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The Singularities

A novel

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From the revered Booker Prize-winning author comes a playful, multilayered novel of nostalgia, life and death, and quantum theory, which opens with the return of one of his most celebrated characters as he is released from prison.

“A triumphant piece of writing…Prose of such luscious elegance…Exhilarating.” —The New York Times Book Review


A man with a borrowed name steps from a flashy red sports car—also borrowed—onto the estate of his youth. But all is not as it seems. There is a new family living in the drafty old house: the Godleys, descendants of the late, world-famous scientist Adam Godley, whose theory of existence threw the universe into chaos. And this mystery man, who has just completed a prison sentence, feels as if time has stopped, or was torn, or was opened in new and strange ways. He must now vie with the idiosyncratic Godley family, with their harried housekeeper who becomes his landlady, with the recently commissioned biographer of Godley Sr., and with a wealthy and beautiful woman from his past who comes bearing an unusual request.

With sparkling intelligence and rapier wit, John Banville revisits some of his career’s most memorable figures, in a novel as mischievous as it is brilliantly conceived. The Singularities occupies a singular space and will surely be one of his most admired works.
I

Yes, he has finished his sentence, but does that mean he has nothing more to say? No, indeed, not by a long stretch. Here he is, in the chill brilliance of a breezy April morning, striding out into the world a free man, more or less. Whence came such spiffy raiment? There must be someone who cares for him, someone who cared. Witness the classy if outmoded camel-­hair overcoat, its belt not buckled but nonchalantly knotted, the hand-­tailored tweed jacket with a double vent at the back, the buffed brogues, the glint of gold at his shirt cuffs. Note in particular the high-­crowned hat of dark-­brown felt, new as the day, cocked at a dashing angle over his left eye. He bears lightly by its handle a gladstone bag, scuffed and scarred but discreetly good. Oh, yes, he is every inch the gent. The Squire was his nickname, one of his nicknames, inside. Nickname: apt, that. His name in the nick. Words are all that remain, to hold the dark at bay. For his bright morn is my brumous twilight.

Who speaks here? I do, little god, the great ones having absconded.

As a matter of fact, he has decided to change his name. Few will be taken in by this ruse, so why should he bother? But his aim, you see, is nothing less than total transformation, and in that endeavour there was no more radical start he could make than to erase the manufacturer’s mark, so to speak, and replace it with another, of his own devising. The notion of an assumed identity excited him, the poor sap; as if a new name could hide old sins. Nevertheless, he spent what turned out to be an exasperating half-­hour in his cell squatting cross-­legged on the narrow bunk with pencil and paper, like a backward schoolboy toiling over his lessons, collar awry and hair on end, trying to fashion a plausible anagram out of what already he thought of as his former name; but there were too many consonants and not enough vowels, and anyway he wasn’t any good at this kind of word game, and so he gave it up, frustrated and annoyed, and sought for a ready-­made moniker instead. The choice was bewilderingly wide, from John Smith to Rudolf of Ruritania. In the end, though, he hit on what he believes is just the thing.

The simple pleasure of being free, or at large, anyway, is tempered by a dab of disappointment. He had always foreseen his release in the jet-­and-­nickel glamour of the gangster films of his youth. There would be a big blank wooden gate in which a much smaller, postern gate would open inwards and he would step briskly out, in double-­breasted flannel and a broad tie, with his few belongings tied up in a brown-­paper parcel under his arm and a tight cold smile notched in place at one corner of his mouth, and walk across a no-­man’s-land of cobbles and raked shadows to where a flash car awaits, with a toothpick-­chewing thug at the wheel, and lolling on the plump back seat a platinum blonde in a white fur stole and seamed stockings, smoking an insolent cigarette. Or something like that, if something can be said to be like something else; the Brahma theory, as we know, puts even self-­identity in doubt. But whatever potential there might have been for picturesque drama on the day was dissipated by the fact that the process of being released had been surreptitiously set in train long before the moment came when they shot back the bolts and flung the cell door wide and withdrew to a safe distance, bullwhips and pump-­action sawn-­offs at the ready—­I exaggerate, of course. What I mean is that some years previously a directive had come from on high that he might be let out occasionally, for weekends and selected public holidays, on the quiet, and on the understanding that no precedents should be considered set thereby. Stressful outings they proved to be, he would have been better off staying safely inside. Then he was transferred from Anvil Hill, where the hammer of the law falls heavy, to the bosky latitudes of Hirnea House, a place of relaxed incarceration oxymoronically designated an open prison. He had not been happy there; he had much preferred the good old Anvil, where in a roomy but isolated block he had passed some twenty years of a mandatory life sentence contentedly among his mates, his china plates, lifers to a man, like himself.

You understand, the word contentedly is employed here in a relative sense; durance vile is durance vile, however plentiful the perks.

Anyway, they, we, the collective we, have sprung him loose at last, and here he is, briskly ascending a gravelled path to where a hackney car awaits him, a big black low-­slung old-­style petrol-­burning model—­you won’t see many of them on the roads nowadays—­with a front as blunt as a dugong’s snout, and dented chrome hub caps in which the encircling woods are curvaceously reflected. For we are in the countryside here, among low, sheep-­strewn hills which they have the cheek to call mountains, and he savours the birdsong and the breeze, the very emblems of freedom. Hirnea House, an isolated Victorian red-­brick many-­chimneyed pile, had hardly felt like jug at all, due in part to the fact that until recently it was not a prison proper but a secluded place of detention for the ordinarily insane.

The hackney driver, a gaunt-­faced oldster with a smoker’s yellowish pallor, watches him narrowly as he approaches; the fellow knows very well who he is, since the car was ordered in his name—­his former name, that’s to say—­which trails even yet the tatters of notoriety.

Names, names. We could call him Barabbas. But in that case, who is it they are crucifying, over at the Place of the Skull?

He draws open the rear door, slings in his bag and bends low and clambers in after it and slumps with a grunt on to the worn and shiny seat. Must shed some of this flab. No salutation called for, on either side. No apology for being late, either, of course. Drive, my good man. Fuggy odours of stale cigarette smoke, rank sweat, greasy leather, to which medley he supposes he is adding the old lag’s tired, greyish reek. His good man regards him in the rear-view mirror with an oyster eye.

“Grand day,” he rasps.

And I, where am I? Perched at ease as is my wont up here among the chimney pots, enjoying the panoptic view. We have met already, in one of the intervals of my faltering infinitude. Hello, yes, me again! See how my winged helm gleams in the morning radiance.

He has a friend, name of Billy, a former cellmate from Anvil days. Somewhat more of a mate, when push came to shove, if truth be told, for in the aridity of those lonely reaches the fleshly fires must be fed with whatever fuel comes to hand. But not another word on that score: time has long since quenched in him any lingering wisps of suchlike feu follet. Sweet Billy calls himself William now. Went legit and started up a little business, having always been keen on cars. Look here, we have his card here before us:

Hipwell Hire

Wm. Hipwell, esq.—­Prop.

Motors for the Driven

And we must have a car: places to go to, visits to pay. Driving licence long expired, but pish to that. His pal Wm. will see him right.

But it turns out his pal has funked it, and he is greeted not by the proprietor in person but by his assistant. This is a decidedly frisky-­looking young lady with a ring in her nose—­fashions, he notes, have turned feral in the long interval of his incarceration—­who from behind her metal desk gives him a measuring look and with a fat grey tongue deftly shifts a wad of chewing gum into the hollow of her left cheek preparatory to addressing his politely spoken enquiry. No, she says, the boss has been called away on business. This is plainly a lie, but she tells it with such barefaced aplomb that it doesn’t offend. She casts a chary eye at his Dr. Crippen bag where it rests on the floor beside his foot trying its best to look blameless.

A motor has been laid on for him, she says, “and here’s your licence, though that photo don’t look a bit like you, Mister Mordaunt.” He is pleased, and rewards her with one of his rare and only slightly baleful smiles: this is the first time he has heard his new name, or the second half of it anyway, spoken aloud, and he approves. It has a suitably lugubrious ring. I am thinking not of mort or daunt, not at all, nothing so swankily allusive. What I see is, let’s say, some great lumbering moth-­eaten beast, a moose, or an elk—­is there a difference?—­huge of head and scant of haunch, destined to end up on a plaque on a wall in the hallway of a baroque baronial hunting lodge deep in the depths of some forgotten forest in, in, oh, in I don’t know where. You get my drift.

Before pocketing the licence he cannot but glance at the mug-­shot. Faugh! When, where, was it taken? He can’t remember. The girl is wrong, it does look like him. It’s true, the physical resemblance is poor, but the camera in its merciless way has caught something essential of him, in the menacing set of the chin, in the soiled expression of the eyes. We are speaking here of an inner essence, for the outer man is handsome still, in a brawny, blue-­jawed sort of way, though he is coarsened noticeably by now, in the springtime of his sixth decade.

The office is cramped and cosily untidy, just like Billy’s side of their cell used to be. Although it is many years since they last were together, he fancies he can detect on the air a trace of his prison butty’s once familiar scent, mysteriously reminiscent of the salty fragrance of boyhood’s sunburnt summers.

He is naturally put out that Billy—­I mean, ahem! Mr. Hipwell, as the nose-­ringed miss insists it must be, firmly correcting him and at the same time biting her lip so as not to laugh—­that he should have chosen to absent himself rather than be here to greet him on his first day of liberty. He feels a premonitory chill. Is this to be the pattern? For a quarter of a century he has been as good as lost to the world, and many whom he once knew are no more, and it would go hard with him were he to be cut thus curtly by the few who remain of his former circle, however loosely bound the links of the chain may have been. What he doesn’t realise is that the static universe he has stepped into, where properly speaking there is no past, present, or future, only a smooth sort of timeless non-­time, is furnished with a whole new cast of characters for him to disport himself amongst. Oh, yes, high jinks and low are hand-­rubbingly in prospect. You’ll see.

The car Billy chose for him is a Sprite, a nippy little number painted a racy shade of red, with bucket seats upholstered in a matt black synthetic stuff as soft as a baby’s skin and so new it is still tacky to the touch, the clinging surface of which squeals in tiny ecstasy when he slides his tweeded backside across it. The be-­ringed young woman, preceded by a small metallic jingling, appears at his side, her buffed and lacquered hairstyle juddering in the strongish breeze. “Here’s the key,” she says, dangling it at him on a ring not much bigger than the one in her nose, “the tank is full, and don’t crash it or Mister Hipwell will murder you, and me as well.”

Again, His Misterness, and again that ill-­suppressed, saucy smirk; he wonders if this fragrant pink little porker is favouring the boss with her favours. He hopes so. Billy chafed for female company, inside; he had always been adaptable, though he favoured the birds over the boys, as he made a special point of pointing out. “It’s like the toothache, sometimes,” he would say, gazing off wistfully into that powdered, chiffon-­soft seraglio temporarily barred to him behind mistily gilded gates, “or a sort of a throb, like, in that thick part at the back of your tongue.” This is the way they talked about you-­know-­what, like lovesick schoolgirls; lifers don’t go in much for smut, you’ll be surprised to learn.

The young woman tarries while masterful Mr. Mordaunt jiggles the gear-­stick and clears his throat determinedly. He wishes she would go back into the office, for he fears making a fool of himself in front of her, since he’s not sure he knows how to handle these newfangled motors. And he’s out of practice, too. He hasn’t driven since, why, not since that long-­ago but never to be forgotten summer afternoon when he steered another car, a rental job like this one but much bigger and black as a hearse, down to a marshy place beside a railway line and abandoned it there, along with its bloodied but still breathing cargo. That was in another life, in another world, and yes, the maid is dead. Here now. Crunch the key into the suggestive little slot, vroom-­vroom the engine, loose the clutch, and heigh-­ho for the open road. But as it happened, he was too impetuous with the clutch and the car bucked like a spooked horse and the engine coughed and died, amidst peals of unheard celestial laughter. A muttered oath, then the key again, then the clutch again, doucement doucement this time, and off.

He had gone only a little way out on the road, however, when his foot faltered on the accelerator and the machine veered lazily to the left and rolled to a sighing stop by the kerbside. He sat forward, hunched over the wheel, gazing slack-­eyed and unseeing through the windscreen. The sporty car, the swanky clobber, the office girl smelling of hairspray and sticky-­sweet scent, even the innocent sunlight sparkling on the moulded panel of glass in front of him: by the stark facticity of all of this he was suddenly overwhelmed. Most sins can be denied, suppressed, forgotten, even, but not the unabsolveable one he nurses perforce within him, like a withered foetus. What’s the point of all this overwrought talk, low facetiousness aspiring to the level of high art? It won’t afford a moment’s reprieve from the awful predicament of being himself. He murdered a fellow mortal, and thereby left a tiny rent in the world, a tiny fissure, that nothing can fix or fill. He took life, and got life.

What about a little weep, as you sit there sunk in the quagmire of your irredeemable self? Bit of a blubber, make you feel better? Ah, but as you told yourself long ago, if you were once to start you’d never stop. So: let’s not.

Pulling himself together with an effort now he squares his shoulders and grasps the wheel more firmly in his two furred fists and with manly force directs the car onwards. No going back. The poor ape has been released into the wild, and still the awful clang of the cage door shutting behind him is in his ear, the sound of the sanctuary gates slamming to. No, no going back. See him lope away, his knuckles grazing the ground, gibbering, red-­arsed and alone, into the frightening thickets of the world.

He has even yet the homing urge, though, and it is to Coolgrange, the family seat, maryah, as we say in Erse, that he finds himself headed, unaware of the wondrous alterations he will encounter there. For we couldn’t have let them leave well enough alone, now could we. Stone thrown upon stone, a lick or two of paint, an adjustment to this or that perspective. Why, he’ll hardly know the old place, or himself in it.

You will be curious, if not burningly so, to learn how he filled the unfillable days of his stay in chokey. It was inordinately lengthy, for they simply wouldn’t let go of him, not out of vindictiveness, in which he admits they would have been entirely justified, but due solely, so he believes, to bureaucratic inertia. This morning, as he waited at the front door for the hackney, which was late— ­it amused me, mischievous godlet that I am, to torment him with one final little delay—­he totted up precisely how long he had spent inside, and was disconcerted, even a shade aggrieved, to find that, allowing for leap years and stopping on the bong of midnight last night, the sum came to a measly eight thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-­four days, thirteen hours, twenty-­seven minutes, and a sprinkle of seconds. Pah! it was hardly any time at all, when he broke it down like that, though it had seemed to him the very prototype of eternity; what has he been making such a thing about, all these years? How much he has to learn, as he ventures into this deceptively familiar-­seeming corner of the multiverse, how much he has to be taught, about the true nature of time.

In the first months of his term, an era that seems by now almost beyond recollection, he experienced duration on two levels. There was firstly the cosmic aspect of the thing. Around him the great arc of existence turned with a barely perceptible motion, while he himself seemed as a squirrel scampering desperately on the rungs of an exercise wheel spinning so fast its spokes appeared a glittering blur. At morning he would wake in a state of panic, exhausted after a night of disorderly dreaming, dash through his day with unabating haste until lights-­out came round again, then blunder into what was not so much sleep as a kind of anxiety-­stricken paralysis. Yet for all the rushing and racing of his mind, time, in another of its aspects, what we might call individualised time, hung heavy about him, a dampish, clinging stuff, like newly laundered bedsheets on a clothesline, which when he tried to fight his way through them wrapped him round in suffocatingly warm, moist tangles. There was nothing to do, and therefore that was what he did, all day, every day, with fevered application.

Inevitably, and especially in the early passages of his incarceration, he thought of calling a halt to it all by knotting one of those clammy sheets into a noose and stringing himself up from the middle one of the three short iron bars, thick as dumb-­bells, set into the small high window of his cell. He was put off this desperate course by the prospect of what it would entail, physical pain and spiritual anguish being not by any means the worst of it. Above all what he could not countenance was the thought of the vulgarity of the spectacle he would make of himself: the goggle eyes, the swollen and protruding, plum-­blue tongue, the nether stains and stinks. No, he must hold on, he must endure, there was nothing else for it. All of life is a life term, he told himself, but was not comforted.

By the way, and in the spirit of accuracy, or should I say verisimilitude, the window of his cell on Anvil Hill was not high, was not small, and had no bars. Mesh-­reinforced glass, yes, and, outside, a long drop to the uncompromisingly inelastic surface of the exercise yard. Nor was the view anything to write home about. Close to, there was that yard, where in the afternoons the hardier ones among the lifers played listless games of football, and off to the side a strip of unreal-­looking grass—­it might be fake, for all he knew, a sheet of tufted plastic matting put down to obviate the need of a mower and his machine—­and, down diagonally to the right, a stunted tree that would neither thrive nor die, but stood there stubborn, year after year, in springtime putting out grudgingly a few apathetic leaves that seemed to wilt as soon as they touched the air, and were unceremoniously shed, limp and sallow, at the first cool breath of autumn. Of the city he could see nothing save a distant spire, thrusting up out of the smog like the finger of their God of gods pointing admonishingly in the wrong direction.

How grateful he was for the opulently generous sky, for its lavish and ever-­changing pageant.

We shall not dwell in detail on the strategies for survival and the maintenance of semi-­sanity that he cobbled together out of the rubble left over after he had arrived, with startling swiftness, at wits’ end. Suffice to say that he stuck his nose into many a book—­the library at the Anvil was notably well-­stocked, and was even better so after he had traduced and subsequently wangled the removal of the prison librarian, an inoffensive child molester, and got himself enthroned on the departed nonce’s still-­warm high-­chair—­and forswore all hobbies. By day he made up for the slumber he missed at night, drifting off at any hour and in any spot he might be in, gently as a leaf sailing out upon a spring freshet; daytime sleep was a floating state of stupor, blessedly free of nocturnal terrors.

One of his early essays at pretend escape was to imagine, while lying on his back on his bunk with his hands clasped behind his head—­you can just see him, can’t you?—­that he was at the home of friends for a dinner party, and that, sated on fine fare and costly vintages, and fatigued by the brilliance of the company and dazzled overmuch by the tracer trails of flashing wit whizzing back and forth across the dining table, he had slipped away to a nearby chamber and disposed himself on a damask-­upholstered couch to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. The fancy of there being others close by and convivially engaged while he reclined in solitude afforded him a crumb of lonely consolation. As the years went on, however, the very idea of being within reaching distance of an occasion of happy social intercourse came to seem more and more implausible, an insupportable dream of otherworldly bonhomie and grace.

His most rewarding means of diversion, in the sweltering stews of his nights—­prison, in his experience, is always overheated—­was to retrace in fantastically concentrated detail one or other of the rambles in the fields around Coolgrange that he used to take so frequently, so fervently, in the flushed days of his youth. For he was a tireless walker when a boy, and loved nature in all her aspects, the savage no less than the tame. He admired in particular the predators, the skulking fox, the stooping falcon, the domestic cat. Thus he learned at a tender age that violent death is the abiding fact of life. He was not morbid, however, not at all. Indeed, it was the flourishing of things that engrossed him most deeply. For him, everything was animate, especially trees, certain ones of which he held more dear than ever he could hold any human companion. He perceived pure being in all things, in the antics of madness as surely as in the most exacting refinements of religious ritual, in the crudest roisterings of farmers’ sons no less than in the action of the sweetest sonnet. And in the being of being he perceived his own. Yes yes, he was a receptive soul, and never failed to spot the flash of the god’s polished thigh among the laurel’s restless leaves: et in Arcadia yours truly, as you see. Why else would we have bothered springing him from captivity, however late in the day we did it? Not much point in his being free if he’s not to avail of freedom’s abundance.

Yet his desire was not and never had been to sup at the font of the sublime. He cleaved most happily to Beldam Nature at her plainest. Give him a modest urban meadow in the midst of dereliction, sporting groundsel and nettles and a few nodding, lipstick-­pink poppies, and he was content. You could keep the plunging chasm and the soaring crag, as far as he was concerned. Nor did he think much of the nightingale’s hysterical warblings, or of the much-­dithyrambed daffodil, the blossoms of which, as everyone knows but is too embarrassed to admit, are not golden at all, as is pretended, but in plain fact an acid shade of greenish-­yellow, the colour of an absinthe-­drinker’s bile.

The sky, as mentioned, was his loftiest channel of escape; clouds he never tired of, the astonishment of them, in their ever-­changing satiny self-­absorbed glory.

There was a favourite walk he used to take, or he took it often so he must have favoured it. The official start, official for him, was a short and for some reason permanently muddy lane leading down from the back yard of Coolgrange House, passing through a gateway and straggling off to a small stand of oaks and beyond that to unfettered countryside. The five-­barred gate itself, worn by wind and rain to a delicate filigree, the rust reminiscent of a dusting of roughly ground cinnamon, he can this moment picture clearly, with a fleeting pang of inexplicable, sweet sorrow. Sagging on its hinges, it gives, poor old thing, the impression of leaning dejectedly over itself, spent and blear-­eyed, defeated by the years. It does open, but he prefers to climb it, enjoying the way it wobbles under him in geriatric panic, clanging and chattering. The action of throwing his leg over the topmost bar causes him to rotate a smart half-­turn corkscrew-­fashion, so that he finds himself necessarily looking back at the rear wall of the house he has just left, with its untidy rows of tall, sun-­dazzled windows that seem to peer down on him with glassy disapproval. Perched there, he imagines himself a dauntless jacky-­tar breezily aloft in the swaying crow’s nest of a square-­rigged man-­o’-­war out on the bounding main. A boy will be a boy, you see, even this one. And it’s true, he was just your normal nipper, harbouring no thoughts of malice and murder. That all came later, and who knows why, or whence?

Immediately beyond the gate was a slanted field traversed by a broad flat grassy bank, immemorially man-­made though to no known purpose. On it stood three noble beeches, I think they were, are, beeches, set in a line and spaced an equal distance from each other, evidence again of human agency. Perhaps it was the site of some rustic ritual of yore, featuring porter and music, and maidens and may blossom, and gay gossoons with ribbons in their hats capering the clumsy steps of an old-­time dance and lustily clashing together their brandished ashplants. Or, less fancifully, they may have been planted there by some long-­forgotten land-­grabbing farmer to establish a boundary to which he had no legitimate claim.

In those trees he was privileged one day to spy a cuckoo, that shyest of birds, the minstrel of monotony. An unprepossessing thing it was, to look at, slate-­grey with a sharp little bad-­tempered beak and a shiny black oval stud for an eye. At his approach, it interrupted itself mid-­call and peeped down at him through the leaves, and he could have sworn he heard it give a small gulp, of surprise, or fright, or both. For fully half a minute they contemplated each other, bird and boy, aware the two of them of being caught in a somehow compromising situation and not knowing quite how to extricate themselves from it, like a gentleman and his valet brought face-­to-­face by ill-­chance in the front parlour of a back-­street brothel. At length however the bird gave a sort of decisive flounce, seeming to gather up its skirts, and flew off into the second tree, and, when he followed it, off to the third, and then darted away at last and was gone over the brow of the hill.

When in his mind he took one of these meandering strolls down Mnemosyne Lane he was struck anew each time by how much of the far past he was able to retrieve, and how richly detailed in his mind’s eye were the landscapes through which his phantom self strayed. However, proud though he was of his powers of recall, he was dubious, too. So clear and convincing were his recollections of that sighting of the cuckoo, and many another encounter like it—­such as with the owl that flew low over his head one violet-­tinted twilight in the midst of the fields, seeming on its great wings to suck a moving cavity out of the darkening air behind it—­that he had to suspect he wasn’t remembering at all, but imagining, and that what he was indulging in, huddled in the fug of himself under prison-­issue blankets, was but a form of nocturnal daydreaming. And yet so intense seemed the reality, the—­what is the word?—­the haecceity, of the places and objects he encountered, and so palpable his presence among them, that it seemed to him he was there again, actually there, a big strapping hobbledehoy—­again, I exaggerate—­as alive as life itself, out stravaging the freedom of the fields, not swaddled in this blood-­warm oubliette like a zygote lodged in the wall of the womb, so that, freed at last, he will not be surprised if, when he comes to encounter those happy fields again in so-­called reality, both they and he should vanish, with no more than a ploppy little pop, like the non-­sound of a soap bubble bursting, for assuredly they must cancel each other out on the instant, the matter of the world as he had known it, and he its anti-­matter.

It seemed strange that not once on one of those winked-­at weekends of freedom that had been granted him over the years had he thought to return to Coolgrange and have a gander at the scenes of his youth. Not that he held the place in any high regard. He cared nothing for his forebears and their doings—­he supposes them to have been scoundrels to a man, and trollops to a woman, if he, their latter-­day issue, is anything to go by—­and besides he had never done much in the way of stamping on those old stamping grounds. No, it must have been a sort of shyness that kept him away, though what there was for him to be shy of he wasn’t sure. Something of himself, perhaps, that might still be lingering there, something of what he had once been, the fresh-­faced original that later would become so knocked about and sullied. When his mother died the house had been sold, to provide, it was hoped, a mite for her son’s wife—­widow, I almost wrote—­and her son, his son, their son, to live on. The sum it fetched at auction was disappointing, though hardly a surprise, for the land had been worked out long ago, and the outbuildings were falling down while the house itself was barely standing up. He had thought his gaudy notoriety might garnish a few quid above the going rate, but even the prospect of sleeping in the bloody chamber where the beast himself had slept as a boy was not sufficient inducement for prospective buyers to delve any deeper into their miserly pockets. It didn’t make much difference, anyway, since in the end, for all the vigorous efforts in the courts by his sad captain Maolseachlainn Mac Giolla Gunna, SC, RIP, neither he nor his missus saw a penny of the proceeds, the entirety of which was seized for the state coffers, under the terms of some ancient statute of the law of torts which stipulated that being a convicted felon the said appellant had no right of subvention over so on and so forth. In the intervening years the property had changed hands again, and was occupied now by the son of a fabulously famous savant, the old man dead though of deathless reputation, whose theories had struck down at a blow the world’s and its wise ones’ notions of what’s what and where’s where and how’s how. Have I mentioned already that more than distinguished personage? Professor Adam Godley, deviser of the Brahma theory, qq.v. He was another who saw always the animate in the world’s seemingly lifeless lumps, though with not much admiration and less delight. Our chap was acquainted with him, a little, in the long ago, as it happens; in fact, as it happens, Godley had once slept with his wife, or more than once, most likely. Little wheels within bigger wheels, all grinding and grinding away.

He wondered if the new lot might have changed the old name of the place—­he had changed his, hadn’t he?—­in the hope thereby of smudging the association between Coolgrange and him and his infamy. The possibility disturbed him, for reasons that remain obscure. He did not doubt there would be other, more tangible, alterations, for repairs and restoration would surely have had to be effected; the house was hardly liveable in when he was there, and that wasn’t yesterday or the day before.

As he drove along now he began to have the curious sensation of all before him continually splitting open, like a great inexhaustible yolkless egg. How was he to cope with earth’s profligacy? Prison had winnowed out the profusion of things, but now he was to be thrown back into the middle of the muddle. There was simply too much of everything—­look at it!—­motor cars, houses, shops, traffic lights, plane trees, hospitals, mortuaries, marching bands, monster meetings, earthquakes, famine, fire and flood, disasters natural and unnatural, corpse-­strewn battlefields, mass exterminations, imploding stars, expanding galaxies—­and always, of course, people; always people. Too much, too many. His heart quailed.

It occurred to him that he might make a diversion and pay a visit to the seaside. What better balm for the sin-­sick soul? Yes, he would go and see the sea. But not now, not today. All this bric-­à-­brac spilling out of that endlessly separating eggshell and bouncing soundlessly off the windscreen in front of him was as much as he could cope with. The watery wastes could wait, for another time.

Being free, albeit on licence, but free for good if he is a good boy, feels strange. He can’t quite credit it, and wouldn’t be surprised if a length of elastic attached by a hook to the seat of his trousers were to reach its limit any moment now and yank him back—­boing!—­in the way that so often happens to poor rubber-­bottomed Sylvester the cartoon cat. For one held so long inside, the outside is a place apart.

It was the middle of the morning when he arrived at Coolgrange, or what he used to know by that name. There are two means of ingress. The main gate opens on to a short drive that runs between two rows of full-­grown lime trees straight up to the house. This he avoided—­jailbirds do not fly in by the front way—­and instead turned and drove on along the road that follows the curve of the old demesne wall. After a distance of a couple of leagues or so he came to an abrupt right-­hand bend, in the angle of which, to the left, was a leafy nook where stood a narrow grey-­stone arch enclosing something like a lychgate, if I have the term right, hidden from the road in a tangle of brambles and overlapped by a gnarled hawthorn bush. Here he pulled up, and parked on a triangle of grass as smooth and unnaturally green as the surface of a scummed-­over woodland pool. He stepped out of the car, then stopped and stood. For him, a certain air of the uncanny had always attached to this spot. There was a sense of dreamy distractedness, of everything looking away, its attention directed elsewhere. A breeze drowsily tousled the spiked and shinily dark leaves of the hawthorn. The sunlight here seemed vaguer, hazier. No bird sang.

He leaned into the cramped back seat and plucked up his bag; it was as light as his life, what has survived of it. In a spirit of irresponsibility resurgent from the old days he left the Sprite unlocked, though pocketing the key. Let hot-­wire who will. What did he care? He didn’t even own the thing. Or maybe it would live up to its name and trip away into the woods and by some rude mechanical magic transform itself into a forest nymph, a light-­winged dryad, and be happy there, haunting the vernal oaks.

As he went under the stone arch—­the low, weather-­worn gate had a rusted bolt but no lock—­he experienced an odd effect. It was a shiver, or a kind of shimmer, as if he were not he but his own reflection passing through a flaw in a windowpane, or better say rippling over a crack in a full-­length mirror. And stranger still, what emerged at the other side was not quite him, or was him but changed, being both less and more than he had been, at once diminished and at the same time somehow added to. The thing took no time at all, was over in the space of the blinking of an eye, yet the effect was palpable, and profound. Something had touched him, and left its indelible mark.

How, he wondered, did the prodigal son feel when the feast was over, the fatted calf picked clean and the guests gone home, the tears his fond old dad had shed on the shoulder of his long-­lost boy all dried and life started up again? Did everything seem much like before and every bit as dreary, or was it all lit along the edges with a cold, mercurial flame, the brightness of the new, the re-­newed?

Emerging from the shadow of the archway he stepped into that remembered narrow lane overhung on both sides by jostling hedges of hawthorn—­there’s haw again, that’s for ill fortune—­and wild woodbine, trembling fuchsia, and many other bushes and shrubs and so on I should know the names of but don’t, all in blossom or bursting to be. This rear entrance was known as Lady’s Way, no one at this remove could remember why. As a boy coming home from school he would sometimes take this route, daring himself to it, in spite or because of the fact of never feeling quite at ease here, nervous as he was of the straitness of the way and the menacing look of the foliage that crowded above him, even in the supposedly leafless depths of winter. Today he was neither suitably suited nor sturdily shod, the swaying briars had their eye on his camel-­hair coat, and it would be entirely consonant with the moment were a bird to fly over and shit on his hat. What had he been thinking of, to come back here, here of all places? This was home no longer, if it ever had been. And yet he was drawn on, deeper and deeper, into a familiar world transformed, a transubstantiated world.
© Douglas Banville
JOHN BANVILLE, the author of seventeen novels, has been the recipient of the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Award, the Franz Kafka Prize, a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature. He lives in Dublin. View titles by John Banville

About

From the revered Booker Prize-winning author comes a playful, multilayered novel of nostalgia, life and death, and quantum theory, which opens with the return of one of his most celebrated characters as he is released from prison.

“A triumphant piece of writing…Prose of such luscious elegance…Exhilarating.” —The New York Times Book Review


A man with a borrowed name steps from a flashy red sports car—also borrowed—onto the estate of his youth. But all is not as it seems. There is a new family living in the drafty old house: the Godleys, descendants of the late, world-famous scientist Adam Godley, whose theory of existence threw the universe into chaos. And this mystery man, who has just completed a prison sentence, feels as if time has stopped, or was torn, or was opened in new and strange ways. He must now vie with the idiosyncratic Godley family, with their harried housekeeper who becomes his landlady, with the recently commissioned biographer of Godley Sr., and with a wealthy and beautiful woman from his past who comes bearing an unusual request.

With sparkling intelligence and rapier wit, John Banville revisits some of his career’s most memorable figures, in a novel as mischievous as it is brilliantly conceived. The Singularities occupies a singular space and will surely be one of his most admired works.

Excerpt

I

Yes, he has finished his sentence, but does that mean he has nothing more to say? No, indeed, not by a long stretch. Here he is, in the chill brilliance of a breezy April morning, striding out into the world a free man, more or less. Whence came such spiffy raiment? There must be someone who cares for him, someone who cared. Witness the classy if outmoded camel-­hair overcoat, its belt not buckled but nonchalantly knotted, the hand-­tailored tweed jacket with a double vent at the back, the buffed brogues, the glint of gold at his shirt cuffs. Note in particular the high-­crowned hat of dark-­brown felt, new as the day, cocked at a dashing angle over his left eye. He bears lightly by its handle a gladstone bag, scuffed and scarred but discreetly good. Oh, yes, he is every inch the gent. The Squire was his nickname, one of his nicknames, inside. Nickname: apt, that. His name in the nick. Words are all that remain, to hold the dark at bay. For his bright morn is my brumous twilight.

Who speaks here? I do, little god, the great ones having absconded.

As a matter of fact, he has decided to change his name. Few will be taken in by this ruse, so why should he bother? But his aim, you see, is nothing less than total transformation, and in that endeavour there was no more radical start he could make than to erase the manufacturer’s mark, so to speak, and replace it with another, of his own devising. The notion of an assumed identity excited him, the poor sap; as if a new name could hide old sins. Nevertheless, he spent what turned out to be an exasperating half-­hour in his cell squatting cross-­legged on the narrow bunk with pencil and paper, like a backward schoolboy toiling over his lessons, collar awry and hair on end, trying to fashion a plausible anagram out of what already he thought of as his former name; but there were too many consonants and not enough vowels, and anyway he wasn’t any good at this kind of word game, and so he gave it up, frustrated and annoyed, and sought for a ready-­made moniker instead. The choice was bewilderingly wide, from John Smith to Rudolf of Ruritania. In the end, though, he hit on what he believes is just the thing.

The simple pleasure of being free, or at large, anyway, is tempered by a dab of disappointment. He had always foreseen his release in the jet-­and-­nickel glamour of the gangster films of his youth. There would be a big blank wooden gate in which a much smaller, postern gate would open inwards and he would step briskly out, in double-­breasted flannel and a broad tie, with his few belongings tied up in a brown-­paper parcel under his arm and a tight cold smile notched in place at one corner of his mouth, and walk across a no-­man’s-land of cobbles and raked shadows to where a flash car awaits, with a toothpick-­chewing thug at the wheel, and lolling on the plump back seat a platinum blonde in a white fur stole and seamed stockings, smoking an insolent cigarette. Or something like that, if something can be said to be like something else; the Brahma theory, as we know, puts even self-­identity in doubt. But whatever potential there might have been for picturesque drama on the day was dissipated by the fact that the process of being released had been surreptitiously set in train long before the moment came when they shot back the bolts and flung the cell door wide and withdrew to a safe distance, bullwhips and pump-­action sawn-­offs at the ready—­I exaggerate, of course. What I mean is that some years previously a directive had come from on high that he might be let out occasionally, for weekends and selected public holidays, on the quiet, and on the understanding that no precedents should be considered set thereby. Stressful outings they proved to be, he would have been better off staying safely inside. Then he was transferred from Anvil Hill, where the hammer of the law falls heavy, to the bosky latitudes of Hirnea House, a place of relaxed incarceration oxymoronically designated an open prison. He had not been happy there; he had much preferred the good old Anvil, where in a roomy but isolated block he had passed some twenty years of a mandatory life sentence contentedly among his mates, his china plates, lifers to a man, like himself.

You understand, the word contentedly is employed here in a relative sense; durance vile is durance vile, however plentiful the perks.

Anyway, they, we, the collective we, have sprung him loose at last, and here he is, briskly ascending a gravelled path to where a hackney car awaits him, a big black low-­slung old-­style petrol-­burning model—­you won’t see many of them on the roads nowadays—­with a front as blunt as a dugong’s snout, and dented chrome hub caps in which the encircling woods are curvaceously reflected. For we are in the countryside here, among low, sheep-­strewn hills which they have the cheek to call mountains, and he savours the birdsong and the breeze, the very emblems of freedom. Hirnea House, an isolated Victorian red-­brick many-­chimneyed pile, had hardly felt like jug at all, due in part to the fact that until recently it was not a prison proper but a secluded place of detention for the ordinarily insane.

The hackney driver, a gaunt-­faced oldster with a smoker’s yellowish pallor, watches him narrowly as he approaches; the fellow knows very well who he is, since the car was ordered in his name—­his former name, that’s to say—­which trails even yet the tatters of notoriety.

Names, names. We could call him Barabbas. But in that case, who is it they are crucifying, over at the Place of the Skull?

He draws open the rear door, slings in his bag and bends low and clambers in after it and slumps with a grunt on to the worn and shiny seat. Must shed some of this flab. No salutation called for, on either side. No apology for being late, either, of course. Drive, my good man. Fuggy odours of stale cigarette smoke, rank sweat, greasy leather, to which medley he supposes he is adding the old lag’s tired, greyish reek. His good man regards him in the rear-view mirror with an oyster eye.

“Grand day,” he rasps.

And I, where am I? Perched at ease as is my wont up here among the chimney pots, enjoying the panoptic view. We have met already, in one of the intervals of my faltering infinitude. Hello, yes, me again! See how my winged helm gleams in the morning radiance.

He has a friend, name of Billy, a former cellmate from Anvil days. Somewhat more of a mate, when push came to shove, if truth be told, for in the aridity of those lonely reaches the fleshly fires must be fed with whatever fuel comes to hand. But not another word on that score: time has long since quenched in him any lingering wisps of suchlike feu follet. Sweet Billy calls himself William now. Went legit and started up a little business, having always been keen on cars. Look here, we have his card here before us:

Hipwell Hire

Wm. Hipwell, esq.—­Prop.

Motors for the Driven

And we must have a car: places to go to, visits to pay. Driving licence long expired, but pish to that. His pal Wm. will see him right.

But it turns out his pal has funked it, and he is greeted not by the proprietor in person but by his assistant. This is a decidedly frisky-­looking young lady with a ring in her nose—­fashions, he notes, have turned feral in the long interval of his incarceration—­who from behind her metal desk gives him a measuring look and with a fat grey tongue deftly shifts a wad of chewing gum into the hollow of her left cheek preparatory to addressing his politely spoken enquiry. No, she says, the boss has been called away on business. This is plainly a lie, but she tells it with such barefaced aplomb that it doesn’t offend. She casts a chary eye at his Dr. Crippen bag where it rests on the floor beside his foot trying its best to look blameless.

A motor has been laid on for him, she says, “and here’s your licence, though that photo don’t look a bit like you, Mister Mordaunt.” He is pleased, and rewards her with one of his rare and only slightly baleful smiles: this is the first time he has heard his new name, or the second half of it anyway, spoken aloud, and he approves. It has a suitably lugubrious ring. I am thinking not of mort or daunt, not at all, nothing so swankily allusive. What I see is, let’s say, some great lumbering moth-­eaten beast, a moose, or an elk—­is there a difference?—­huge of head and scant of haunch, destined to end up on a plaque on a wall in the hallway of a baroque baronial hunting lodge deep in the depths of some forgotten forest in, in, oh, in I don’t know where. You get my drift.

Before pocketing the licence he cannot but glance at the mug-­shot. Faugh! When, where, was it taken? He can’t remember. The girl is wrong, it does look like him. It’s true, the physical resemblance is poor, but the camera in its merciless way has caught something essential of him, in the menacing set of the chin, in the soiled expression of the eyes. We are speaking here of an inner essence, for the outer man is handsome still, in a brawny, blue-­jawed sort of way, though he is coarsened noticeably by now, in the springtime of his sixth decade.

The office is cramped and cosily untidy, just like Billy’s side of their cell used to be. Although it is many years since they last were together, he fancies he can detect on the air a trace of his prison butty’s once familiar scent, mysteriously reminiscent of the salty fragrance of boyhood’s sunburnt summers.

He is naturally put out that Billy—­I mean, ahem! Mr. Hipwell, as the nose-­ringed miss insists it must be, firmly correcting him and at the same time biting her lip so as not to laugh—­that he should have chosen to absent himself rather than be here to greet him on his first day of liberty. He feels a premonitory chill. Is this to be the pattern? For a quarter of a century he has been as good as lost to the world, and many whom he once knew are no more, and it would go hard with him were he to be cut thus curtly by the few who remain of his former circle, however loosely bound the links of the chain may have been. What he doesn’t realise is that the static universe he has stepped into, where properly speaking there is no past, present, or future, only a smooth sort of timeless non-­time, is furnished with a whole new cast of characters for him to disport himself amongst. Oh, yes, high jinks and low are hand-­rubbingly in prospect. You’ll see.

The car Billy chose for him is a Sprite, a nippy little number painted a racy shade of red, with bucket seats upholstered in a matt black synthetic stuff as soft as a baby’s skin and so new it is still tacky to the touch, the clinging surface of which squeals in tiny ecstasy when he slides his tweeded backside across it. The be-­ringed young woman, preceded by a small metallic jingling, appears at his side, her buffed and lacquered hairstyle juddering in the strongish breeze. “Here’s the key,” she says, dangling it at him on a ring not much bigger than the one in her nose, “the tank is full, and don’t crash it or Mister Hipwell will murder you, and me as well.”

Again, His Misterness, and again that ill-­suppressed, saucy smirk; he wonders if this fragrant pink little porker is favouring the boss with her favours. He hopes so. Billy chafed for female company, inside; he had always been adaptable, though he favoured the birds over the boys, as he made a special point of pointing out. “It’s like the toothache, sometimes,” he would say, gazing off wistfully into that powdered, chiffon-­soft seraglio temporarily barred to him behind mistily gilded gates, “or a sort of a throb, like, in that thick part at the back of your tongue.” This is the way they talked about you-­know-­what, like lovesick schoolgirls; lifers don’t go in much for smut, you’ll be surprised to learn.

The young woman tarries while masterful Mr. Mordaunt jiggles the gear-­stick and clears his throat determinedly. He wishes she would go back into the office, for he fears making a fool of himself in front of her, since he’s not sure he knows how to handle these newfangled motors. And he’s out of practice, too. He hasn’t driven since, why, not since that long-­ago but never to be forgotten summer afternoon when he steered another car, a rental job like this one but much bigger and black as a hearse, down to a marshy place beside a railway line and abandoned it there, along with its bloodied but still breathing cargo. That was in another life, in another world, and yes, the maid is dead. Here now. Crunch the key into the suggestive little slot, vroom-­vroom the engine, loose the clutch, and heigh-­ho for the open road. But as it happened, he was too impetuous with the clutch and the car bucked like a spooked horse and the engine coughed and died, amidst peals of unheard celestial laughter. A muttered oath, then the key again, then the clutch again, doucement doucement this time, and off.

He had gone only a little way out on the road, however, when his foot faltered on the accelerator and the machine veered lazily to the left and rolled to a sighing stop by the kerbside. He sat forward, hunched over the wheel, gazing slack-­eyed and unseeing through the windscreen. The sporty car, the swanky clobber, the office girl smelling of hairspray and sticky-­sweet scent, even the innocent sunlight sparkling on the moulded panel of glass in front of him: by the stark facticity of all of this he was suddenly overwhelmed. Most sins can be denied, suppressed, forgotten, even, but not the unabsolveable one he nurses perforce within him, like a withered foetus. What’s the point of all this overwrought talk, low facetiousness aspiring to the level of high art? It won’t afford a moment’s reprieve from the awful predicament of being himself. He murdered a fellow mortal, and thereby left a tiny rent in the world, a tiny fissure, that nothing can fix or fill. He took life, and got life.

What about a little weep, as you sit there sunk in the quagmire of your irredeemable self? Bit of a blubber, make you feel better? Ah, but as you told yourself long ago, if you were once to start you’d never stop. So: let’s not.

Pulling himself together with an effort now he squares his shoulders and grasps the wheel more firmly in his two furred fists and with manly force directs the car onwards. No going back. The poor ape has been released into the wild, and still the awful clang of the cage door shutting behind him is in his ear, the sound of the sanctuary gates slamming to. No, no going back. See him lope away, his knuckles grazing the ground, gibbering, red-­arsed and alone, into the frightening thickets of the world.

He has even yet the homing urge, though, and it is to Coolgrange, the family seat, maryah, as we say in Erse, that he finds himself headed, unaware of the wondrous alterations he will encounter there. For we couldn’t have let them leave well enough alone, now could we. Stone thrown upon stone, a lick or two of paint, an adjustment to this or that perspective. Why, he’ll hardly know the old place, or himself in it.

You will be curious, if not burningly so, to learn how he filled the unfillable days of his stay in chokey. It was inordinately lengthy, for they simply wouldn’t let go of him, not out of vindictiveness, in which he admits they would have been entirely justified, but due solely, so he believes, to bureaucratic inertia. This morning, as he waited at the front door for the hackney, which was late— ­it amused me, mischievous godlet that I am, to torment him with one final little delay—­he totted up precisely how long he had spent inside, and was disconcerted, even a shade aggrieved, to find that, allowing for leap years and stopping on the bong of midnight last night, the sum came to a measly eight thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-­four days, thirteen hours, twenty-­seven minutes, and a sprinkle of seconds. Pah! it was hardly any time at all, when he broke it down like that, though it had seemed to him the very prototype of eternity; what has he been making such a thing about, all these years? How much he has to learn, as he ventures into this deceptively familiar-­seeming corner of the multiverse, how much he has to be taught, about the true nature of time.

In the first months of his term, an era that seems by now almost beyond recollection, he experienced duration on two levels. There was firstly the cosmic aspect of the thing. Around him the great arc of existence turned with a barely perceptible motion, while he himself seemed as a squirrel scampering desperately on the rungs of an exercise wheel spinning so fast its spokes appeared a glittering blur. At morning he would wake in a state of panic, exhausted after a night of disorderly dreaming, dash through his day with unabating haste until lights-­out came round again, then blunder into what was not so much sleep as a kind of anxiety-­stricken paralysis. Yet for all the rushing and racing of his mind, time, in another of its aspects, what we might call individualised time, hung heavy about him, a dampish, clinging stuff, like newly laundered bedsheets on a clothesline, which when he tried to fight his way through them wrapped him round in suffocatingly warm, moist tangles. There was nothing to do, and therefore that was what he did, all day, every day, with fevered application.

Inevitably, and especially in the early passages of his incarceration, he thought of calling a halt to it all by knotting one of those clammy sheets into a noose and stringing himself up from the middle one of the three short iron bars, thick as dumb-­bells, set into the small high window of his cell. He was put off this desperate course by the prospect of what it would entail, physical pain and spiritual anguish being not by any means the worst of it. Above all what he could not countenance was the thought of the vulgarity of the spectacle he would make of himself: the goggle eyes, the swollen and protruding, plum-­blue tongue, the nether stains and stinks. No, he must hold on, he must endure, there was nothing else for it. All of life is a life term, he told himself, but was not comforted.

By the way, and in the spirit of accuracy, or should I say verisimilitude, the window of his cell on Anvil Hill was not high, was not small, and had no bars. Mesh-­reinforced glass, yes, and, outside, a long drop to the uncompromisingly inelastic surface of the exercise yard. Nor was the view anything to write home about. Close to, there was that yard, where in the afternoons the hardier ones among the lifers played listless games of football, and off to the side a strip of unreal-­looking grass—­it might be fake, for all he knew, a sheet of tufted plastic matting put down to obviate the need of a mower and his machine—­and, down diagonally to the right, a stunted tree that would neither thrive nor die, but stood there stubborn, year after year, in springtime putting out grudgingly a few apathetic leaves that seemed to wilt as soon as they touched the air, and were unceremoniously shed, limp and sallow, at the first cool breath of autumn. Of the city he could see nothing save a distant spire, thrusting up out of the smog like the finger of their God of gods pointing admonishingly in the wrong direction.

How grateful he was for the opulently generous sky, for its lavish and ever-­changing pageant.

We shall not dwell in detail on the strategies for survival and the maintenance of semi-­sanity that he cobbled together out of the rubble left over after he had arrived, with startling swiftness, at wits’ end. Suffice to say that he stuck his nose into many a book—­the library at the Anvil was notably well-­stocked, and was even better so after he had traduced and subsequently wangled the removal of the prison librarian, an inoffensive child molester, and got himself enthroned on the departed nonce’s still-­warm high-­chair—­and forswore all hobbies. By day he made up for the slumber he missed at night, drifting off at any hour and in any spot he might be in, gently as a leaf sailing out upon a spring freshet; daytime sleep was a floating state of stupor, blessedly free of nocturnal terrors.

One of his early essays at pretend escape was to imagine, while lying on his back on his bunk with his hands clasped behind his head—­you can just see him, can’t you?—­that he was at the home of friends for a dinner party, and that, sated on fine fare and costly vintages, and fatigued by the brilliance of the company and dazzled overmuch by the tracer trails of flashing wit whizzing back and forth across the dining table, he had slipped away to a nearby chamber and disposed himself on a damask-­upholstered couch to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. The fancy of there being others close by and convivially engaged while he reclined in solitude afforded him a crumb of lonely consolation. As the years went on, however, the very idea of being within reaching distance of an occasion of happy social intercourse came to seem more and more implausible, an insupportable dream of otherworldly bonhomie and grace.

His most rewarding means of diversion, in the sweltering stews of his nights—­prison, in his experience, is always overheated—­was to retrace in fantastically concentrated detail one or other of the rambles in the fields around Coolgrange that he used to take so frequently, so fervently, in the flushed days of his youth. For he was a tireless walker when a boy, and loved nature in all her aspects, the savage no less than the tame. He admired in particular the predators, the skulking fox, the stooping falcon, the domestic cat. Thus he learned at a tender age that violent death is the abiding fact of life. He was not morbid, however, not at all. Indeed, it was the flourishing of things that engrossed him most deeply. For him, everything was animate, especially trees, certain ones of which he held more dear than ever he could hold any human companion. He perceived pure being in all things, in the antics of madness as surely as in the most exacting refinements of religious ritual, in the crudest roisterings of farmers’ sons no less than in the action of the sweetest sonnet. And in the being of being he perceived his own. Yes yes, he was a receptive soul, and never failed to spot the flash of the god’s polished thigh among the laurel’s restless leaves: et in Arcadia yours truly, as you see. Why else would we have bothered springing him from captivity, however late in the day we did it? Not much point in his being free if he’s not to avail of freedom’s abundance.

Yet his desire was not and never had been to sup at the font of the sublime. He cleaved most happily to Beldam Nature at her plainest. Give him a modest urban meadow in the midst of dereliction, sporting groundsel and nettles and a few nodding, lipstick-­pink poppies, and he was content. You could keep the plunging chasm and the soaring crag, as far as he was concerned. Nor did he think much of the nightingale’s hysterical warblings, or of the much-­dithyrambed daffodil, the blossoms of which, as everyone knows but is too embarrassed to admit, are not golden at all, as is pretended, but in plain fact an acid shade of greenish-­yellow, the colour of an absinthe-­drinker’s bile.

The sky, as mentioned, was his loftiest channel of escape; clouds he never tired of, the astonishment of them, in their ever-­changing satiny self-­absorbed glory.

There was a favourite walk he used to take, or he took it often so he must have favoured it. The official start, official for him, was a short and for some reason permanently muddy lane leading down from the back yard of Coolgrange House, passing through a gateway and straggling off to a small stand of oaks and beyond that to unfettered countryside. The five-­barred gate itself, worn by wind and rain to a delicate filigree, the rust reminiscent of a dusting of roughly ground cinnamon, he can this moment picture clearly, with a fleeting pang of inexplicable, sweet sorrow. Sagging on its hinges, it gives, poor old thing, the impression of leaning dejectedly over itself, spent and blear-­eyed, defeated by the years. It does open, but he prefers to climb it, enjoying the way it wobbles under him in geriatric panic, clanging and chattering. The action of throwing his leg over the topmost bar causes him to rotate a smart half-­turn corkscrew-­fashion, so that he finds himself necessarily looking back at the rear wall of the house he has just left, with its untidy rows of tall, sun-­dazzled windows that seem to peer down on him with glassy disapproval. Perched there, he imagines himself a dauntless jacky-­tar breezily aloft in the swaying crow’s nest of a square-­rigged man-­o’-­war out on the bounding main. A boy will be a boy, you see, even this one. And it’s true, he was just your normal nipper, harbouring no thoughts of malice and murder. That all came later, and who knows why, or whence?

Immediately beyond the gate was a slanted field traversed by a broad flat grassy bank, immemorially man-­made though to no known purpose. On it stood three noble beeches, I think they were, are, beeches, set in a line and spaced an equal distance from each other, evidence again of human agency. Perhaps it was the site of some rustic ritual of yore, featuring porter and music, and maidens and may blossom, and gay gossoons with ribbons in their hats capering the clumsy steps of an old-­time dance and lustily clashing together their brandished ashplants. Or, less fancifully, they may have been planted there by some long-­forgotten land-­grabbing farmer to establish a boundary to which he had no legitimate claim.

In those trees he was privileged one day to spy a cuckoo, that shyest of birds, the minstrel of monotony. An unprepossessing thing it was, to look at, slate-­grey with a sharp little bad-­tempered beak and a shiny black oval stud for an eye. At his approach, it interrupted itself mid-­call and peeped down at him through the leaves, and he could have sworn he heard it give a small gulp, of surprise, or fright, or both. For fully half a minute they contemplated each other, bird and boy, aware the two of them of being caught in a somehow compromising situation and not knowing quite how to extricate themselves from it, like a gentleman and his valet brought face-­to-­face by ill-­chance in the front parlour of a back-­street brothel. At length however the bird gave a sort of decisive flounce, seeming to gather up its skirts, and flew off into the second tree, and, when he followed it, off to the third, and then darted away at last and was gone over the brow of the hill.

When in his mind he took one of these meandering strolls down Mnemosyne Lane he was struck anew each time by how much of the far past he was able to retrieve, and how richly detailed in his mind’s eye were the landscapes through which his phantom self strayed. However, proud though he was of his powers of recall, he was dubious, too. So clear and convincing were his recollections of that sighting of the cuckoo, and many another encounter like it—­such as with the owl that flew low over his head one violet-­tinted twilight in the midst of the fields, seeming on its great wings to suck a moving cavity out of the darkening air behind it—­that he had to suspect he wasn’t remembering at all, but imagining, and that what he was indulging in, huddled in the fug of himself under prison-­issue blankets, was but a form of nocturnal daydreaming. And yet so intense seemed the reality, the—­what is the word?—­the haecceity, of the places and objects he encountered, and so palpable his presence among them, that it seemed to him he was there again, actually there, a big strapping hobbledehoy—­again, I exaggerate—­as alive as life itself, out stravaging the freedom of the fields, not swaddled in this blood-­warm oubliette like a zygote lodged in the wall of the womb, so that, freed at last, he will not be surprised if, when he comes to encounter those happy fields again in so-­called reality, both they and he should vanish, with no more than a ploppy little pop, like the non-­sound of a soap bubble bursting, for assuredly they must cancel each other out on the instant, the matter of the world as he had known it, and he its anti-­matter.

It seemed strange that not once on one of those winked-­at weekends of freedom that had been granted him over the years had he thought to return to Coolgrange and have a gander at the scenes of his youth. Not that he held the place in any high regard. He cared nothing for his forebears and their doings—­he supposes them to have been scoundrels to a man, and trollops to a woman, if he, their latter-­day issue, is anything to go by—­and besides he had never done much in the way of stamping on those old stamping grounds. No, it must have been a sort of shyness that kept him away, though what there was for him to be shy of he wasn’t sure. Something of himself, perhaps, that might still be lingering there, something of what he had once been, the fresh-­faced original that later would become so knocked about and sullied. When his mother died the house had been sold, to provide, it was hoped, a mite for her son’s wife—­widow, I almost wrote—­and her son, his son, their son, to live on. The sum it fetched at auction was disappointing, though hardly a surprise, for the land had been worked out long ago, and the outbuildings were falling down while the house itself was barely standing up. He had thought his gaudy notoriety might garnish a few quid above the going rate, but even the prospect of sleeping in the bloody chamber where the beast himself had slept as a boy was not sufficient inducement for prospective buyers to delve any deeper into their miserly pockets. It didn’t make much difference, anyway, since in the end, for all the vigorous efforts in the courts by his sad captain Maolseachlainn Mac Giolla Gunna, SC, RIP, neither he nor his missus saw a penny of the proceeds, the entirety of which was seized for the state coffers, under the terms of some ancient statute of the law of torts which stipulated that being a convicted felon the said appellant had no right of subvention over so on and so forth. In the intervening years the property had changed hands again, and was occupied now by the son of a fabulously famous savant, the old man dead though of deathless reputation, whose theories had struck down at a blow the world’s and its wise ones’ notions of what’s what and where’s where and how’s how. Have I mentioned already that more than distinguished personage? Professor Adam Godley, deviser of the Brahma theory, qq.v. He was another who saw always the animate in the world’s seemingly lifeless lumps, though with not much admiration and less delight. Our chap was acquainted with him, a little, in the long ago, as it happens; in fact, as it happens, Godley had once slept with his wife, or more than once, most likely. Little wheels within bigger wheels, all grinding and grinding away.

He wondered if the new lot might have changed the old name of the place—­he had changed his, hadn’t he?—­in the hope thereby of smudging the association between Coolgrange and him and his infamy. The possibility disturbed him, for reasons that remain obscure. He did not doubt there would be other, more tangible, alterations, for repairs and restoration would surely have had to be effected; the house was hardly liveable in when he was there, and that wasn’t yesterday or the day before.

As he drove along now he began to have the curious sensation of all before him continually splitting open, like a great inexhaustible yolkless egg. How was he to cope with earth’s profligacy? Prison had winnowed out the profusion of things, but now he was to be thrown back into the middle of the muddle. There was simply too much of everything—­look at it!—­motor cars, houses, shops, traffic lights, plane trees, hospitals, mortuaries, marching bands, monster meetings, earthquakes, famine, fire and flood, disasters natural and unnatural, corpse-­strewn battlefields, mass exterminations, imploding stars, expanding galaxies—­and always, of course, people; always people. Too much, too many. His heart quailed.

It occurred to him that he might make a diversion and pay a visit to the seaside. What better balm for the sin-­sick soul? Yes, he would go and see the sea. But not now, not today. All this bric-­à-­brac spilling out of that endlessly separating eggshell and bouncing soundlessly off the windscreen in front of him was as much as he could cope with. The watery wastes could wait, for another time.

Being free, albeit on licence, but free for good if he is a good boy, feels strange. He can’t quite credit it, and wouldn’t be surprised if a length of elastic attached by a hook to the seat of his trousers were to reach its limit any moment now and yank him back—­boing!—­in the way that so often happens to poor rubber-­bottomed Sylvester the cartoon cat. For one held so long inside, the outside is a place apart.

It was the middle of the morning when he arrived at Coolgrange, or what he used to know by that name. There are two means of ingress. The main gate opens on to a short drive that runs between two rows of full-­grown lime trees straight up to the house. This he avoided—­jailbirds do not fly in by the front way—­and instead turned and drove on along the road that follows the curve of the old demesne wall. After a distance of a couple of leagues or so he came to an abrupt right-­hand bend, in the angle of which, to the left, was a leafy nook where stood a narrow grey-­stone arch enclosing something like a lychgate, if I have the term right, hidden from the road in a tangle of brambles and overlapped by a gnarled hawthorn bush. Here he pulled up, and parked on a triangle of grass as smooth and unnaturally green as the surface of a scummed-­over woodland pool. He stepped out of the car, then stopped and stood. For him, a certain air of the uncanny had always attached to this spot. There was a sense of dreamy distractedness, of everything looking away, its attention directed elsewhere. A breeze drowsily tousled the spiked and shinily dark leaves of the hawthorn. The sunlight here seemed vaguer, hazier. No bird sang.

He leaned into the cramped back seat and plucked up his bag; it was as light as his life, what has survived of it. In a spirit of irresponsibility resurgent from the old days he left the Sprite unlocked, though pocketing the key. Let hot-­wire who will. What did he care? He didn’t even own the thing. Or maybe it would live up to its name and trip away into the woods and by some rude mechanical magic transform itself into a forest nymph, a light-­winged dryad, and be happy there, haunting the vernal oaks.

As he went under the stone arch—­the low, weather-­worn gate had a rusted bolt but no lock—­he experienced an odd effect. It was a shiver, or a kind of shimmer, as if he were not he but his own reflection passing through a flaw in a windowpane, or better say rippling over a crack in a full-­length mirror. And stranger still, what emerged at the other side was not quite him, or was him but changed, being both less and more than he had been, at once diminished and at the same time somehow added to. The thing took no time at all, was over in the space of the blinking of an eye, yet the effect was palpable, and profound. Something had touched him, and left its indelible mark.

How, he wondered, did the prodigal son feel when the feast was over, the fatted calf picked clean and the guests gone home, the tears his fond old dad had shed on the shoulder of his long-­lost boy all dried and life started up again? Did everything seem much like before and every bit as dreary, or was it all lit along the edges with a cold, mercurial flame, the brightness of the new, the re-­newed?

Emerging from the shadow of the archway he stepped into that remembered narrow lane overhung on both sides by jostling hedges of hawthorn—­there’s haw again, that’s for ill fortune—­and wild woodbine, trembling fuchsia, and many other bushes and shrubs and so on I should know the names of but don’t, all in blossom or bursting to be. This rear entrance was known as Lady’s Way, no one at this remove could remember why. As a boy coming home from school he would sometimes take this route, daring himself to it, in spite or because of the fact of never feeling quite at ease here, nervous as he was of the straitness of the way and the menacing look of the foliage that crowded above him, even in the supposedly leafless depths of winter. Today he was neither suitably suited nor sturdily shod, the swaying briars had their eye on his camel-­hair coat, and it would be entirely consonant with the moment were a bird to fly over and shit on his hat. What had he been thinking of, to come back here, here of all places? This was home no longer, if it ever had been. And yet he was drawn on, deeper and deeper, into a familiar world transformed, a transubstantiated world.

Author

© Douglas Banville
JOHN BANVILLE, the author of seventeen novels, has been the recipient of the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Award, the Franz Kafka Prize, a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature. He lives in Dublin. View titles by John Banville

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