Monday Motivation: John Banville on writing
I’ve dipped into advice given by the Man Booker-prize-winner, John Banville, before, and I’m about to do so again – and for good reason. In unrehearsed conversation, he comes up with such sensible observations of the world, and of the role of the writer in the world, that I make no apology for bringing you these snippets from a BBC interview with him last week:
“(The past has) always been my obsession,” he said. “I can’t understand why the past seems so luminous and full of meaning, considering that at one time it was the present. What process does it undergo in order to become the past, and when does the past become the past? … You know, when you go to movies that were made in your recent lifetime, you laugh at the clothes that people wore, but at some point it becomes a classic and you don’t notice the clothes they’re wearing. What is that process, what is that moment, what cliff does it fall over?”
His interviewer remarked on Banville’s skill at identifying those moments in his fiction in which “a particular phrase or a particular face” lodges in the mind of his characters.
You could see him shrugging: “This,” he supposed, “is what made me a writer. Not that the writer sees things that other people don’t see, it’s just that he takes note of them.”
It’s not that we see, or hear more than other people – it’s just that we notice the key moment, the give-away detail, the Freudian slip.
The occasion of the interview was the publication of Banville’s new book, Time Pieces – A Dublin Memoir, an evocation (amongst other things) of the city of his youth. Apart from being Banville’s Dublin, the city is also of course memorialised in hundreds of works of fiction and poetry by some of the greatest writers of the last and previous centuries. And that, says Banville, can be a problem.
“It is difficult,” he said, “to be part of a tradition which has Swift and Goldsmith, Yeats, Joyce, Becket… I always think that they stand behind us like Easter Island statues, enormous stone figures glowering down at us and saying, ‘Look what I’ve done – what are you going to do, little man and little woman?’ So it is difficult.”
But not only difficult. Every writer inherits a tradition, of course, and has to work with the consciousness that other and better writers have trodden the same boards before. Banville remarks that there’s an upside to that unavoidable fact. It is also “a great sustenance,” he says, to be working within the context of an extraordinary tradition.
He grew most lyrical – and demonstrated his observational faculties most acutely – when he talked about the Dublin he loves – and specifically about the “special and unique quality of the bricks of which so much of Georgian Dublin is built.”
Their “colours range from rosy pink through cadium yellow and yellow ochre to a chalky texture and madder and burnt sienna – and patches, tiny patches, of a strangely aquatic darkly shining purplish blue that seems to be picked out only by the light of certain late summer evenings.”
For a writer, there are two stages to every observation. First, note the detail that strikes your eye and your mind and your imagination. And then, find the words that best describe it.
Banville has a ferocious ability to do both of these things.
Finally, the BBC interviewer remarked on the notoriety of Banville’s habit of looking back at his work and finding fault with it. His reply is worth bearing in mind in those moments when we curse the lacklustre product of our brilliant imaginations. (It’s as though we spin straw out of the gold of our raw material.)
“I set out for perfection, and I can’t have perfection…” he said. “You know, all works of art are failures, all human endeavours are failures. That’s no comfort to me.. Every time I start a book I feel in that completely irrational way that writers have that this one is going to be the absolute masterpiece. The other part of my brain knows that it’s just going to be another damned book that I’ll hate when it’s finished.”