Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A night to cherish ...

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.


  1. Anonymous5:45 PM

    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.

    Then what is the point of writing a novel? Should it only be intended for light entertainment?

  2. The point is to let the characters live their lives in a natural way, not turn them into them mannikins to hang a theory on. If the character is such that he or she thinks grand thoughts, well and good. That's the way that character is. Journalism has declined largely because too many people have go into it who would have been better off going to seminary or taking up social work. The same holds true for many writers. What Colm was saying is similar to something Noel Coward said: "The theatre should be treated with respect. The theatre is a wonderful place, a house of strange enchantment, a temple of illusion. What it most emphatically is not and never will be is a scruffy, ill-lit, fumed-oak drill hall serving as a temporary soap box for political propaganda." Fiction should portray the world, not undertake to change it.

  3. Anonymous6:45 PM

    You are a lucky man, I would have loved to have attended!

  4. Anonymous9:57 PM

    I really wish I had attended. Sounds like an amazing panel.

  5. Anonymous3:06 PM

    I attended this reading too, and it was very rewarding. Frank (who is, it should be said, my editor!) introduced the writers beautifully, paying tribute to the music in their language, which I think is probably the one aspect of writing that Irish writers tend to have over everybody else. I went because I wanted to hear John Banville read from The Sea -- a novel about memory with gorgeous descriptions like poetry -- but for me the real treat was hearing Sebastian Barry, who I'd never even heard of before that evening. He sang a song, said that novels are like a letter written from a stranger to a stranger (lovely!), and read from his new book in a lively and engaging way. Even acted out his characters' varying accents. I can't wait to read his stuff. Incidentally, the last event I can remember attending at the Free Library was with another Irish writer, Nuala O'Faolain. She spoke frankly about feminism in Ireland and how she came to love herself despite a really tough childhood. Very moving. I too liked what Banville said about the "point" of writing novels. I think what he meant to say was that setting out to make some big statement would surely set a writer up to fail. All the big lessons are hiding in our
    everyday lives, anyway -- the trick is to capture the everyday so well that the reader has a chance to consider those big ideas in a new way.

  6. Anonymous5:18 PM

    Fiction should portray the world, not undertake to change it.

    I agree good fiction often does portray the world. In portraying it, I think the writer is hoping if not to change the world then to maybe open people's minds and have them look at things from another perspective. I think this is one of the main motivations for being a writer, whether it's of great plays, books or even light-hearted fiction. Look at Mark Twain or Douglas Adams, even heavier novels like War and Peace or anything by Dickens, all certainly had a point to make.

    Having said that, it is tiresome to only hear either the far left or far right party-line view on any given subject and in this regard I agree with your views on journalism where a blatant bias is as clear as the pencilled-on glasses and moustache on the face of the President wielding a machete while randomly hurling cans of mustard gas or cartoons of a certain Massachusets Senator sun-bathing on the banks of the Chappaquiddick.

    Is there no middle ground?

  7. Sigh...sounds like a wonderful event. Thanks for sharing with those of us who couldn't be there.

  8. I'm currently reading The Sea and finished The Master just last week.

    I thought Toibin's book was grand and fascinating (and a bit better than David Lodge's Henry James novel Author. Author.) and I'm enjoying Banville's prize winner, although I don't think it quite measures up to The Untouchable (but I shouldn't really compare them as they are different sorts of novel).

    What a wonderful event to be at. I went to a Paul Auster reading, when Oracle Night was published in the UK, and was stunned by how funny his writing was when he read it. I'd always used a serious, sad tone for my inner ear when reading his work.

  9. I don't know if it's so much a middle ground we have to seek, Noel, as it is a proper orientation. I am a huge fan of Ibsen, widely thought to be an "issues-oriented" writer. Obviously, though, it isn't the "issues" that keep Ibsen's plays eminently watchable. That's because the concern wioth issues in Ibsen's plays derives from his profound insight into human character. Take Dr. Stockman in An Enemy of the People. A superficial reading of the play would have him as a brave and solitary idealist pitted against unscrupulous authorities. A closer and more accurate reading, however, reveals how self-centered, unfeeling, and despotic he is. He's another of those who is always right and never lies. That his discovery will cause ruin to the town doesn't interest him at all. The greatness of Ibsen's play lies in how it shows that character not only shapes but often mis-shapes both ideals and those who profess them. It is an unsettling message. Ideas are wonderful, issues can be fascinating - and, in real life, often crucial - but all pale in comparison to the complexity and ambiguity of human character and motive. It is art, not politics or science or philosophy, that has the power to illuminate that character and motive and by so doing shed light on the rest, revealing aboive all that there are rarely simple, clearcut solutions to the problems we face.

  10. Anonymous12:29 PM

    The greatness of Ibsen's play lies in how it shows that character not only shapes but often mis-shapes both ideals and those who profess them.

    How can anyone argue with that? Look at the Middle East where ideals are being misused to seduce young, idealistic minds into thinking violence is the only way to fight for those things they hold dear.

    Art is a very high expression and is often found in unexpected places. My wife among other things is a fine art sculptor and she believes strongly that you cannot have art without craft. In other words, if you put a ball on a stick and bronze it and have a spiel that makes it sound very meaningful, this is not art. This is b.s. and it's lazy. Maybe in the beginning you are inspired, but she feels you have to be willing to work to express that inspiration to bring it to life.

    I think art is best when it stimulates the emotions as well as the mind. Even if you gasp and say, "How beautiful!" that's an emotion. Even if you are repelled or intrigued you are experiencing an emotion. Art without emotion is like a planet without a sun, or a body without a conscience.

    As Albert Einstein felt: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery— even if mixed with fear— that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man."

  11. Noel - Several thoughts: First, your wife is absolutely correct. One of the things I noticed in speaking with John, Sebastian and Colm is that all three understand writing as being fundamentally a matter of craft. And pleasure in the craft - the how of the work - enhances the pleasure taken in the work as a whole. I remember being transported by a detail of a Sargent watercolor, overwhelmed at how much he was able to convey with what amounted to little more than a smudge (and if I had done it, that's exactly what it would have amounted to - a smudge).
    Second, I am impressed by how this thread, this dialogue, has got me nearer to an understanding of the matter under discussion than just sitting around by myself pondering it ever would.
    And finally, what Einstein said about mystery reminds me of something Thomas Aquinas said: "All things run into mystery." As Einstein suggests mystery is best contemplated, not penetrated.