Monday, September 10, 2012

John Banville and Esther Freud

Esther Freud by Lucien Freud
These two did readings at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, last Saturday as part of the Mountains to Sea Book Festival.  There was such a predominance of women in attendance that I was forced to ask the usher whether it was a women only occasion.  The book club phenomenon I suppose - although women are more tolerant in general of the pretentious twaddle that sometimes obtains at these affairs.  I was encouraged by Banville's presence as he usually provides a cold douche of realism with a tincture of world-weary cynicism.  He didn't let me down.

The pair were introduced by a luvvie called Dearbhla Crotty in a bright red dress. She was palpably nervous.  Surprisingly for an actress she needed cue cards to perform this perfunctory role.  The format was simple, each writer did a brief reading (around 10 minutes) and this was followed by a Q and A session.  Freud, a leggy, attractive and very English girl went first.  She's Lucien Freud's daughter and I'm afraid I couldn't get her naked image out of my head - I'd seen his painting of her at his recent show in London.  She read from Lucky Break her 2011 novel set in the theatre world, which she knows from experience. Worthy stuff and mildly entertaining I'm sure.  However the problem is in the juxtapositioning.  Banville steps up to the plinth and it's clear immediately that we're in the presence of a vastly superior wordsmith.  He reads from his recent book Ancient Light.  His language is fresh, forceful and free of cliche: "soften the wax of sealed convictions", "wisps of intimation" or when he refers to swallows "inscribing in the sky a series of ideograms".  The mismatch reminds me of that famous back stage scene in the Dylan documentary Don't Look Back when Donovan's fey rendition of Catch the Wind is blown out of the water by Dylan's riposte: an all-guns-blazing version of It's All Over Now Blue. 

And afterwards we get the Q and A where Banville (mainly) responds to soft lobs from the adoring audience.  One or two insights emerged into the man and his writing.  He doesn't do multiple drafts - he refines and polishes each sentence before he moves on, and then the refines and polishes each paragraph.  So when he reaches the end of his first draft, he's pretty well finished apart from a copy edit.  He also claimed not to be interested in character.  All the voices are his own.  He has little interest in humanity, considering it a virus upon the earth that could well be gone in fifty years time.  The only character he expressed affection for was a dog called Rex.