half-light. My head suddenly began to ache. She drained her drink in one long gulp, and was still holding the glass when we lay down together, and a bead of ice slid out of it and dropped into the hollow of my shoulder. Her lips were chill and wet. She began to say something, and laughed softly into my mouth. Our clothes seemed tight as bandages, I clawed at them, snorting. Then abruptly we were naked. There was a startled pause. Somewhere nearby children were playing. Daphne laid her hand on my hip. Her eyes were closed, and she was smiling with her eyebrows raised, as if she were listening to a distant, dreamy, and slightly funny melody. I heard a sound, and looked over my shoulder. Anna was standing in the doorway. I had a glimpse of myself as she would see me, my glimmering flanks and pale backside, my fish-mouth agape. She hesitated a moment, and then walked to the bed with her eyes on the ground, as if deep in thought, and sat down beside us and began to undress. Daphne and I lay quietly in each other's arms and watched her. She pulled her blouse over her head, and surfaced like a swimmer, tossing her hair. A metal clasp left its mauve imprint in the centre of her back. Why did she seem to me so much older now than us, world-weary, a little used, an adult joining tolerantly in a children's not quite permissible game? Daphne hardly breathed, her fingers steadily tightening on my hip. Her lips were parted, and she frowned a little, gazing at Anna's bared flesh, lost in a sort of vague amazement. I could feel her heartbeat, and my own. We might have been attending at a ritual disrobing.

A ritual, yes, that's how it was. We strove together slowly on the bed, the three of us, as if engaged in an archaic ceremonial of toil and worship, miming the fashioning and raising of something, a shrine, say, or a domed temple. How grave we were, how pensive, with what attentiveness we handled each other's flesh. No one spoke a word. The women had begun by exchanging a chaste kiss. They smiled, a little bashfully. My hands were trembling. I had felt this choking sense of transgression once before, long ago, when as a child I tussled with two girl cousins in the dark on the stairs one winter evening at Coolgrange - the same dread and incredulity, the same voluptuous, aching, infantile glee. Dreamily we delved and nuzzled, shivering, sighing. Now and then one of us would clutch at the other two with a child's impatient, greedy fervour and cry out softly, tinily, as if in pain or helpless sorrow. It seemed to me at times that there were not two women but one, a strange, remote creature, many-armed, absorbed behind an enameled mask in something I could not begin to know. At the end, the final spasm gathering itself inside me, I raised myself up on trembling arms, with Daphne's heels pressed in the small of my back, and looked down at the two of them gnawing at each other with tender avidity, mouth on open mouth, and for a second, as the blood welled up in my eyes, I saw their heads merge, the fair one and the dark, the tawny and the panther-sleek. At once the shudder started in my groin, and I fell upon them, exultant and afraid.

But afterwards it was Daphne alone who lay in my arms, still holding me inside her, while Anna got up and walked to the window, and lifted the canvas blind at the side with one finger and stood gazing out into the hazy glare of afternoon. The children were still at play. There's a school, Anna murmured, up the hill. She laughed quietly and said, But what do I know, I ask you? It was one of the mad widow's catchphrases. Suddenly everything was sad and grey and waste. Daphne put her face against my shoulder and began to weep silently. I will always remember those children's voices.