Monday, February 18, 2008

Why does John Banville appeal to you?

Once in a while I pester K with a question. She first reminds me that I am baiting her and then, unfailingly, obliges by grabbing the bait. What follows below is her reply to my most recent question on John Banville. I warned her that I might convert it into a guest post and accustomed as she is to my threats, she granted me the indulgence as always.

Her words reassure (to me) the importance of reading and writing in individual development. No matter what the content or the form, words have the power to stretch at least one mind from its present dimensions. And so, we write, we read, we reply, we grow.
It is rather interesting to think that over the half dozen books I read last year, atleast three-fourths were by John Banville. The only 'break' from Banville was reading The Emperor's Children and The Common Reader series – just to see if other writers appeal to me the way Banville does. No, they don't. My Banville spree isn't over yet. I have Eclipse and Ghosts lined up next longing for a couple of four day weekends so that I can read in peace. Peace. Is that what I feel when I read a Banville book? What is it in his writing that draws me and makes me read more? You wanted to know "why the book appealed to you or why the author appeals to you, whatever." The answer to that, I'm afraid is tortuous. If there can be an answer at all. Most of what I wish to say might seem sentimental, but I remember Banville's words: "If you write honestly, you will not be sentimental..."

You probably read Banville because he is a stylish writer. Yes, he is. I fail to associate with that line of thought, though. Or rather, I fail to see how stylish prose alone would appeal to me. I have never been able to partake in the style or substance argument ever, because I can't see either side's point. You probably write down Banville words, because they are rarely used by anyone save Banville. I do that too, but that ends up being an amusing activity, a digression, that is all. I have made note of interesting and uncommon names appearing in fiction beginning with the letter O and a chunk of them coming from Trollope. But do I devour Trollope? No. He doesn't even come to my mind when someone asks me who my favorite writers are.

I remember us talking about the art connection to his books too. Yes, indeed. Bonnard in The Sea. Poussin in The Untouchable. I can distinctly recall those references to Chirico's sharp shadows and Magritte's clouds and Vermeer's portraits in Athena. Those are the finest descriptions of art I've read. Remember those seven elaborate descriptions of artwork that are fictitious? I couldn't for a second believe it was meticulously constructed forgery. His enthusiasm is contagious. And then the inter-textual allusions. I never understand those, except on very rare occasions. Nor do I take the trouble of searching for those allusions so that all pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. When I come across such activities, I make a note to pursue that myself, but I give up eventually. But are these a good enough reasons to revisit his books? Savour it the way I do now?

I realize that reading Banville is a kind of self-discovery. There were things that I felt, but couldn't understand. Or things I thought I understood, but when asked to defend or explain, I felt inadequate. Like now, like this instance when I'm trying to understand why I read his books. The first Banville book I read was The Book of Evidence, which introduced me to confessional narratives. The last Banville book I read was The Untouchable. I am not sure if you've read it: In the confessional narrative that he is so famous for, he narrates the double life of the bisexual Cambridge spy and art historian Victor Maskell. Between the two books, I don't see a world of difference. Middle aged men, trying to understand why they did those terrible crimes. What could narrators like those let me realize things about me that I don't know already? Do I enjoy confessional narratives and unreliable narrators? Do I enjoy the writers that Banville is compared to - Joyce and Beckett and Nabokov and Dostoyevsky? Joyce and Dostoyevsky I tossed aside after painful attempts, and Beckett and Nabokov I am reluctant to try. There is something I feel while reading Banville, which just doesn't happen when I'm reading anyone else.

I once scoffed when some one said books are aphrodisiacs. I considered it unholy, and I looked down upon that statement as though the speaker had committed sacrilege. But that is the closest any one can ever describe a Banville book. Some might find his style seductive and hold on to it. Yes, I find it attractive. But I realize I read him because I am curious about knowing myself. Some might call it "the book speaks down to me". No, it doesn't. That would be an inaccurate description. Impossible though it may sound, between those several passages of verbal jesting and ironic descriptions of the world around him, Banville writes that odd sentence every now and then, that makes me acutely feel, well, that electric throb and tingle.
"I am done with blaming anyone for anything. Except myself, that is. No, no end to that", he wrote in Athena. At that wee morning hour, as I held that book in my hand, I had magically transformed to the raving madman of a narrator. I shuddered as I read that. "But you tried to discard the commonplace truths for the transcendent ideals, and so failed." This was a few months before the Athena experience happened. Doctor Copernicus, it was. That instance, as I read these words across the printed page, I felt a voice in my head speak those words down to me simultaneously. It was something buried deep in me, some truth about myself, and it came out when I read those words. How could I ever do justice to how I felt then? How could I ever write about that experience which was at once exciting and frightening? "It is at such moments that I am most acutely aware of my conscious self, and feel the electric throb and tingle, the flimsiness and awful weight, of being a living, thinking thing." I can borrow his words.

PS: I read him because I am curious about knowing myself, wrote K. When I first read Banville a decade ago (I started with The Book of Evidence too), what stayed with me was the feeling that this man was documenting my mind. And that is why there was immense joy when he was shortlisted for and ultimately chosen as the winner of The Man Booker 2005. His style and his language deserve plentiful praise but one does not remember his books for merely those reasons as K rightly points out. So there, after a long long time, a post I loved putting up on this blog.


Ubermensch said...

Ha! marvellous. Recent reado is Prague pictures. And its a rererereado.

K. said...

Prague Pictures is sitting in the list. Will follow soon after Eclipse. Am curious if there are Kafka references.

L, thanks for taking the trouble of posting this.

Chenthil said...

Haven't read Banville but have to say this is one of the best posts I have read in recent times. Good Job K.