Friday, March 22, 2013

John Banville: "Writing a novel, even a bad novel, is a fiendishly difficult task."

John Banville’s The Sea is a haunted novel.

Having recently lost his wife to cancer, an aging art historian named Max Morden retreats to the seaside inn where he spent summers as a youth. Here he finds himself dealing with ghosts from the near and distant past, as he reflects on his wife, his distant relationship with an adult daughter, and the strange, unresolved mystery of a girl he loved long ago.

Each memory sparks another, forcing Max to come to terms both with himself and an uncertain future. 

The Sea won the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

Author Banville -- who will be in town next week to discuss the novel as part of the University of South Carolina’s Open Book series -- took a few questions by e-mail.

FREE-TIMES: Was there any single event that inspired The Sea?

BANVILLE: I never know where a book begins - I seem not to start anywhere but to be on the way, before I know it. I can look back at my manuscripts and see exactly when and how I wrote the first line, but that always comes long after the book has started up in my head. I can't even remember inventing Max. I was in my late fifties when I wrote the book, and was beginning to feel the encroachment of old age, and it was inevitable, I suppose, that I should begin to look back towards childhood. My own summers by the sea long ago found their way into the book. However, I have no idea why I chose also to write about illness and bereavement. Fiction is a mysterious business.

FREE-TIMES: Max begins as a morose and sad figure, but as the book goes along, he tests our sympathy. Did you see him as a whole from the beginning, or did your conception of him shift as the book went along?

BANVLLE: I imagine he was fairly well 'fixed' before I began to the book. He's not a very appealing figure, is he. But like all my narrators, he is at least honest, insofar as he can be. I remember a critic in Germany asking how on earth I had written such a book without falling even once into sentimentality. I took it as a high compliment. The only answer I could give him is that art is never sentimental, and if it is, it turns into kitsch. I would like to think that Max has much sentiment, but no sentimentality.

FREE-TIMES: There’s a quote from Nabokov’s lecture on Ulysses that came to mind while reading this book. He said that Joyce’s novel was about the hopeless past, the ridiculous and tragic present, and the pathetic future. The Sea has those very features in it. Max, from the vantage point of a ridiculous, aimless middle age, examines life for the first time, scrutinizing a past he can’t resolve, facing a future that doesn’t give him much to cling to.

BANVILLE: Nabokov's observation is somewhat trite, don't you think? All fictional art deals with 'the hopeless past, the ridiculous and tragic present, and the pathetic future.' On the other hand, in The Sea the hopelessness, the ridiculousness and the pathos are shot through on every page with radiant light. That was my intention, anyway. After all, for all its terrors, failures and betrayals, life is a glory.

FREE-TIMES: The prose is very rich, and perfectly motivated. As an art critic – even a self-proclaimed mediocre one – Max is deeply observant of colors and sounds, a kind of artist himself in his way, as he tries to recall every last detail of his memories.

BANVLLE: I tried, in my teenage years, to be a painter. I failed miserably, but the effort did teach me to look at the world with a painterly eye. For me, the art of fiction is an attempt to conjure up and to illuminate the world, or the little fragment of the world that is contained in a novel. The novelist, like the painter, must be all concentration. I take my lead from Cato the Censor: Rem tene, verbum sequentur - grasp the object, and the words will follow.

FREE-TIMES: There’s a lot of story to The Sea but I wouldn't describe it as plot-driven. It's a mystery story, on a couple of levels, as well as an intensely interior book. Was it difficult to balance those sides of it?

BANVILLE: Writing a novel, even a bad novel, is a fiendishly difficult task. The aim is to strike a balance, to weigh part against part, sentence against sentence - in a word, to find a harmony.

FREE-TIMES: I seem to recall John Updike saying that most of his characters are losers. I think that’s partly why they’re so compelling – and why this one is as well. Failures have more to reflect on, and they have richer interior lives. Have you ever, or would you ever, write about a well-adjusted human being?

BANVILLE: Have you ever encountered a well-adjusted human being? Our predicament in the world leaves us constantly ill-adjusted. This is what makes life interesting.

FREE-TIMES: How did winning the Man Booker Prize change your life?

BANVILLE: It gave me a little money, and a brief moment of fame, among people who read books such as mine, which is a small minority. The prize is bound to have brought The Sea to the attention of many readers who would otherwise have missed it. For this reason alone prizes are important. They are not, of course, any kind of real measurement of one's work - and any writer who thinks otherwise is deluded.

John Banville’s The Sea is the focus of next week’s Open Book series at the University of South Carolina. USC’s Master of Fine Arts Director Elise Blackwell will lead a discussion of the book this Monday, March 25, at 6 p.m, at the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library on the USC campus. Author John Banville will talk about the book on Wednesday, March 27, at 6 p.m. at the same location. Both events are open to the public. 

(Published in the web version of the March 20, 2013 issue of the Free-Times.)

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