John Banville is one of my favorite writers along the lines of the premier wordsmith of the 20th century, John Updike. I have amassed dozens of new and interesting words to add to my vocabulary. Banville’s latest novel, Mrs. Osmond is no exception, and I picked up a small handful in the first 40 pages.
Mrs. Osmond is the story of a woman, Isobel, separated from her husband. She has inherited a substantial—but unspecified—inheritance from her aunt. As the story opens, she has returned from Italy, and visits her banker in London to withdraw a large amount of money. This sequel, to Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, is written in the same style as James, although, Banville does not used unending sentences. While some sentences are a bit longer than most, all are manageable. Banville writes, “[Isobel] did not know London, not with any intimacy; she had spent some time here, on visits, but for the most part she had viewed it not through her own eyes but through the eyes of others—those of her husband, of Ralph Touchett and his mother, of her friend Henrietta Stackpole; of painters, too, and of poets and novelists—so many!—the Dickenses and Thackerays, the Byrons and the Brownings, all the bards who had sung to her, in the far off city of Albany [New York] where she had passed the years of her youth, of this magically distant Land of Cockaigne” (8). This sentence is manageable, and after thirty pages or so, I quickly fell into the rhythm of his marvelous prose. I am not a big fan of James, but quite a few of his stories and novels have a magic something, which keeps me reading.
Among these marathon sentences, there is quite a bit of wry humor. Banville writes, “The maître d’ like a pigeon’s chest—and she was led murmuringly led to a place in the corner and deftly seated, although, despite the man’s soft obsequiousness of manner, she had momentarily the sense of having been screwed down into her chair, like a cork forced into the neck of a bottle. Restaurants always reminded her a little of the schoolroom, if an unusually democratic and well-appointed one, where she had been sent to receive lessons in some of the finer and more venerable social disciplines” (17). I can imagine that school house, and that is one of the strengths of Banville his ability to render complete and interesting characters. Here’s another humorous passage, “The hermits of the desert could hardly have been less the gourmand than Isobel Osmond, but all the same she never ceased to wonder at the inventiveness of English chefs in transforming perfectly presentable produce into messes of the kind that a French or Italian schoolboy would descend to sampling only on a dare” (20). That has to cause at least a chuckle.
This Banville’s work, as usual, has a treasure trove of obscure but interesting words. I will allow you to look these up in the diction for your own amusement: chidden, crepitant, reticule, megrims, deal table, ebullient, savour, scryer, furbelow, and lemon syllabul. These came from the first 61 of 369 pages.
If you have not read John Banville, this or any of his works—especially his Booker Prize novel, The Sea (2005) and the shortlisted in 1989, The Book of Evidence—are sure winners. 5 stars
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