Less than halfway through The Book of Evidence I decided I would probably have to read all John Banville’s books someday. It was that good. And I’m going to have to read it again, most definitely.
I knew of the surface similarity as well as references to Lolita, and ended up really feeling like Banville could pull it off. And how much is really there and how much is in my imagination? Freddie Montgomery’s mother is called Dolly, short for Dorothy. Lolita is short for Dolores but she’s called Dolly too. And Montgomery’s son, Van—not a Lolita reference, perhaps, but I do know a certain other Van quite well… And what of ideas like this?
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. …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.
Yes, I do think the trip to America is significant in terms of the Humbert Humbert homage.
And that lovely image is a good segue to something else I really liked about The Book of Evidence—the squalor. I have a strange partiality to narration by or about filthy, broken-down middle-aged men, apparently, and Freddie Montgomery does not shy away from the grotesque. And things much more grotesque than the violent and visceral murder he’s committed, which in the scheme of things is sort of a small part of the insane, horrible things he’s done.
When the food was gone I threw the plate away too, I don’t know why, skimmed it like a discus out over the road and the harbour wall. It slid into the water with hardly a splash. There were strings of lukewarm fat between my fingers and egg-yolk under my nails. I climbed back into the room and wiped my hands on the bedclothes, my heart pounding in excitement and disgust. I did not know what I was doing, or what I would do next. I did not know myself. I had become a stranger, unpredictable and dangerous.
It won’t spoil much to tell you that he does sleep in those bedclothes that very evening. Right after this, in fact:
The next thing I recall is being on my knees in the lavatory, puking up a ferruginous torrent of wine mixed with fibrous strands of meat and bits of carrot. The look of this stuff gushing out filled me with wonder, as if it were not vomit, but something rich and strange, a dark stream of ore from the deep mine of my innards.
Yes, you have to have a bit of a strong stomach for this one. Readers who can’t enjoy works with repellent characters need not apply. Montgomery is impressively awful. And Banville is just impressive. Let me redeem him after those last two quotes:
Oh, well-named Cunningham! Behind the mask of the bald old codger a fiendish artist had been at work, the kind of artist I could never be, direct yet subtle, a master of the spare style, of the art that conceals art. I marvelled at how he had turned everything to his purpose, mis-spellings, clumsy purpose, mis-spellings, clumsy syntax, even the atrocious typing. Such humility, such deference, such ruthless suppression of the ego for the sake of the text. He had taken my story, with all its—what was it Haslet said?—with all its frills and fancy bits, and pared it down to stark essentials. It was an account of my crime I hardly recognised, and yet I believed it. He had made a murderer of me.
Of course, it was only on the page just before that Montgomery christened Cunningham himself—“oh, call him something, for God’s sake.”