Barry: On the issue of style (which every critic seems obliged to mention when discussing your works), I’d like to offer a fairly well-known quote from Cyril Connolly, a figure you’ve considered in a number of your reviews. It’s from Enemies of Promise, in which (as you know) he undertakes the fairly arbitrary division of writers into Vernacular and Mandarin:
“The Mandarin style […] beloved by […] those who would make the written word as unlike as possible to the spoken one. It is the style of those writers whose tendency is to make their language convey more than they mean or more than they feel.”
What’s your view of Connolly’s pronunciamento in the light of your own work, which many might see as belonging to the Mandarin tradition?
Banville: First of all, I hope it doesn’t seem that I am trying to make the written word as unlike as possible to the spoken one. In fact, my style strikes me as a form of inward rhetoric, a rhythmical chanting that is very close to the way in which we all speak inside our heads. Nor do I try to make my language convey more than my narrators mean or feel. My aim is to write in a clear, straightforward style, and I am bold enough to believe that I occasionally achieve some success in that regard. There is not a sentence anywhere in my work which, in terms of syntax, grammar and vocabulary, would not be understood by an eight-year-old equipped with a dictionary. I would not expect a child to absorb the nuances of meaning and suggestion in those sentences, but I do strive to make them as clear as mirror-glass, with all the ambiguity that implies. The Mandarin’s gown would sit very awkwardly on my frame.
Barry: In a review of The Sea in Prospect magazine, your Irish Times colleague Fintan O’Toole seems to suggest that your wish to avoid stereotypically ‘Irish’ topics paradoxically makes you “so recognisably an Irish writer.”
Yet The Sea, as with so many of your other works I’ve read, seems acutely aware of the dirty (open) secret of Irish life: class. The young Max Morden describes climbing the tiers of petty society in the seaside resort as “ascending a ziggurat.” Class is not so much a nightmare Morden wishes to wake up from–it is his petit bourgeois status he wishes to escape. Is there any validity to this reading?
Banville: Yes, I suppose The Sea does have some things to say about class, but not in any social-commentatory way. The gap between the world of the Graces and of Max’s parents is meant only to heighten the poignancy of young Max’s love for Connie and then Chloe, and is certainly not intended to make comment on the realities of Irish life. I believe I’m recognisably an Irish writer because I write in Hiberno-English, a literary patois which I find wonderfully rich in poetic ambiguity.
Barry: A character in Aldous Huxley’s Point-Counterpoint, who works in that nebulous profession, literary journalism, famously reflected that “A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.” Given your own extensive reviewing and the recent hoopla over your negative assessment of Ian McEwan’s Saturday, how much of the novelist&a
pos;s travails do you keep in mind when passing judgement?
Banville: I remember that Huxley line–Cyril Connolly frequently made the same point–and I agree with it. As I emphasised in my review of Saturday, it afforded me no pleasure to say the things about the book that I did. I am acutely aware of the labour and sometimes anguish that goes into the making of a novel, and I would not lightly dismiss even the poorest effort in the genre–and whatever might be said about that review, it was not written lightly. It pains me to criticise a colleague’s work, although I have no doubt Ian McEwan would consider himself a colleague of mine only in the most strictly technical sense. Sometimes, however, one has to say clearly and loudly what one thinks. The novel is taken less and less seriously these days, and one has a duty of care for the poor old battered medium.
Barry: Finally, who do you rate among your peers in the fiction-writing business?
Banville: Always an invidious question. I will give a conditional answer. I think the early death of W.G. Sebald was a disaster for literature. He was doing something entirely new, forging a novel synthesis–all puns intended–and I believe would have done wonders, had he lived. His death is the most significant event in contemporary letters.