Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Mefisto, by John Banville

David R. Godine, 1999
(originally published 1986)
233 pp


In the long run, Mefisto is a sad and depressing novel, a book in which it seems that all of the characters are just plain lost.   I'm not surprised -- I've  spent a lot of time with the people in Banville's crime novels written under the name of Benjamin Black (the Quirke series),  in which all and sundry are lost in some fashion. 

This is one of the most challenging books I've ever read, to be sure.  I spent tons of time online and in my own library tracking down the numerous references to mythology, art, literature, philosophy etc that appear in this novel; even after a second reading I'm still not sure I will ever be fully comfortable with it in any sort of comprehensive way.  I've read a number of reviews that cite its "intertextuality," and I've come to this conclusion: since I'm merely a casual reader sort of person and  not a walking encyclopedia who is gifted with perfect knowledge of all things literary, philosophical, artistic and mythological, I'm sure I missed a lot of what lies underneath this novel.

In Mefisto the main character is Gabriel Swan, whose account of his life is what we're reading here.  He  was born a twin but his twin brother did not survive the birth.   He does, however, note that as a boy he "had something always beside me... not a presence but a momentous absence," and that he was burdened with "emptiness."  At the same time, as he writes,
"It seemed to me that I was not all my own, that I was being shared. If I fell, say, and cut my knee, I would be aware immediately of an echo, a kind of chime, as of a wine-glass shattering somewhere out of sight, and I would feel a soft shock like that when the dreamer on the brink of blackness puts a foot on a step which is not there."
Gabriel also had "a gift for numbers," and was "obsessed with the mystery of the unit."  We learn right away that for Gabriel, it's all about the "sense of order...the harmony, of symmetry and completeness."  It is this idea that sets the stage for what's going to happen next, as we continue through Gabriel's childhood of no friends except "figures," and a strange relationship with his family.  One day while out walking he notices a man with a "pigeon-toed gait" that he will encounter again accompanied by a young girl.  It is on this second encounter that he notices he is being watched by still another person, a man with a "narrow foxy face and high cheekbones and a long, tapering jaw."  This is Felix, who introduces the other man as Kasperl. The girl is Sophie, and all three are living together in a decaying home on the old Ashburn estate.   At first Gabriel makes sporadic visits to Ashburn, but then he becomes a regular visitor.  It is there, he believes, "the horizon is limitless" and that he
"moved in a new medium there, a dense silvery stuff that flashed and shimmered, not like air at all, but a pure fluid that held things fixed and trembling, like water in a brimming jet of a fountain."
As the blurb on the back cover of my book says, in this "abandoned mansion" the "changing relations" between Gabriel and these three people will ultimately end up with Gabriel "in his own private season in Hell." 

The story continues in part two, and it took me a while but I realized not too far into this second part that the author has done something very clever here in the telling itself.  I don't think it's a spoiler to say that even as the story goes on, it starts again.  This time, however, it's as if Gabriel has been reborn, and with the exception of Felix, his fellow characters reappear as darker mirror images to those in part one.

Challenging, for sure, and it's definitely another one of those books that could be the subject of study of a graduate literary course, so to say I came through it with some sort of detailed understanding of it all  is not even close to accurate.  I do think, though, that what I get from the book is just genius and that Mr. Banville's writing is superb.  The last forty pages of part one are so beautifully written that while reading them I was absolutely spellbound and could not have put this book down for anything.   After the second reading, I was taken in directions I hadn't even contemplated during the first time through -- focusing much more on the idea of consciousness, twins and most of all the dualities that are present throughout this story.  I also found myself drawn to and appreciating on an entirely different level  Gabriel's brief flashes of insight that seemed to me to show him the truth of things, even during his search for some sort of knowledge that might order his world.    It really is a stunning novel even if I didn't come anywhere close to a full appreciation.

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