Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Territoires de l'étrange dans la littérature irlandaise au XXe siècle

Gaïd Girard

Deuxième partie. Mises à distance de l’étrange : ironies et vertiges

Deadly funny, laughing at the dead : John Banville’s Birchwood

Magali Falco

Texte intégral

1John Banville’s Birchwood is an uncanny novel whose title refers to Gabriel’s eerie family household. The eponymous title indicates that the novel is first and foremost built on Gothic remains. Birchwood is the name of a grotesque Gothic house that literally consumes Grandma Godkin and the rest of the family, but at a more metaphorical level, it also encompasses Gothic motifs such as family secrets and hauntings, dark doubles, a madwoman in the attic, and most of all, an incestuous affair. Various Gothic themes constitute the background of the novel in order to reinforce the paradigm of the mad house in both senses of the term : the house that shelters the mad, and the mad household transmitting its own madness from one generation to the next.

  • 1 NB : References with numbers only are taken from Birchwood, London, Picador, 1973. Others are to b (...)

2Right from the beginning of the novel, questions of inheritance and transgenerational hauntings of madness are set as central to Gabriel’s story, which have to be understood in relation to issues of identity and origin. “I have come into my inheritance” (14)1, says Gabriel at the beginning of his account. Indeed, he inherits both Birchwood and the madness that was passed on to its inhabitants from one generation to the next. Inheriting the family’s curses forces Gabriel to explore his origins, which triggers off a baroque painting of the sins of the “dark father” (25). He asks himself : “Am I mad, starting again, and like this ? I have seen terrible things. It amazes me that I was allowed to survive to tell of them. Mad indeed” (11). Gabriel brings the family madness back into the present through his writing. Namely, it is re-enacted through remembering the past and tracing back a history of madness that has returned to haunt Gabriel. The origin of the inescapable madness dates back to the time when the Godkins took over the Big House, entailing a series of insane and violent events : “I am thinking of all the waste sad deaths. This violence will be visited on me, in the fullness of time” (p. 16). Gabriel writes a hundred years later, when the cycle is about to be completed with his brother trying to regain his property, and as a consequence, with Gabriel about to be deprived of his inheritance.

  • 2 “But a sister ! Half of me, somewhere, stolen by the circus, or spirited away by an evil aunt, or (...)

3The Gothic offers a perfect framework to deal with issues of family decay and political crisis concerned with property owning, and to exorcise an unspeakable tale of incest and loss (which comprises the romanticised themes of lost property, Gabriel’s supposedly lost sister2, his lost self, and his family’s lost sanity). However, as Gabriel is laughing madly at his own family’s madness, Banville also draws ludicrously on the conventions of the Gothic, of romance, of the picturesque and the Big House novel. If the Gothic may be at the foundation of Birchwood, the novel self-consciously points out the artificiality and grotesqueness of literary genres by exploiting and distorting their clichés. The readers’expectations are systematically unfulfilled. Writing becomes a laughable and mad necessity for Gabriel, because he is utterly self-conscious of its pointlessness. As history is essentially deformed by writing, as the past is never reconstructed on its whole, genres are subverted and transgressed. The parodic use of various genres in Birchwood echoes Gabriel’s self-parodic story.

4Although Banville deliberately anchors his novel in the Gothic genre, he simultaneously undermines it by intermingling a grotesque imagery with an ironical use of intertextuality and onomastics, coupled with tragicomic and poetical descriptions. A general sense of disease and decay pervades the novel, reflecting the hopelessness of writing, which results in an unsettling uncanny effect reinforced by black humour. Birchwood could be examined in the light of Patrick McGrath’s theory of the New Gothic as retaining the themes of transgression and decay but revisited by the writing of madness and dark laughter.

  • 3 All the protagonists strangely return to the birch wood as death comes to visit them. Granda Godki (...)

5The use of onomastics is explicitly tragicomic : Gabriel refers to the angel messenger from God, who is also seen as the angel of death, of fire and thunder, of vengeance, announcing Judgement Day. Gabriel is also identified as the angel of annunciation, resurrection, mercy, and revelation which is coherent with Gabriel’s last name-Godkin. As a man of God, he is foretelling in his tale the end of a household, when the sinners will be eventually judged. Gabriel’s nature echoes the very place he is inheriting : the birch tree symbolizes renewal and purification, that is to say a cyclical pattern of death and rebirth3. At the end of the novel, Gabriel ironically says : “I could not cope with the season of resurrections” (p. 157). It is a dysfunctional renewal he has to deal with, because of his very nature as an incestuous child. To some extent, he is also a Lawless, an outlaw as well as a child born in sin. Therefore, Birchwood acts as a mirror to Gabriel in so far as he refers to Birchwood as a “lawless house” (p. 11). Banville’s games with onomastics underline the uncanniness of the house and of its owner. Birchwood is both strange and familiar – “I wept for what was there and yet not there. For Birchwood” (p. 12) – so is Gabriel, both in and out of the tale, a fallen angel both inheriting and being dispossessed of the house and of his past.

  • 4 Cf. Deane, (p. 13) : “In Ireland, these Revivals eventually took the form of a concentration on ce (...)

6The issues of names and naming4 are therefore central to the novel. The destinies of the protagonists and of the house are embedded in their very names that seem to be cursed. Birchwood was ironically taken over by Gabriel’s great-greatgrandfather, who was also his namesake, by marrying Beatrice Lawless. Beatrice is also the name of Gabriel’s mother. The curse comes full circle when Gabriel takes the house over again and consequently repeats his ancestor’s story. Neither of them can escape from their names nor Birchwood as they all die in the house, in one way or another. On the other hand, Gabriel finds it impossible to name accurately his past experiences. Language implies both fatality and restlessness in Birchwood. In that sense, the playful use of onomastics and the impossible task of writing the past, because of the inaccuracy of words, highlight the ghostly nature of language and Irish identity. Moreover, when Gabriel becomes part of the circus, he takes on the role of being a fake spectator in the audience and he is renamed Johann Livelb by Silas, “that outlandish alias which Silas had found for me god knows where” (p. 115). That uncanny name is actually an anagram for John Banville who, as a writer, also becomes a ghostly presence in the text and echoes the unstable and changeable identity of language.

  • 5 Martha describes Michael as “My little crucifixion.” (p. 39)

7The narrator presents a mise en abyme of himself : he is a fake spectator in the audience as well as the writer’s fake double-Johann Livelb being a grotesque reflection of John Banville. In parallel, the circus acts as a grotesque image of the Birchwood household where the same show is performed from one generation to the next. The novel itself is divided into three chapters, three acts of a tragicomedy staging the redoubling of fake doubles. Indeed, the story of the missing twin sister turns out to be a hoax : the girl Gabriel is looking for ends up being his grotesque twin brother born of an incestuous relationship5. Consequently, Beatrice appears to be his fake mother, as well as a grotesque double of Martha. According to McMinn : “Dreams turn, violently, into nightmares. The metaphor of twins represents a kind of existential schizophrenia, by which one aspect of self is confronted or pursued by another : Rose turns into Michael” (McMinn, p. 39). Michael is often described as a laughable clownish figure, Gabriel’s dark double who significantly likes walking on his hands. This deadly funny character is literally a reversal principle who laughs at the dead.

8The grotesque in Birchwood is indeed based on a reversal process :

“The stereotyped characters invert their roles ; they become tragic in their comicality, and acquire a political dimension within the process of defamiliarization. The colonial discourse that stereotyped the colonised turns against the colonisers themselves when multiple identities from the collective unconscious start interacting in the construction of a new postcolonial identity.” (Zuntini de Izarra, p. 39.)

9The grotesque is thus linked to gender interchangeability, underlining the pathology of male identity looking for a fantasy female double, a lost unity. This paradox is also redoubled by the “uncanny disturbing couple” (p. 119) constituted by Justin and Juliette, “a beautiful two-headed monster” (p. 119). Even women replicate themselves, such as Beatrice who becomes a grotesque double of Grandma Godkin : “Black against the window on the landing hung a grotesque caricature of the old woman, her dusty bombasine evening gown stretched on a spidery frame, my poor mad Mama” (87), “an uncanny replica of Granny Godkin.” (p. 89)

  • 6 The first chapter of Birchwood is entitled “The Book of the Dead” which is an “allusion to the mor (...)

10Michael remains the epitome of the grotesque and inserts himself within a collection of grotesque figures and ghosts that are part of the landscape of Birchwood6. In one way or another all the characters are stuck in their own madness : Granda Godkin’s “mind was forever frozen in that moment of collision and clatter” (p. 55). Beatrice too is trapped within her own mind screaming in the attic. So is Grandma Godkin in her room. The inhabitants of Birchwood are dead souls haunting each other, who are killed by the house one after the other until only Gabriel remains alive, haunted by his twin brother. The most striking example is of course the violent and absurd death of Granny Godkin : “the house, weary of this wild old woman, finally turned on her and extinguished her itself” (p. 22). She dies of spontaneous combustion, a supernatural event that is comically described as if it was perfectly common. Only her two feet are left of her, an image so utterly grotesque that her death becomes laughable : “I can never think of that ghastly day without suspecting that somewhere inside me some cruel little brute, a manikin in my mirror, is bent double with laughter” (p. 77). As a consequence :

“The arranging of her funeral gave rise to some moments of bleak comedy. […] By the way, we settled the business of the funeral very neatly, and buried Granny Godkin’s feet in a full-sized coffin. Despite the needless expense, the craftiness of the ruse pleased Papa enormously.” (p. 78-80)

11If Banville’s grotesque figures are at first dead funny, they soon turn out to be funny dead. Grandma Godkin’s death is uncannily repeated throughout the novel as Martha is also destroyed by the fire of the hayshed : “Her dress burst into flames then, and she trotted on through the door” (p. 97) while “Mama still stood, still smiling placidly” (p. 97). Beatrice is laughing at the dead in her turn. The overall darkly humorous tone of the novel is reinforced by the unsympathetic and detached gaze of the narrator. Gabriel describes in a mocking tone chaotic scenes where life and death intermingle :

“That day was to be forever famous in the history of Birchwood, and justly so. An invasion, no less ! Granny Godkin’s shoulder was dislocated by the shotgun she fired off at the invaders. Granda Godkin locked himself into a lavatory, where he was found hours after the battle sitting paralyzed on the bowl and frothing at the mouth. A policeman’s skull was split by an ashplant. Beatrice laughed and laughed. And I was born.” (p. 24)

12The grotesque cycle of life and death, symbolized by the birch tree, eventually loses its meaning so that dark and silent laughter can be the only response to the absurd repetition of madness.

13However, there is more to Birchwood than parody. The novel is based on an embedded structure of reflections on writing, where Gabriel reflects Banville’s own preoccupation with the nature of fiction writing. Parodic devices actually undermine the very metafictionality of Birchwood. There is a rich network of intertextual references : for instance, the owner of the circus is named Silas, probably a parodic reference to Uncle Silas by the Irish Gothic writer Le Fanu. Another mocking allusion is made to Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly in this sentence : “Such scenes as this I see, or imagine I see, no difference, through a glass sharply” (p. 21). Many critics have argued that Birchwood was a reminiscence of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, especially when Gabriel refers to “these madeleines” (p. 13) as he is pondering over his childhood. One can also think of Dickens’s Bleak House, and obviously Jane Eyre with “my mother screaming in the attic” (p. 16).

14These various echoes and intertextual hauntings really aim at transcending metafiction and parody. They open a reflection on the power of imagination against realism and history. Banville demonstrates how writing is always a futile rewriting of itself, hence its pointlessness at telling something. According to McMinn, Banville retells the same story from one novel to the other : “Most of his leading characters are engaged in an intellectual and emotional conflict with a violent and senseless world in which they feel like strangers or aliens” (McMinn, p. 2). He also argues that the subject of each novel is the “imaginative life of these characters” (McMinn, p. 2). The interest of writing resides in its form, its aesthetics so to speak, and in the work of imagination. What Gabriel is looking for deep down is an identity to his writing :

“His writing raises doubts concerning the self-referential limits of metafictional discourse through the reconstruction of an’artifact’representing reality composed of syntheses of fossilised forms such as the detective novel and the autobiography. Banville uses different discourses in his attempt to represent the essence of reality as he seeks to create a new literary identity within an Irish historical context.” (Zuntini de Izarra, p. 12.)

15The defamiliarization process is entailed by the search for the identity of writing. This quest is intertwined with the issue of writing the past, as remembering the past implies that one necessarily reinvents it. Therefore, Gabriel tells a story of ruins : “Forgetting all I know, I try to describe these things, and only then do I realize, yet again, that the past is incommunicable” (p. 29). On the other hand, the past unmistakably persists into the present, but it is a fragmented fake past that haunts the present :

« I began to consider seriously my past and my future. It was the present I should have thought about, but the present is unthinkable. It did colour my thoughts, however, with of all things a certain insouciance. The imminence of disaster brings not piety and a concern for last things, it brings frivolity and laughter. I think that we shall all be drunk and gay, dancing a jig in the nude, when the apocalypse arrives to annihilate us at last. » (p. 138.)

  • 7 “All too often, the narrators feel that their stories, and their language, can only issue in a fan (...)

16The incommunicability of the past is the key to understanding the black humour of the novel. At the end of Birchwood, Gabriel goes back to the beginning : “I began to write, as a means of finding them again, and thought that at last I had discovered a form which would contain and order all my losses. I was wrong. There is no form, no order, only echoes and coincidences, sleight of hand, dark laughter. I accept it” (p. 174). The past is both incommunicable and inescapable7. The very circularity of the novel illustrates the failure of writing : “The past comes back transformed only to startle us with its steadfastness. It is our fractured vision which has transformed it” (p. 165). For Gabriel, form necessarily prevails over content, hence the poetical strength of Banville’s writing that recounts the failure to write. As a consequence, death is not what matters, but the way it is written. It loses its tragic dimension so that it can be both futile and poetical such as in this description :

“I saw by that brief vivid light Magnus halt as the back of his head exploded. He went down like a stricken spider, arms and legs spinning, and in his place there popped up before me, like a sad and lovely aunt sally, the image of him dancing in a field in April rain with mouth-organ music wreathed around him like flowers.” (p. 154)

17The tension between the failure of language at ordering the past, and the chaos of experience opens a reflection on the interrelation between the beautiful and the grotesque, harmony and monstrosity : “Violets and cowshit, my life has been ever thus” (p. 132) says Gabriel. The “odd and humorously sinister” (p. 62) tone of the novel is reinforced by, on the one hand, the detached, cold, almost surgical gaze of the narrator on his family history, but also by his oversensitivity to harmony. Banville’s writing could be described as carnivalesque, celebrating the grotesque as both comic and poetical.

18Gabriel’s struggle with understanding the past and writing the story of his family could be interpreted as an allegory of Irish history where Birchwood would be a grotesque microcosm of Ireland. There is no wonder why Banville chose the Gothic genre to deal with reversals of hierarchy and power struggles between two families. The Lawlesses are a parodic version of Ireland, whereas the Godkins represent England, but funnily enough they are both dysfunctional. If Ireland has a divided identity, it also has an incestuous twinhood with England that is similar to the relationship Michael and Gabriel have.

19As Birchwood is an uncanny place, both gone and still there, so is Ireland with its undetermined identity. Birchwood’s dysfunctional household also echoes the disastrous state of Ireland during the Potato Famine, suggesting that the country cannot escape its own fate and madness. However, if the novel is historically grounded during the Great Hunger, there is a strong sense of timelessness about the novel. Indeed, Ireland is in a sense a timeless country : “It is in this light that one must view the politically divided world of Ireland, a country whose deeply rooted past has become an eternal present. In Ireland the legendary co-exists with the postmodern” (Zuntini de Izarra, p. 3). It also seems that Banville is more interested in timeless questions, such as the relationship between identity and coping with one’s own past, than political questions. He chooses times of crisis in Irish history to feed his own reflection.

20We shall eventually draw a link between the experience of liminality and the use of the first person narration : the narrator’s detached and unsympathetic point of view on what could be described as the case study of his own family’s madness. Gabriel’s sense of perversion that provokes in him a silent and joyless laughter constantly places him on the verge of his own madness : “Laughter ! O wicked, mind you, and vicious perhaps, but laughter for all that. And now I laughed too, but, like theirs, my laughter made no sound, no sound at all” (p. 107). As Gabriel writes his unspeakable past, there is no escape as the reader is locked up in the circularity and timelessness of the novel which is mapped out by Gabriel’s own journey in the Irish countryside : “My journey described a wide circle the centre of which was, unknown to me, the circus, carrying me with it toward its goal by some mysterious intangible magnetism.” (p. 157)

21The circular and cyclical pattern of the novel explains the recurrent reversed images we considered earlier : everything can turn into its opposite, a sister becomes a brother, sanity becomes insanity, harmony is adjoining the grotesque, landowners are dispossessed of their properties. In other words, the whole novel explores liminality, Birchwood being a threshold in itself. The attic has a strong symbolism in the novel : not only is Birchwood a metaphor for the past and lost souls but it is also the liminal space of madness – a nowhere space which contains the memory of loss : “Or I would climb to the attic […] where Mama saw the black shape of her madness coming to claim her. My childhood is gone forever” (34). Beatrice even becomes a metaphor for the ghost of Grandma Godkin haunting the attic, and contaminates Gabriel with her madness : “Mama stood in the attic among the shallots, still wearing Granny Godkin’s gown.” (p. 87)

22It is interesting to read liminality in relation to Gabriel’s obsession with harmony and balance. His world is constantly toppled over and fragmented like the jigsaw puzzle representing a Renaissance Madonna that Michael destroys :

“[…] it tilted, and the puzzle glided off, seemed to hang intact in mid-air for a moment, and then fell to the carpet and shattered with an absurdly inadequate, heartbreaking little clatter. […] It was not the wasted work that pained me, but the unavoidable recognition of the fragility of all that beauty.” (p. 42)

  • 8 Birchwood is characterised by the recurrent colour blue which might both symbolize harmony and des (...)

23Banville’s dark humour operates displacement and reversal of images, so that the subtle combination of opposites creates a strong uncanny poetical effect8. He explores borderlines, the incompatibility and yet harmony of opposites. Prospero is probably the paradigm for the uncanny, since he is mentioned throughout the novel but never appears : he is therefore the non-embodiment of the liminal.

24To some extent, Birchwood belongs to the New Gothic movement as defined by Patrick McGrath, in so far as it retains the themes of transgression and decay while using the Gothic as a backdrop for the novel. It also explores existential issues more than political or moral problems. Banville’s writing could thus be described as liminal, between the grotesque and the beautiful, pondering over the dark inheritance of genres and of the Gothic in particular. As Gabriel laughs at the dead and at his own incestuous origins, Banville darkly laughs at the legacy of the Gothic which also has obscure origins and a family history of madness. Birchwood is essentially an uncanny novel about the uncanniness of writing, which goes beyond genres and history, even beyond language, looking for harmony through decay and dysfunction. According to Banville, writing results in a tragicomic endeavour overcome by silence, as Gabriel concludes : “Anyway, some secrets are not to be disclosed under pain of who knows what retribution, and whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must be silent.” (p. 175)


Banville J., Birchwood, London, Picador, 1973.

Brontë C., Jane Eyre, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966.

Deane S., Celtic Revivals : Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980, London, Boston, Faber and Faber, 1985.

Dickens C., Bleak House, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.

Freud S., L’inquiétante étrangeté et autres essays, trad. B. Féron, Paris, Gallimard, 1985.

Gayle Backus M., The Gothic Family Romance : Heterosexuality, Child Sacrifice, and the Anglo-Irish Colonial Order, London, Duke University Press, 1999.

Hunt Mahony C., Contemporary Irish Literature : Transforming Tradition, London, Macmillan, 1998.

Le Fanu J. S., In a Glass Darkly, Ware, Wordsworth Classics, 1995.

Le Fanu J. S., Uncle Silas : A Tale of Bartram-Haugh, intro. V. Sage (ed.), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2000.

McGrath P. et Morrow B. (eds), The New Gothic : A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction, New York, Vintage Books, 1992.

McMinn J., The Supreme Fictions of John Banville, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1999.

Murphy N., Irish Fiction and Postmodern Doubt : An Analysis of the Epistemological Crisis in Modern Fiction, Lewiston, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.

Proust M., À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. 1-4, Paris, Gallimard, 1988.

Welch R., Changing States : Transformations in Modern Irish Writing, London, New York, Routledge, 1993.

Zuntini de Izarra L. P., Mirrors and Holographic Labyrinths : The Process of a « New » Aesthetic Synthesis in the Novels of John Banville, London, International Scholars publications, 1999.


1 NB : References with numbers only are taken from Birchwood, London, Picador, 1973. Others are to be found at the end of the essay in the Bibliography.

2 “But a sister ! Half of me, somewhere, stolen by the circus, or spirited away by an evil aunt, or kidnapped by a jealous cousin – and why ? A part of me stolen, yes, that was a thrilling notion. I was incomplete, and would remain so until I found her.” (p. 83)

3 All the protagonists strangely return to the birch wood as death comes to visit them. Granda Godkin seems to have regressed to an animal state : “They found him early in the morning in the birch wood, curled like a stillborn infant in the grass. His ruined mouth was open, caked with black blood, and it was not until they were moving him that they discovered, in the tree beside which he lay, his false teeth sunk to the gums like vicious twin pink parasites in the bark” (p. 59). By attempting to devour the birch tree, the old man is both incorporating and being incorporated by Birchwood. He is also holding to his property in a grotesque way. Gabriel also significantly buries his dead father among the birch trees, maybe in a metaphorical renewal.

4 Cf. Deane, (p. 13) : “In Ireland, these Revivals eventually took the form of a concentration on certain issues which had particular political resonance. For instance, language – always a crucial issue in a country which has had its own language destroyed by a combination of military and economic violence and another imposed by a coercive educational system.” Deane also talks about Irish in terms of “a language which has become simultaneously native and foreign”.

5 Martha describes Michael as “My little crucifixion.” (p. 39)

6 The first chapter of Birchwood is entitled “The Book of the Dead” which is an “allusion to the mortuary verses left with the bodies of the Egyptian dead to help them through the afterlife, and to ensure their salvation through a triumph over Time” (McMinn, p. 33). Not only does Gabriel write about his dead family but he also writes for them in an attempt to bury the family curse and save their souls, so to speak. The title also suggests that all of them were already metaphorically dead before physically dying.

7 “All too often, the narrators feel that their stories, and their language, can only issue in a fantasy that the past can never be retrieved or understood, merely rewritten (hence, twins, opposites, double pattern). There is no way back to the past, only a story which leaves the writer stranded with a fiction.” (McMinn, p. 4.)

8 Birchwood is characterised by the recurrent colour blue which might both symbolize harmony and despair : before he dies “Granda Godkin […] gazed through me, into his private pale blue eternity” (p. 57). Then Gabriel reflects on how : “All deaths are scandalously mistimed. People do not live long enough. They come and go, briefly, shadows dwindling toward an empty blue noon.” (p. 57) The blue hues of light reappear throughout the novel, maybe because the Angel Gabriel is often associated with the colour blue, both announcing death and renewal.


© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2009

Conditions d’utilisation :