NABOKV-L post 0012206, Sat, 10 Dec 2005 12:17:07 -0800

Banville & Vladimir Nabokov.

EDNOTE. Many writers have (often unaccountably) have been compared to VN. Banville is indeed a first rate writer. He is one of the few that I can seriously recommend.

His prose and style reflect an unmatched passion
Boston Globe, United States - 6 hours ago

By David Mehegan, Globe Staff | December 10, 2005

NEW YORK -- He had a gray, buttoned-up, furtive look as he emerged from the elevator in the Warwick Hotel lobby, as if a huge cat might jump him from behind and drag him into the shadows. There was a handshake but no discernible smile from Irish novelist John Banville.

In the literary world, Banville has lately been like an eye in a little tempest. In October, his short novel ''The Sea" was the dark-horse winner of England's prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction, worth $86,000, shocking the bookies and others who were dumbfounded that their favorites -- Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, and Zadie Smith -- didn't win.

''Possibly the worst, certainly the most perverse and perhaps most indefensible choice in the 36-year history of the contest," sputtered a critic for the Independent newspaper. ''The Booker has lost its moorings from the book-buying public," the Express complained.

Banville had flown in from Dublin the night before, and he was jet lagged, he said in a low, soft voice, by way of explaining a glass of white wine at 11 a.m. at a lounge window table bereft of food. One feared at first that the interview might be hard going, but when talk turned to writing and books, he grew voluble and impassioned in a quiet way, and one saw the force of mind and art that has produced 14 books of fiction in 35 years.

None of Banville's previous books has sold more than a few thousand copies in the United States, but since Alfred A. Knopf rushed the US edition of ''The Sea" into print months ahead of schedule, it has appeared on several bestseller lists.

Banville shrugs at the grumbling. ''There's always controversy, as there should be," he said. ''I don't care what people say about my work. I've done what I have done, and if people don't like it, I can't help that." He never reads his reviews, he said. Not even when someone says, ''Congratulations on that great review"? he was asked. He replied, with an arch look, ''More likely they say, 'Too bad about that review. You should sue.' "

A singular voice
That wintry perspective marks a man who, at 59, has always plowed his own field in his own way. When you read a John Banville novel, it's like nothing in English you've read by any other writer -- certainly no other Irish writer. He is most often compared to Vladimir Nabokov.

''He's a major figure," said R. F. Foster, the biographer of W.B. Yeats, speaking by phone from his office at Oxford University. ''He's an international intellectual in the tradition of central European novelists. Thirty years ago I reviewed 'Birchwood' [a 1973 novel] and had never read anything like it -- the subtleties and strangeness and multiple parodies in it. I foolishly put it entirely in the Irish tradition, but now I think he plays games with all traditions."

Most of Banville's novels are relatively thin of plot, scene, and dialogue, and virtually all of them are told in the first person by a male narrator in an intensely wrought, lyrical style. The tormented Banville narrator sees everything, and what he sees and thinks unrolls in dazzling verbal pyrotechnics, thick with arcane words and startling metaphors.

It's easy to dislike the Banville protagonist. His 1989 novel ''The Book of Evidence" -- shortlisted for the Man Booker -- was narrated by a murderer and art thief. A similar narrative voice is heard in many Banville books: observant, ruminative, refined, often funny, and a bit creepy.

Max Morden, the narrator of ''The Sea," is not a criminal but a grief-stricken widower who returns to the seaside Irish resort village in which he and his parents had stayed 50 years before, to take a long-term room in the same hotel. Gradually he discloses the terrible thing that happened in that long-ago summer. As with many of his narrative predecessors, his refined sensibility contends with selfishness and cruelty.

No escaping Ireland
John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945 to unbookish parents, the youngest of three children. He left home in his teens and never looked back. ''I couldn't wait to get out," he said. In the 1960s, ''I wanted to fly beyond the borders of Ireland. There's a wonderful line in 'Finnegans Wake,' spoken by Shem: 'He even ran away with himself and became a farsoonerite, saying he would far sooner muddle through the hash of lentils in Europe than meddle with Irrland's split little pea.' That was my motto when I was young."

He went to Dublin and got a job with Aer Lingus, the national airline. ''I remember flying from London to San Francisco first-class for 2 pounds," he recalls with enthusiasm. He never attended university because, he said, ''I would have been tied to family and Ireland for three or four years."

Even so, Dublin is where he stayed, apart from a year in London. ''I should have gone to Paris or Italy," he said, ''except that I can't write anywhere else but in Ireland. I need the climate, the smell, the color of the light. The light is beautiful in Ireland."

Asked if he enjoys the social atmosphere of Dublin, Banville gave a startled look and said, ''Oh, no social atmosphere whatsoever. I don't get into the literary world." He added, ''I don't do anything. I don't have time. I write 24 hours a day. It's an all-consuming obsession. I write when I'm asleep. Everything is grist for the mill."

From the late 1960s until 2001 he made his living as a copy editor, first for the Irish Press, then for the Irish Times. In his last 10 years at the Times, he was also the chief literary critic. He had one marriage, which produced two children and ended, and has two children by what he called ''a later relationship."

In a tepid and unusual public explanation of the Man Booker judges' decision, chairman John Sutherland wrote in the Guardian, ''Banville's is a deeply divisive novel. . . . The Banvilleans, in the final analysis, (just) out argued the anti-Banvilleans." Sutherland added, ''The English ear (mine included) sometimes has difficulty with what Banville calls 'Hiberno English.' "

Yet for many younger Irish writers, Banville set an important example. ''His care with style, his writing of beautiful sentences, meant a great deal to me," the novelist Colm Toibin said via e-mail.

It's no surprise, Toibin added, that it took so long for Banville to win the Man Booker. ''He's not anyone's idea of an Irish novelist. He does not drink Guinness, sing ballads, or curse. He is austere in his manner, deeply bookish, quiet-spoken, wry. . . . A senior English novelist once asked me if he was an aristocrat, or from a very posh family. He was wildly praised in England, but also resented. His style, his manners, his aloofness, the subjects he treated."

He 'stretches the reader'
One had best keep a dictionary handy when reading Banville: ''losel," ''flocculent," ''strangury," and ''plimsoll" are a few of the esoteric words to be found in ''The Sea." But his grammar, syntax, and spelling are standard -- there's no trace of Joycean experimentation.

''He does stretch the reader at times," said the poet and critic Seamus Deane, speaking by telephone from Dublin, ''looking for exactitude and precision, always searching for the mot juste. At its most intense, there is a kind of preciousness. When it's most liberating it reveals the resources of the language and how much is actually going on in things that look like still life: the light coming in the window, someone sitting in a chair."

For some readers, it's not the style that's a problem but the want of traditional novelistic elements. Banville's response to this complaint: ''I'm not really interested in fiction. I don't regard the novel as a very interesting art form." Asked if that means that his books aren't novels or aren't interesting, he said, ''If I had the choice of what kind of artist I would be, it would be a composer or a painter, but I have no skill whatsoever."

He seems to mean that it's not the making of novels that interests him but the act of writing. ''There are two privileges I have in life," he said. ''One is to spend one's day choosing good sentences, and the second is to be able to tell stories. In this day and age, to be a supposedly grown-up person telling these peculiar, beautifully polished lies is a great privilege. Few pleasures can equal having fashioned a beautiful thing."

David Mehegan can be reached at