Thursday 23 October 2014

Love, anguish and intrigue in the life of a literary artist

Liam Collins

Published 16/10/2005 | 00:11

BANVILLE: He is a compelling figure, and remains disdainful of the trappings of 'this image-obsessed age'. Photo: Julien Behal
LITERARY AWARD: Banville in 2002 when he was a finalist in the 'Sunday Independent' Irish Novel of the Year Award, with Dr Robin O'Reilly, one of the judges. Right, Patricia Quinn

HIS NOVELS are dense, literary and relatively plotless whereas his private life has the faint whiff of a chick-lit blockbuster bristling with intrigue and unlikely passion and romance.

John Banville, winner of the most prestigious literary prize in the English-speaking world, the Man Booker, is almost as mysterious as the 14 novels he has written, novels which remain largely ignored and unread by all but the chosen few who favour highliterary style over such traditional features as plot, character and storyline.

Even The Book of Evidence, which was supposed to be about the infamous Malcolm McArthur Case is plotless and enigmatic, even though the original story, filled with characters like Charlie Haughey and his Attorney General, Paddy Connolly, and involving two brutal murders is probably among the most sensational tales of modern Ireland.

But in some ways that is what makes Banville such a compelling figure. He carries on regardless, writing novels which until last week were read by an average of about 5,000 devotees. He unashamedly calls himself an "artist" and remains disdainful of the trappings of "this image-obsessed age".

His American-born wife Janet Dunham, a talented textile artist, may have gone some way towards explaining the break-up of their marriage when she described the atmosphere surrounding the writer during some particularly creative period as akin to "a murderer who's just come back from a particularly bloody killing".

The couple, who lived in Howth before moving to central Dublin, have two adults sons, Colm and Douglas. Banville formed a relationship with their younger neighbour, Patricia Quinn, who went on to become head of the Arts Council. A waspish Irish Times colleague claimed that at one time she was the family baby-sitter.

Banville, Ms Quinn and their two young daughters now live in a modern apartment near Bachelor's Walk in central Dublin.Bachelor's Walk, he remarked, "is the most mis-named place for me to live."

John Banville was born in Wexford in 1945. His father was a clerk and his mother looked after him and the other two children in the family. There must have been some literary influence in the family, however, as his elder brother Vincent, who writes thrillers under the name Vincent Lawrence, is also an accomplished writer.

Educated at St Peter's College in Wexford, he did not go to university, preferring instead to take a job as a clerk in Aer Lingus where, in those heady days of the 1960s, he enjoyed perks which allowed him to see the world at rates which seem cheap even compared to today's cut-price airline deals.

Last week, after his triumph, he reflected briefly on his upbringing and family with a journalist from the Guardian. They were, he said, "small people, small, good, decent people, who lived very circumscribed lives. Leaving the nestso early was hard for them and, when I look back now, I realise how cruel I was."

He also said: "Someone said the best gift a man can give his son is to die young. When you think about it, it's true. I was in my early 30s and I did feel freed by it, awful as it is to confess."

Deciding he'd had enough of world travel, Banville got a job as a sub-editor in the Irish Press in 1969 on the recommendation of literary editor David Marcus. The job allowed him to write his first book, Long Lankin, during the day while working in the office at night.

One former colleague tells the story of Banville standing at the subs' desk one evening, puffing his pipe, and telling another sub-editor how he had spent the day agonising over where to put a full point. Another sub-editor, overhearing the conversation, leaned over the desk and said: "It usually goes at the end of the sentence."

"He was very pleasant to work with and he was a stickler for grammar and punctuation but he didn't read newspapers or watch television, so he never knew what was going on in the real world," said one former colleague.

Because of his serious demeanour and the fondness many of his colleagues had for Mulligan's public house next door, he quickly rose to the lofty heights of Chief Sub-Editor, a job to which, on reflection, he was immensely ill-suited.

He is remembered as a kindly man who took time and trouble with juniors when far less talented sub-editors would barrack and bully them in the shrill atmosphere of newspaper deadlines, alcohol-fuelled feuds and the natural rancour that existed in the old days of hot metal between journalists and printers.

One colleague remembers him as "droll" and a good raconteur with the same self-deprecating sense of humour that he displayed in London when accepting the Man Booker Prize last week.

He left the Press and went to America as a 'writer-in-residence' and on his return found he couldn't survive on fiction alone. He got a job as a sub-editor on the Irish Times and was later appointed Literary Editor. He remained with the paper until the "purges" some years ago when he was given a choice between a redundancy package or working as a sub-editor in the newspaper's features department.

Banville, who is a rather aloof figure, except when he takes his young daughters to one of the coffee houses around Abbey Street in Dublin, always seems to carry a slightly pained expression on his face. But he's not beyond the odd literary spat, as when he described Ian McEwan's novel, Saturday in the New York Review of Books as "a dismayingly bad book".

When the chairman of this year's Booker prize jury, John Sutherland, came to McEwan's defence and pointed out several small errors in the review, Banville wrote back: "Summoned, one shuffles guiltily into the department of trivia." It's a typicalBanville sentence.

His winning of the Booker Prize also managed to bring out the xenophobic nature of British critics and journalists, who regard the Dublin-based author as something of a provincial figure who writes obscure works in a dialect of Hiberno English.

In a typically begrudging piece the Daily Mail dismissed his career in one sentence: "Banville, 60, worked for Aer Lingus in Dublin before turning to writing. He was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989." This summation fails to note that he was written 14 novels, all of them laboriously researched and brilliantly written, even if the style is not popular or accessible to the mass market.

"A recurrent objection is that the language gets in the way of the story (what story?). But couldn't one say the same thing about Ulysses?" said John Sutherland, the chairman of the Booker jury, whose casting vote ensured that this year's prize went to Banville's slim novel, The Sea.

WRITING in yesterday's Irish Times, the author detailed the tension felt as he and the five other contenders waited for the announcement of the name of this year's winner. "One has a sense of incipient falling. This is ridiculous. I am an artist, none of this matters. What's 52-and-a-half grand? Oh, about ?70,000, a small voice in my head informs me."

He went on: "My name is announced, and the table erupts in cheers.

"Immediately there come to my mind those lines from Philip Larkin's poem The Whitsun Weddings, about the brides' seamy-foreheaded fathers who had never known "success so huge and wholly farcical . . . "

Banville finished: "What I feel most strongly is a spreading sense of relief at the thought that I shall never again have to worry about this prize; I shall be able to enjoy early autumns again; I shall never have to watch the anguished look in my publisher's face when the judges yet again pass over my latest book with wordless disdain; I shall be able to write in peace and calm through another September; for I have been, at last, Bookered."

As sales of his book shot through the roof last week, John Banville is unlikely to ever have to return to the newspaper business where he once horrified a news reporter by telling him in a mixture of awe and revulsion, that he could not understand how someone could write 10 paragraphs in 10 minutes when it would take him weeks to compose the same number of sentences.

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