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John Banville: Ghosts

There are two kinds of novelist in the world – those that use the word lambent and those that don’t. I have never used the word lambent, either in conversation or writing, before this article. I cannot ever imagine saying Oh, what a lambent moon! or He has such lambent wit. Banville uses the word lambent, which presumably would have had many of his readers rushing to their dictionaries, if they hadn’t, like me, come across the word in other works. Generally, I don’t like novelists who use the word lambent. It’s both an ugly word and an unnecessary word.

As in his other works, plot is not a key factor in this work. It is essentially divided into two parts. The first part (which, of course, appears in the second half of the book) tells of Freddie Montgomery, he of the Book of Evidence. At least we assume, from the information given, that it is Freddie Montgomery, though he is never named. He has been released from prison and Anna Behrens, his erstwhile girlfriend but also the woman from whom he stole a painting and whose maid he murdered, has arranged for him to work on a lonely island with Professor Kreutznaer, who is writing a book on an obscure painter. We follow Freddie’s release and his journey to the island with his friend Billy, including a stop-off at his former home, now his wife’s home. On the island he lives with the professor and Licht, apparently a native, and the professor’s assistant and servant. Relationships are difficult.

Jumping back to the beginning of the book (but later events chronologically), we see the arrival on the island of group of day-trippers whose boat has run aground. The first part is, more or less, their day on the island, much of it spent in the professor’s house. As always with Banville, their role is unclear. There are three children, who are looked after by Flora, whose job it is, a photographer, Sophie, who is doing a book of photos of ruins, an old man, Croke, and Felix, who may be wanted by the police and who may have some dirt on the professor and even on Freddie, but never reveals it. The children play, Sophie photographs, Felix schemes and Flora, feeling ill, rests on Freddie’s bed. Meanwhile, Freddie hides, Licht complains and the professor keeps a low profile. Nothing much happens and, presumably, the boat is refloated and they return to the mainland.

The title of the book may be a clue. The characters are generally insubstantial, except for Freddie who is the I-narrator. Indeed, they float around independently like ghosts. Relationships seem to be fleeting. If the professor and Freddie talk, we do not see it. Licht rejects most people. The others lightly touch but everything is vague. Indeed, as Banville points out, we are all just scrabbling for an existence, for a place on this planet, stranded on a lonely island, with little hope for anything more tangible and substantial. Only the lambent moon shows us anything.

Publishing history

First published in 1993 by Secker & Warburg