Friday, July 20, 2012
John Banville on literary murders
The novelist John Banville on memorable murders in literature
There is a murder in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), when a depraved playwright gets his comeuppance, though the real crime at the heart of the novel is the theft of a young girl’s childhood. We may pity Humbert Humbert, but for grey-eyed Dolores Haze we have the tenderest compassion.
Dostoevsky, for whom Nabokov had scant regard, tends to feel sorry for his villains, even Svidrigailov, who in Crime and Punishment (1866) is suspected of multiple murders. A friend insists this is a comedy, and certainly Svidrigailov’s suicide – “I’m going to America” – can raise a horrified laugh.
Another young female comes to a violent end in Georges Simenon’s Act of Passion (1947), when its desperate protagonist, Charles Alavoine, sees no other way of “saving” his lover than by strangling her. A dark and frightening book, like all of Simenon’s romans durs.
The acte gratuit at the centre of Albert Camus’s The Outsider (1942) poses the existentialist question of what it is to be and to act. Meursault’s murder of the Arab is random, senseless, “absurd” in the philosophical sense, yet it is also a wholly authentic deed, and it is this that makes the novel so unsettling.
Two murders occur in Richard Ford’s Canada (2012), but they are little more than a splash of crimson in the corner of a vast, magnificent canvas. This is one of the first great novels of the 21st century.