Thursday, February 21, 2008

Old Men Don't Read Novels (John Banville in UCD 20th Feb. 2008)

Banville modestly intruded himself into the lecture theatre about 10 minutes late. He was introduced by the auditor of the Philosophical Society - a smirking ingratiating creature in a tight suit – he reminded me of the young Alexi Sayle. A very unphilosophical looking figure. Unless of course hedonism is the dominant philosophical movement in UCD these days.

Banville began by making some stock joke about the North Side origin of his journey. “I’m a Northsider” he said – so he’s obviously disowned his Wexford origins.

He read quite rapidly from a prepared speech – occasionally his diction was unclear. He was dressed like a modest academic: sports jacket, light shirt, unassuming tie, all understated and unmemorable.

The first part of the lecture was a quick gallop through Beckett’s biography with several acknowledgements of Knowlson’s contribution. He obviously favours Knowlson’s biography over Tony Cronin’s. Some interesting observations about Beckett the lothario – describing how he had three women on the go at one period, including his future wife. He quoted the old one about Beckett declaring that “sex without love was like coffee without brandy”. He also mentioned that Beckett had an no nonsense utiliterian attitide about sex – he obviously liked coffee on its own as well.

He made much of Beckett’s appreciation and knowledge of art amd maintained that he would have made an excellent art critic. Beckett particularly liked Caspar David Friedrich’s “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” and cited it as an influence on “Waiting for Godot” – they have a tree in common anyway. He was also a big fan of Cezanne. This is an area well covered (and very interesting) in Knowlson’s biography. He saw in Cezanne’s work the fundemental incommensurability of man and nature – something Beckett’s work constantly asserts.

The main thrust of the lecture was a celebration of his mature masterpiece “Ill Seen Ill Said”. Banville claimed that one of the reasons he agreed to give the lecture was that he wanted us all to go out and read it. He also emphasised the role of Beckett as an exemplar for writers – he described him as a model of probity and tenacity and suggested that the hawk was a good comparison.

An interesting exchange, at least for Beckett geeks: Banville quoted Knowlson’s assertion that Beckett’s famous epiphany took place in his mother’s room rather than on Dun Laoghaire pier (this was the occasion when he realised that he would affirm the negative). He was in turn corrected by an elderly member of the audience who said that Beckett had told him that the epiphany actually took place on the pier in Greystones – within sight of his mother’s room. So now you know.

The whole thing may sound earnest and worthy but in fact it was well leavened with humour throughout (as indeed is Beckett’s work). He told the story of Beckett heading to Lords for a cricket match one gloriously sunny day when a friend turned to him and said “it’s great to be alive”. Becket paused for a second and retorted “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that”.

The session finished with a Q&A. When asked what he read these days, Banville replied that “old men don’t read novels” – a novel answer from our leading novelist. He reads mostly poetry and philosophy he claimed and mentioned Philip Larkin and Wallace Stevens.