The author event at the Free Library last night - featuring John Banville, Sebastian Barry amd Colm Toibin - was maybe the best such event I've ever attended. All three writers read spectacularly well. The music was there, of course, as one one would expect, what with their lilting voices, but so was everything else - drama, poetry, humor and heartbreak.
Banville took some heat earlier this year, when he remarked, upon winning the Man Booker Prize for The Sea, that "It is nice to see a work of art win. . . . " Spend five minutes with John Banville, though, and you'll know how drolly this line must have been delivered. All three of these guys are down-to-earth, unpretentious, funny, and engaging.
Banville read a wistful, lyrical section of The Sea, his tone soft, sad, almost dreamy. Toibin read, in a formal, stately voice, the passage from The Master where Henry James consigns the clothes of his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, who has committed suicide, to the waters of Venice's lagoon. Barry chose one of the most harrowing scenes from A Long Long Way - the Irish soldiers' first encounter with mustard gas (the novel is set during World War I) - and read it accordingly, his voice rising as the tide of terror stalks the fleeing troops. The audience reaction was palpable.
Afterwards, the three sat and fielded questions, and I think I learned more about the art of novel writing in that half hour than I had in all the decades preceding. Asked if a particular character in one of his novels was based on a real woman, Banville explained that all of his characters "come from me." Barry concurred, pointing out that even if the character has a model in real life, the character still must talk through the writer himself, must have become an integral part of himself. He was responding to a question about the title-chacacter of his novel Annie Dunn, an elderly spinster. The real Annie Dunn was Barry's great-aunt. He explained that his parents, while wonderful people, were not especially good at parenting. So he and his siblings spent a good deal of time with their Aunt Annie. And Barry said he soon realized that this woman, so nondescript in her print dress, with a slight hunchback because of polio, and with no children of her own, had a deep and genuine talent for mothering. He told how years later, when he was out rowing, he could suddenly hear her. "It was," he said, "one of the proudest moments of my life when I could hear talking through me."
Toibin pointed out that if, while writing a novel, you try to give voice to a grand idea or theme, you're in deep trouble and should really write a pamphlet.
Barry said living in Ireland was good for writers because tthe weather was so often bad: It gives them plenty of reason to stay inside and write. And Toibin, asked if hi-tech had had any influence on novel-writing, said no. He writes with a pen and ink in long hand on paper. He rarely goes to films and almost never watches TV. He did think the electric light was of lasting benefit.
A wonderful night. And all for free.