Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
Longtime Millions reader Laurie sends in an account of her visit to the first annual Decatur Book Festival (with photos!) Sounds like a great event. The first annual Decatur Book Festival, held over Labor Day weekend, exceeded its organizers expectations. I know, because by Saturday afternoon they and the volunteers were grinning a lot and commenting to anyone who would listen how surprised they were. Bill Starr, director of the Georgia Center for the Book which hosted a bunch of speakers, never seemed to lose his smile. I was excited, because this was the first really large, general-interest book festival Atlanta has ever had. Crowds increased throughout each day and people continuously entered ongoing author talks (unless they were too packed), adding to the feeling that you were at an event of public interest as important as a town meeting or a political rally (except everyone was in a better mood). You had to squeeze through clumps of strollers winding past the dealer tents. Ron Rash (The World Made Straight) started with about 45 listeners at about 10:30 a.m. in the 200-something seat auditorium in the Decatur Library, and ended with over 60. At about 4 p.m., the Atlanta Journal Constitution panel filled the same auditorium. At the local Holiday Inn, there were long lines for signings by both pop-lit writers like Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and Pulitzer-winners like Robert Olen Butler (pictured above) (A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain).The city of Decatur (pronounced De-KAY-tur) is basically part of Atlanta. As of the year 2000 the city-within-a-city’s population density was 4,343 people per square mile, 65% white, 31% black, with a median household income of $47k. It has a great little downtown area with a public library and courthouse and a Holiday Inn conference center a few blocks from each other. That and the restaurants and funky shops make for nice strolling, but going back and forth to get from one author event to another at these places turned into a real workout. From about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day I ran, literally, to get to author appearances.The kickoff event, advertised as a “parade” led by the Cat in the Hat, consisted of a few costumed volunteers followed by a horde of kids down a city street to a small park. There, the mayor of Decatur and another volunteer read/enacted Green Eggs and Ham in an open-air tent too small to hold the overflow crowd. (pictured at right) No one complained, though — either because it was free or because the reading was pretty lively.The biggest problem (besides distance between venues) seemed to be too small spaces for the most popular authors. Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer) gave a talk in a courtroom that held less than 150 people, I think, nowhere near the number who were turned away (though they gave patient fans who couldn’t get in the first chance to get books signed when he finished talking). Pulitzer winner Edward P. Jones (The Known World) was put in an auditorium in the Holiday Inn conference center that held at most 110 seats (I counted). Fans filled the aisles and every open space for his talk. They sat quietly enthralled as he read a couple of stories from his latest collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Unlike some authors, he adopts the voices of his characters with an actor’s ability, and he had the audience laughing at words which on the page seemed more serious. He and other writers deserved a larger audience; maybe next year the organizers will get nearby Agnes Scott College to provide some larger auditoriums.The Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers held their annual fair in conjunction with the festival. One dealer had a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee on sale for $12,000, another had a first edition of Live & Let Die by Ian Fleming for $750. There were a lot of cheaper works, but even if you weren’t into first editions, it was fun to walk through and marvel at the beautiful bindings and old children’s books (I saw a bunch I wish I still had).Maybe the festival owes its success to the lack of big book festivals around here, or the higher level of education of the Decatur population (over 60% have college degrees); maybe the summer’s high gas prices made folks more frugal and disinclined to travel (the festival was free); maybe no one wanted to deal with traffic and so stayed close to home. The audiences skewed mostly to families and retired folks — I saw very few late teens/20-somethings, despite the nearby liberal arts college. Does the lack of MTV/GenX/Y readers bode ill for the future of books? Should publishers only aim at the very young or the very anchored?Whatever, I’m just glad that Atlanta finally has a big general interest book festival in a friendly location. It’s near a MARTA station, the city’s bus/rail transit system. There’s a lot of parking if you drive yourself. You can picnic under trees by the courthouse and listen to musicians perform at a gazebo (rocking blues, even!), and Sunday night they had fireworks. There’s restaurants and cafes nearby, and Eddie’s Attic, a longtime acoustic music club where Wesley Stace (Misfortune) and others performed. One of the cafes, the Red Brick Pub, has over 200 kinds of beer including local brews like Athens’ own Terrapin Rye Pale Ale (which we here in Athens are fond and proud of). Plus Jake’s Ice Cream was serving their seasonal honey-fig ice cream. I’ll go again next year.
Greensboro, North Carolina, is that true American anomaly – a place where there seem to be more people writing serious books than reading them. Pick your flavor – literary fiction, poetry, history, biography, memoir, true crime, sci fi and fantasy, young adult, chick lit, historical fiction, literary and music criticism – and you’ll find serious practitioners toiling quietly, often unaware of each other, in this sleepy city with a population of 225,000, five colleges, just a handful of surviving independent bookstores, and no formal literary scene to speak of. As with so many things in the South, you need to understand a bit of history before you can begin to understand how this curious state of affairs came to be.
Greensboro’s literary DNA winds back to the Civil War, when William Sydney Porter was born here in the summer of 1862. After doing three years in a federal penitentiary for embezzlement, Porter relocated to New York City and began churning out short stories under the pen name O. Henry. Though he is still read today for his clever plots and twist endings, the man suffered no illusions that he was producing high art. Writing, he once said, “is my way of getting money to pay room rent, to buy food and clothes and pilsener. I write for no other reason or purpose.” Admirably clear-eyed, but he should have gone a bit easier on the pilsener. He died of cirrhosis at the age of 47. Today his name graces a prestigious short story prize and the plushest hotel in his hometown.
Jump forward to the 1930s, when the esteemed poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, a member of the literary Fugitives at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, came to Greensboro to teach a summer session at what was then called the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. A number of Ransom’s colleagues and star pupils from Vanderbilt eventually made their way to Greensboro to teach, write and hang out, among them Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren. Only Jarrell stuck for the long haul, joining the Woman’s College English faculty in 1947 and staying on it, off and on, until he was fatally struck by a car near Chapel Hill in 1965. To this day, no one knows for sure if his death was an accident or a suicide.
Shortly after arriving in town, Jarrell dubbed the Woman’s College campus “Sleeping Beauty” and gushed to his friend Lowell about the place’s cardinal virtue: “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” Unlike more famous literary meccas, such as New York City, Provincetown, Iowa City, Key West, Oxford, Miss., and even the nearby “Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, unassuming Greensboro may be the best of all possible worlds for a writer – an under-the-radar place where one can work in peace, but can also find camaraderie and support from others engaged in what will always be a grindingly lonely pursuit. The gifted southern journalist and biographer Marshall Frady once explained to his editor at Harper’s magazine, fellow southerner Willie Morris, why he preferred living quietly in the South to basking in the dazzle of New York City:
I’ve never been too sure that it is benign for a writer to spend any great length of time in the company of New York’s estate of appraisers from afar and traffickers in reactions and responses. Because maybe you start after awhile writing from those secondary vibrations, instead of from the primary pulses and shocks you can’t afford to lose. Perhaps writers ought to be scattered out over the land… more or less lost in the life of the country, not special aesthetic creatures apart from most men but only another suburbanite, another townsman, another farmer, who just have this secret eccentricity of an obsession to write…
Frady’s words resonated with me when I first read them 30 years ago and they still resonate with me today. The reason, no doubt, is that when I wrote my two published novels I happened to be working as just another newspaperman in Greensboro, and the place left me alone wonderfully to do my “real” writing when I wasn’t working my day job. It was, as Jarrell had learned half a century before me, a dream set-up for a writer.
The year Jarrell died, as it happened, the creative writing program began offering a Master of Fine Arts degree at newly renamed UNC-Greensboro, now a co-ed school. The small faculty was headed by the poet Robert Watson, the short story master Peter Taylor, and Fred Chappell, prolific writer of poetry, fiction and criticism who would become the state’s poet laureate and a renowned nurturer of young talent. Chappell, now 75, is retired from teaching but he’s still writing and still living on a shady street a few blocks from campus.
“The MFA program has exploded,” he told me recently. “A lot of the writers don’t leave town after they graduate, they stick around. There’s always somebody to drink with even though there’s never been a satisfactory literary bar in this town.” Echoing Jarrell’s discovery, and mine, he added, “People leave you alone if you want them to.”
One writer who stuck around is Drew Perry, who graduated from the MFA program in 1999, still lives near campus, and recently published This Is Just Exactly Like You, which has been short-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction. I asked Perry why he didn’t go off to New York after getting his degree. “Because I was incredibly poor and I didn’t have anything to show publishers,” he said, adding that the short stories he wrote to get his MFA were “not ready for prime time.”
So he stayed in Greensboro, working on stories and a novel, doing home repair jobs, eventually landing a gig teaching creative writing at nearby Elon University in Burlington. Eventually he started placing stories in literary journals, and in the fall of 2008 an agent signed him up. Six weeks later Viking bought his novel at auction. Perry is now married to Tita Ramirez, a fellow student at UNCG, and they have a 3-month old son, Tomas.
“I still have that community of support,” says Perry, who grew up in Atlanta and earned a degree in advertising from the University of Georgia, where he took his first creative writing courses as an undergraduate. “My neighbors in Greensboro are the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. It felt like the MFA program continued after I graduated. What I learned (at UNCG) is that there’s a difference between wanting to be a writer and writing. I love Greensboro and, yes, it’s too sleepy. There’s nothing specific to recommend it. But it’s just big enough and it’s just small enough.”
Candace Flynt, a Greensboro native and early graduate of the MFA program, still lives in town, writing fiction and memoirs. And then there’s a whole flock of writers who have nothing to do with the MFA program. Parke Puterbaugh, who is now enjoying a major success with his book Phish: The Biography, about the popular jam band, said, “If you’re sufficiently motivated and self-directed, Greensboro’s a nice mid-sized city with decent bars, restaurants and culture – but not an overwhelming mix of things to swamp your concentration.” Bill Trotter is the wildly prolific and versatile author of histories, biographies, novels, reviews, essays and, for good measure, columns about computer games. His philosophy: “Adopt a blue-collar attitude and write for whatever and whoever will pay you for your time, sweat and expertise.” Mark Mathabane was teaching at N.C. A&T State University when his memoir about growing up in South Africa, Kaffir Boy, became an international best-seller. Jerry Bledsoe was working as the local newspaper columnist when he wrote a true-crime book called Bitter Blood that became a #1 New York Times best-seller. The late Burke Davis lived here while writing many of his more than 50 published works of history, fiction and biography. Robert Watson still lives here, as do the accomplished writers Marianne Gingher, Lee Zacharias, Michael Gaspeny and too many others to name.
Orson Scott Card, two-time winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and best known for Ender’s Game, is perhaps Greensboro’s one brand-name author. He’s also a prolific contributor to a local free weekly newspaper called The Rhino Times, in which he writes copious, cranky musings on everything from current politics to cookies, squirrels, movies and global warming.
Today Greensboro itself is something of a Sleeping Beauty, less a true city than a well groomed but slightly overgrown town. It is a thoroughly middling place, blessed with mild winters, governed by aggressively moderate leaders, populated by citizens whose civic pride and self-satisfaction can sometimes shade toward smugness. The town is located squarely in the center of the state’s rolling Piedmont, midway between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic beaches, a place so at-home in its own skin that it never developed the big-league pretensions of Raleigh to the east or Charlotte to the west. It’s content with its new minor-league ballpark and downtown public library, its respectable symphony orchestra, its one renowned art museum.
Most of the state’s bold-face writers live or teach in the Triangle, including Reynolds Price, the novelist Lee Smith and her essayist husband Hal Crowther, Jill McCorkle, Kaye Gibbons and many others. It was there, in the writer’s mecca of Hillsborough, that the late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette dared to publish a novel in 2002 that lampooned his neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus. The ensuing literary cat fight – there were charges of everything from elitism to homophobia, the two unpardonable sins of our age – merited several buckets of ink from the Raleigh News & Observer. Such hot-house foolishness would be unthinkable in lukewarm, mannerly Greensboro.
Or maybe Greensboro’s exposures to the limelight have left its residents – writers and non-writers alike – relieved that the town is so rarely in the news. It was in downtown Greensboro that four black students from N.C. A&T State University had the audacity to sit at the whites-only F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in February of 1960, a gesture that enraged many whites, inspired many blacks, and helped ignite the civil rights movement. And it was in Greensboro in November of 1979 that five communist organizers were shot dead by Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis at a “Death to the Klan” rally, leaving the city deeply traumatized. These two visitations of klieg-light glare were, respectively, noble and brutal; they were also utterly out of character in this city that has always prided itself on its willingness to compromise, to accommodate, and to get along. Greensboro, after all, is the site of one of the South’s first universities built for African-Americans during Reconstruction, and it was one of the first Southern cities to willingly and peaceably integrate its public schools after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954. Greensboro, as Marshall Frady wrote about South Carolina in a slightly different context, “seemed merely to lack the vitality for any serious viciousness. It was as if its defense were a colossal torpor.”
Torpor is a funny thing. While most people find it stifling, many writers find it alluring, even necessary. The cliche of the writer toiling in his remote shack, much like the reality of Philip Roth toiling in his remote New England retreat, are two equally valid illustrations of the writing life’s solitary nature. And Greensboro’s genial brand of torpor goes a long way toward explaining the place’s allure to writers – both to the young ones who keep coming here to launch their careers, and to the established ones who work here, quietly, often apart, usually alone. There’s a sense here that if your writing is not always avidly read by your neighbors, at least its making is regarded with genuine respect by them. Al Brilliant, owner of one of the town’s few surviving independent bookstores, expressed this perfectly: “People treat writers as workers here.” Not as special aesthetic creatures, not as eccentrics or pariahs or freaks, but as people who work hard to make worthwhile things. That’s an intangible but vital thing for any writer to feel, and I’ve lived in dozens of places in America where it was utterly absent, and sorely missed.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that in a country of flowering creative writing programs, UNCG’s is consistently ranked among the top 25 by Poets & Writers magazine. While this is not the place to debate the merits of such programs – are they incubating genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life? – there is no doubt that the UNCG program’s rich history and its continuing reputation for quality are a spring that keeps replenishing the city’s literary life.
“One thing that’s really strong with our program is the sense of community,” says Jim Clark, who came to Greensboro in the 1960s to organize textile workers and now runs the MFA program and edits its respected twice-yearly literary journal, The Greensboro Review. “We bring in people like Robert Pinsky and John Irving and Joshua Ferris, and the town people come to these events. We do writing workshops for all ages, from at-risk kids to the elderly. We do benefit readings to raise money for the Food Bank and for homeless people. We’ve tried to organize a community of writers that extends beyond the campus.” He waved at the nearby neighborhood known as College Hill. “There’s people out there who sit on their porches and talk about books, and drink together, and peck away in their rooms.”
To most people, that probably sounds like a working definition of colossal torpor. To a writer, it sounds like heaven.
(Image: Carolina Theater (1927), 310 South Greene Street, Greensboro, North Carolina, image from sminor’s photostream)
My relationship with John Banville is a strange and unnatural one. In some odd sense I can’t quite identify, I often think that it might even be an unseemly one. A few months back, I finished a Ph.D., having written my thesis on Banville’s fiction. It took me about four years to complete, which means that over that period—at a rough calculation along the lines of a 42 hour working week and a 50 week working year—I spent something in the region of 8,400 hours engaged in activities that were directly Banville-related. 8,400 hours: that’s basically the equivalent of an entire calendar year spent reading his novels, thinking about them, reading and thinking about other academics’ opinions of them, formulating my own opinions, and thinking of clever things to write based on them. There’s nothing remarkable, of course, about a person spending a non-trivial portion of his or her life writing a doctoral thesis about the work of a single writer (university English departments are full of such misfits) but it is presumably fairly unusual for a person to spend four years writing a doctoral thesis on the work of someone who is not only still living and writing, but doing so within a couple of minutes’ walk from where that thesis is being written.
Dublin is a fairly small city. While I was working on my thesis in Trinity College, it wasn’t unusual for me to leave the library to go for a sandwich somewhere and to pass Banville on the street. It happened more than once that I would be having lunch and he would enter the restaurant and sit down a couple of tables away, or walk past the window with his fedora, his large and quaintly flamboyant scarf, and his mysterious canvas carrier bag. (Containing what? Groceries? Surely not. Books, most likely, but then why would Banville be carrying around books? Where would he be taking them, and to whom?) When this happened, I would usually nod casually and discretely in his direction and say to my lunch companion something like “there goes the boss man,” or “there’s the gaffer now.” It amused me, for some reason, to think of myself as a low-level functionary, labouring away obscurely for years, scrutinizing texts and producing a complex 100,000 word response unlikely to be read by more than a tiny handful of specialists, as though this were a service for which I had been engaged by an eminent and enigmatic novelist.
I had also convinced myself that it amused me to be utterly unknown to Banville, and yet to be spending my working days doing nothing but thinking about his novels. But I’m not sure it really did amuse me. I think it felt a little indecorous; even, perhaps, a little shameful. I sometimes joked about feeling a bit like a stalker, but I wasn’t always entirely sure that I was joking.
It wouldn’t have felt so strange to be writing a thesis about the work of Bellow or Dickinson or Joyce or Woolf, because these are no longer men and women, as such, but historical figures, Great Writers, bodies of work to be read and thought about and, if you’re so inclined, interpreted. Even, as we say in the lit-crit racket, “working on” a living writer like, say, Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo would not carry with it this faint but indelible stain of unseemliness, because these people are remote, semi-legendary figures, securely encased in their reputations and, more importantly, their foreignness. Even if I lived in Manhattan and were writing a thesis on Thomas Pynchon, I would be unlikely to find myself standing behind him in the queue for the ATM (and even if I did, it is highly unlikely that I would realize it).
But while I was working on him, Banville was everywhere. My period of postgraduate research coincided with his ascension to a level of fame and visibility he hadn’t previously inhabited (not long before I started writing my thesis, he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea). He was giving readings from as-yet-unpublished novels across the square from the library where I was writing about his published ones. He was curating exhibitions of eighteenth century etchings in galleries on the other side of town. He was getting into public squabbles with crime novelists for writing a highly successful series of mysteries under a pseudonym and bragging about how easy he found it (Banville has always seemed to enjoy mixing it up). At one point, presumably undergoing a particularly severe bout of inter-project restiveness, he was even embroiled in a weirdly out-of-character controversy over vivisection at the School of Medicine at Trinity. The spat became a minor news story, culminating in J.M. Coetzee’s weighing in on his behalf in the letters pages of The Irish Times, and involved his taking part in a small but vocal protest by animal rights campaigners outside the college, which I had to pass one day on my way to the library. Surely Richard Ellmann never had to pass Joyce on a picket line; surely Boswell was never called a scab by Dr. Johnson? (Nobody called me a scab, I should clarify—and neither am I seriously comparing myself to Boswell or Ellmann, or Banville to Johnson or Joyce—but the image is an amusing one, so I’ll let it stand).
For four years, the question I was inevitably asked by anyone who happened to express an interest in what I was doing with my life was this one: “Have you met Banville yet?” It’s a question I got slicker at answering the more I was asked it, until it became a sort of automated response. It was always some minor variation on the following basic template: “No,” I would say, “I haven’t. In fact, I’ve sort of been avoiding him. I’ve been in the same room as him quite a few times, at readings and that kind of thing. I’ve passed him on the street Christ knows how many times—Dublin is a small town, after all—but I’ve never felt inclined to speak to him, to introduce myself. To be honest, I don’t think it would do me or my work any good. I don’t think a critic should have too close a relationship with the writer he’s writing about, or better still any relationship at all. Why would Banville’s opinion of my opinion about his work have any bearing on those opinions, when you think about it? It’s not about what he thinks of me, it’s about what I think of him. Interviewing him would just compromise the integrity of my work.”
This last phrase I always delivered in an ironic, jocular staccato, as though acknowledging the pretentiousness of such a notion, as though highlighting the absurdity of the idea of my work having anything like integrity (I have this highly irritating habit of being dismissive of my own endeavours, and then immediately feeling as though I’ve slighted myself unforgivably). Like a lot of things we say to people, I suppose I both believed this and disbelieved it at the same time. Ambivalence was always the dominant affect of my thesis-writing years.
Behind the jokes about stalking Banville lay a real discomfort with the fact that I was spending so much time thinking about him and writing about him—or thinking about his fiction, at least, which may or may not amount to the same thing. He is, I think, a fascinating novelist, and among the more important presences in contemporary literature, and so it makes perfect sense for there to be a considered academic response to his work (there’s loads of it, by the way, which, given his stature and his prolificacy and the finely-textured allusiveness of his writing, isn’t surprising). It also makes sense that I, as a scholar in the early stages of my career, should choose Banville as the subject of my apprentice work, because I am provoked and perplexed by it in intellectually productive ways and, even now, after all the time I’ve spent with it, still derive real pleasure from reading it. He is, I think, a great writer, and may even turn out to be a Great Writer. But he is also just a guy, and this is something that his physical proximity to me—the fact that I kept passing him on the street—made very difficult to ignore. I often asked myself what it might feel like to know that, somewhere in your city, a person with whom you are entirely unacquainted is spending his days writing a psychoanalytic examination of your life’s work. I was eking out an existence for myself—you couldn’t quite call it a living—through government-funded scholarships that were contingent upon the value to society, however hypothetical, of my interpretation of Banville’s fiction. I did occasionally have an unpleasant image of myself as a parasite living off a large animal who was innocent of my unobtrusively, harmlessly blood-sucking presence. You can have a certain image of yourself and then reject it, but you’ve still had that image: it has come from somewhere. I would have been a lot less uncomfortable had I been working on someone who was dead. (The morticianary insinuations of that sentence were not intended, but they are discomfitingly apt. It is only now, in fact—as in right this second—that I finally fully get Banville’s biographer-as-embalmer joke in The Newton Letter.)
Strangely, when I did finally end up sitting down and having a conversation with him just a couple of months ago, his first reaction to my telling him that I had written my thesis on his work was to apologize for not being dead. I laughed, but made no comment on the spooky perceptiveness of his joke.
“You must absolutely despise me,” he said. I told him—truthfully—that I had somehow managed not to. What I didn’t tell him was that he had often, indirectly at least, given me occasion to despise myself. The awkward ambivalence of my psychological relationship with him, though, was not something I thought it wise to bring up over mini salmon vol-au-vents and room temperature white wine. I had not planned the meeting; in fact, I had had no idea that it would be happening until a couple of hours beforehand. I had received an email from my former Ph.D. supervisor, who had himself just received an email requesting, as a matter of extreme urgency, that someone—anyone—volunteer themselves to conduct a public interview with Banville that evening in a lecture hall in University College Dublin. He was due to receive an honorary lifetime membership of the university’s Law Society that evening, and whoever had initially been scheduled to handle the interview aspect of the proceedings had to cancel at the last minute, and they were now desperately looking for someone who could pull it off at short notice. I wasn’t sure that I was necessarily their guy but, deliberately denying myself any time to think about it, I rang the number anyway, and two hours later I was sitting in the UCD staff bar with the boss man, making small talk. (Against all reasonable expectations, Banville is really very good at small talk.)
While acknowledging that he would be unlikely to conceive of it in the same way, I had always imagined our eventual meeting would be a kind of lower-intensity literary version of that café sit-down scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, in which Pacino and De Niro appear on screen together for the first time. (In moments of greater clarity I understood that, at best, it would be an episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio, with me as a less polished and fulsome James Lipton). The way it panned out, though, not even I could fool myself into sensing any kind of frisson of tension or significance. Banville appeared not to have any particular interest in the topic of my thesis—or at least if he did, he managed not to betray it by asking me any questions on the matter. I was both slightly disappointed and slightly relieved by this. The thesis was entitled “Narcissism in the Fiction of John Banville”, and so there was always the slight but non-negligible possibility that he might understand the whole project to be a long-winded and tortuous accusation of self-obsession and vanity on his part. Even if he didn’t take it personally, there was a chance—far less slight and non-negligible—that he would consider the whole approach facile or wrong-headed or obtuse or in some other way completely beside the point. I had absolute confidence in my work, but—as paradoxical as this might sound (and probably is)—less than absolute confidence in my ability to maintain that confidence in the face of any degree of criticism or dismissal from of its subject. Now that I think about it, it’s likely that Banville had similar reasons for not asking me about it.
Apropos the issue of my spending (give or take) four years reading, thinking about and writing about his writing, he mentioned having interviewed Salman Rushdie for the New York Review of Books in about 1993, at the very height of the fatwa. He spent two full days transcribing their taped conversations. By the time he had finished, he said, he was consumed by an intense hatred of both Rushdie and himself. So he could, he assured me, imagine how I must feel about him after four years.
I chuckled drily and, I hoped, urbanely. It struck me that having a conversation with the man amounted to having Banville on tap. All I had to do was make a comment or ask a question and, as though I’d popped a coin in a vending machine, it would provoke an emanation from the same source that produced The Book of Evidence, Doctor Copernicus and Shroud. I felt an unaccountable, giddy compulsion to start pointing to things and people and demanding that he describe them. How would you characterize the taste of these vol-au-vents, Mr Banville?; or See that elderly man over there at the bar? Let’s have an adjective for him; or What would you say if I asked you to describe this wine? This was, after all, someone who has described the taste of gin more frequently and more variously and more vividly than probably any other novelist in history—gin, with its “silver-sweet fumes” (Eclipse), and its “cold and insidious and subtly discomposing” taste with “the faintest tinct of paraffin-blue in its depths” (The Infinities).
At this point the undergraduate from the university’s Law Society who had introduced us—and who seemed to be the main organizer of the event—had excused himself to go and check on the turnout in the lecture hall. Banville had just finished his own wine and was wondering aloud, presumably rhetorically, whether he might get away with swiping the untouched glass the Law Society guy had left behind. I gave him my blessing, though he seemed not to require it.
A large grey-bearded man with a German accent sidled up to our table and shook hands with Banville. He congratulated him on what he called his “apotheosis”—presumably he meant the lifetime membership of the Law Society—and handed over a pile of about five or six first editions and foreign translations, which Banville dutifully signed. (The man offered him a biro, but he declined, withdrawing from an inner pocket of his jacket a gracefully gold-trimmed Mont Blanc. This glamorous implement now unsheathed, the mere idea of Banville ever writing with anything else was instantly relegated to the category of the preposterous.) I thought how strange it was that the man had used this word, “apotheosis,” so enduringly associated as it was, for me, with Banville’s writing. I had, in fact, written something in my thesis about his repeated use of it. I wondered, briefly, whether the man could be making some kind of sly allusion here, but then checked this flight of obsessive fancy, realizing how unlikely it was that he would be as wonkishly preoccupied as I was with Banville’s fondness for a particular word, and what it might mean in the context of his work as a whole.
The conversation turned again, somehow, to the topic of death, specifically that of Banville’s death. We spoke briefly of the difficulties future biographers and scholars would come up against now that no one, not even novelists, wrote letters any more. He pointed out that emails were probably more useful from a future scholarship point of view, given that they were all automatically archived and organized and searchable, to which I countered that that was all well and good if you had the password. He conceded that this was a fair point, and suggested that if I played my cards right he might think to pass on his login details to me before he died. I said that I would be honored. The idea of Banville having anything as vulgar as login details, however, seemed as strangely implausible as Nabokov owning a pickup truck—he is that kind of writer. Did he use instant messaging, I wondered? (It was an odd thought, but it was not inconceivable. A few years ago, I interviewed the philosopher Peter Singer for a magazine, and he still occasionally pops up on Google Chat, an occurrence which gives rise to all kinds of inane impulses.) I speculated idly on whether Banville’s password might be something like “@pose0s1s” or, maybe, “banvillenobel2016.” Was he a Gmail man, I wondered? Probably not. Outlook Express, if anything.
The interview was less of an ordeal than I had imagined it might be. On our way down to the lecture theatre I had told him that I had agreed to it only a couple of hours previously, that I was as a consequence grossly underprepared and that he would therefore have to do a lot of the heavy lifting himself, and he had patted my arm lightly and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m a raddled old whore at this stage.” My questions seemed to me to shift from the bafflingly gnomic to the recklessly long-winded without ever occupying any intervening sweet spot of coherence and concision but, true to his word, he responded to them with an eloquence that, retrospectively, made those questions appear shrewd. Afterwards, there was a flurry of book-signings and hand-shakings, through which I stood awkwardly off to one side. There was some kind of official photograph that needed to be taken, and I allowed myself to be hustled into the shot, and then that was pretty much it for the evening.
As we walked toward the exit, Banville asked me whether I needed a lift home. I had not anticipated this; had I foreseen it as a possibility, I might well have taken the bus there instead of driving. I told him that I had my car—I think I may even, moronically, have produced my keys and held them aloft, as though some kind of proof of my having driven might be required—but almost immediately regretted doing so. It would, I thought, have been worth the trouble of getting the bus back the following morning to collect my car, had it meant getting a lift home with Banville. I found myself wishing, suddenly, to know what kind of car he drove and, above all, what kind of driver he was. Would he handle his car like he did his prose, with supreme confidence and restraint, changing lanes with suave precision, overtaking with brisk wit and style? Or would he be ill at ease behind the wheel, as I imagined his protagonists would be, constantly wrong-footed by the stubborn actuality of traffic lights and lane-mergers, the boorish incursions of other motorists? I remembered a bit in Martin Amis’s The Information about the comparative driving skills of poets and novelists. The (almost certainly spurious) jist was that Novelists are generally decent drivers, while poets don’t drive, or at least shouldn’t: “Never trust a poet who can drive. Never trust a poet at the wheel. If he can drive, distrust the poems.” And then I remembered Banville’s tendency to make grandiose-sounding claims in interviews about his aspirations of forging some sort of formal synthesis of poetry and the novel. Would he drive, I wondered, like a poet or a novelist? Would I gain some oblique insight into his mind, into his philosophical stance toward the world, by observing him negotiate the M50 and the Red Cow roundabout (that black comedy of infrastructural errors in which thousands of Dubliners play a daily role)? What would we chat about? How would he respond to questions as to fuel consumption, reliability, general performance? What radio stations, if any, would be preset on his car stereo? Would he have a SatNav, or one of those hands-free Bluetooth earpiece setups for his phone? I would now probably never know the answers to these questions. But perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I successfully convinced a publisher that my thesis was worth the time and money it would cost them to publish. So I’ll be spending a further few months on Banville-related activities, hacking and thrashing the thing into a book-like shape; and then, if I’m lucky, my first monograph will afford me some sort of reputation as an academic, as, specifically, a Banville scholar. And these would all be great things, things that might—I permit myself to hope—even lead to that greatest of great things, an actual full-time job. In the meantime, I’ll just have to get over my discomfort with what seems to me to be the rank presumption of regarding oneself as an “expert” on the work of someone who is still living and writing and (who knows?) possibly using a hands-free Bluetooth earpiece while driving.
Eventually, I’ll have to come up with another topic on which to position myself as an expert. In my cockier moments, I sometimes fancy my chances with Nabokov. I would, of course, imagine him being utterly dismissive of whatever reading of his work I might decide to argue for. But that wouldn’t matter very much, because he is safely, unapproachably dead, and therefore reassuringly unlikely to sit down at the next table in a café, or offer me a lift home. I think it would be an easier relationship.
Back | 1. In a section dealing with the novel Shroud, I find that I wrote the following: “‘Apotheosis’, in its associations with ideas of self-perfection and deification, is a key term in Banville’s later work. The narcissistic content of the word as he tends to use it is connected to the notion of the self as a work of art.”