Like James, whom he has cited as a serious influence, Banville is most
famous as a stylist. His best fiction—“The Book of Evidence,”
“Ghosts”—is written with an angry, suffering lyricism, often so
beautiful as to excuse him from plot. From the former of those two
books:

This sunset, for instance, how lavishly it was laid on, the clouds,
the light on the sea, that heartbreaking, blue-green distance, laid
on, all of it, as if to console some lost suffering wayfarer. I have
never really got used to being on this earth. Sometimes I think our
presence here is due to a cosmic blunder, that we were meant for
another planet altogether, with other arrangements, and other laws,
and other, grimmer skies. I try to imagine it, our true place, off on
the far side of the galaxy, whirling and whirling. And the ones who
were meant for here, are they out there, baffled and homesick, like
us?

Writing like this, which pushes us closer to the world while estranging
us from it, has been Banville’s signature gift.

“Mrs. Osmond” concerns the weeks that follow the two culminating events
of “The Portrait of a Lady”—the death of Ralph Touchett and the
revelation that Madame Merle is the true mother of Osmond’s daughter,
Pansy. Banville’s Isabel begins the novel by drawing an enormous amount
of cash on her accounts in London; she then proceeds on her wending way
back toward Rome, with the determination that she will declare her
freedom from her husband. Upon her voyage, she encounters most of
James’s significant characters, including her friends Henrietta
Stackpole and Ned Rosier, as well as several of Banville’s own
invention.

At times, Banville reads “The Portrait of a Lady” with perfect clarity.
“She felt within her all the shrinkings of a sinner,” he writes of
Isabel, “only she could not identify the sin.” It is womanhood. And
Banville’s instinct to begin with the supreme implicit subject of
James’s novel—feminism, avant la lettre—is dead on. After all, what
was it to be a woman in 1876, knowing that a single mistake might ruin
your life? What half-chance recuperations could conceivably have been
available to a Mrs. Osmond? Those are the themes Banville is pursuing,
the right ones.

And yet his book is a terrible disappointment—largely because of the
terrible, overawing fact of Henry James. For all the autocratic
plottedness of “The Portrait of a Lady,” the main impression it leaves
is still of its author’s almost surreal brilliance. As the pages pass,
it seems impossible that James can sustain the simultaneous intensity
and fineness of his observations for another line, much less for another
paragraph, much less another chapter. Yet it goes on and on. There are
hundreds of sentences in the book that would be the best in nearly every
other novel. Flipping wholly at random, I find an early suitor of
Isabel’s described, with throwaway beauty, as possessing a “handsome,
easy, important physiognomy,” a phrase that might as well pronounce, in
its four words: writers of this planet, here is how you use adjectives.

This inimitable writerly grace is Banville’s undoing. It would be one
thing if “Mrs. Osmond” merely suffered from stiff storytelling—which it
does, with Isabel reminiscent of the Redcrosse Knight of “The Faerie
Queene,” confronting various one-dimensional characters designed to
illuminate her passage toward liberation. It would be another, still
forgivable, if it were only that his characters were so direct that you
blush on behalf of James’s own creations, whose code would have required
them to remain several subtle removes from the forthrightness Banville
ascribes to them in “Mrs. Osmond.” “I care nothing for your husband—and
neither do you, so don’t pretend,” Osmond says to his sister, with a
bluntness typical to this book but impossibly distant from the sublime,
stupid refinement of the manners in Isabel Archer’s world.

No: what’s devastating is how gallantly Banville tries and how
comprehensively he fails to mimic James’s style. The problem is
fundamental and entirely pervasive. James uses his long sentences to
talk himself further into their beginnings, or sometimes out of them,
into second and third and fourth layers of thought. But Banville seems
to mistake this for mere elongation; the grain of his thought and his
prose are too coarse to make his attempt credible. Take this: “It was
Schadenfreude, which meant, as she knew all too well, the taking of
pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Trust the precise and finical
Teutons, she thought, to compress so broad a concept into a single handy
term.” Or this: “The densely moted air occluded the morning sun’s
vigorous rays, and the traffic grinding its way around the square, like
a malfunctioning carousel, seemed unnaturally clamorous.” If it weren’t
on the record that Banville admires James so greatly, I would suspect
his gruesome, circuitous mundanities of being satirical.

If you’re separated from Henry James’s prose by more than a few weeks,
it’s very easy to begin repeating the old jokes about it. (H. G. Wells
said that James was like a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea from a
corner.) But to actually read his words, when you are a writer yourself,
is to feel the shocking jolt of an ineradicable personal insufficiency.
There probably aren’t thirty living writers who could have done it
better, you think; then, immediately, thank God the other twenty-nine
haven’t tried.

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