Wednesday, January 16, 2008

John Banville (and a nod towards Philip Larkin)

Our greatest living writer surely - or at least one of the top two or three (Thomas Kinsella and Derek Mahon being the others). There was a portrait of Banville on the excellent Arts Lives series on RTE1 last night. He came across as intelligent and engaging with a fine line in rueful self-deprecation. At one stage he slagged his younger self for writing some line that his mature self would not have countenanced ("I am therefore I think" or some such from "Birchwood"). He also said that his work was not biographical at all because he could find no subject matter is his upbringing. This is very much in contrast to his contemporary John McGahern whose work always seems autobiographical. It also goes against Graham Greene's belief that childhood is capital for a writer. Banville had a dig at Greene, that vinegary old fraud, over his high-handed hijacking of the GPA awards a few years back - and took particular delight in a photograph of Greene glaring balefully at him.

Also, I do prefer Banville's ornate writing to McGahern's spare prose. And his urban worldly milieus to McGahern's rural realism. (Much as I admire McGahern, I found myself hurrying past that scene in "That He May Face the Rising Sun" where he describes preparing a corpse for burial.)

Some of Banville's best writing is to be found in the New York Review of Books where he is a perceptive but not always kind critic. He eviscerated Ian McEwan's "Saturday" early last year and had a pop at sacred cow Hilary Mantel as well. He can also be appreciative when he encounters the real thing, as in the case of Philip Larkin:

"And, pace Eliot, Larkin was—is—a great poet. Poems such as "The Whitsun Weddings," "Show Saturday," "The Old Fools," "Church Going," these are the epics of our time. Yet for anyone who has not yet read this wonderful poet, it might be best to begin not on those peaks, but with, for example, the tiny poem "Cut Grass," one of the most nearly perfect lyrics in the language, plangent with the sense of summer's loveliness and the finality of dusty death:

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,
White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer's pace.

Or the heartbreakingly tender "Faith Healing," a poem that no true misogynist could have written:

Slowly the women file to where he stands
Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair,
Dark suit, white collar. Stewards tirelessly
Persuade them onwards to his voice and hands,
Within whose warm spring rain of loving care
Each dwells some twenty seconds. Now, dear child,
What's wrong, the deep American voice demands,
And, scarcely pausing, goes into a prayer
Directing God about this eye, that knee.
Their heads are clasped abruptly; then, exiled
Like losing thoughts, they go in silence; some
Sheepishly stray, not back into their lives
Just yet; but some stay stiff, twitching and loud
With deep hoarse tears, as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice
At last calls them alone, that hands have come
To lift and lighten; and such joy arrives
Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd
Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice—
What's wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:
By now, all's wrong. In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache,
As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps,
Spreads slowly through them—that, and the voice above
Saying Dear child, and all time has disproved.