Monday, October 6, 2008

The making of a feeling (Books - Eclipse by John Banville)

The day of which I speak I was walking along the main street of the town. It was November, or March, not cold, but neutral. From a lowering sky fine rain was falling, so fine as to be hardly felt. It was morning, and the housewives were out, with their shopping bags and headscarves. A questing dog trotted busily past me looking neither to right nor left, following a straight line drawn invisibly on the pavement. There was a smell of smoke and butcher's meat, and a brackish smell of the sea, and, as always in the town in those days, the faint sweet stench of pigswill. The open doorway of a hardware shop breathed brownly at me as I went past. Taking in all this, I experienced something to which the only name I could give was happiness, although it was not happiness, it was more and less than happiness. What had occurred? What in the commonplace scene before me, the ordinary sights and sounds and smells of the town, had made this unexpected thing, whatever it was, burgeon suddenly inside me like the possibility of an answer to all the nameless yearnings of my life? Everything was the same now as it had been before, the housewives, the busy dog, the same, and yet in some way transfigured. Along with the happiness went a feeling of anxiety. It was as if I were carrying some frail vessel that it was my task to protect, like the boy in the story told to us in religious class who carried the Host through the licentious streets of ancient Rome hidden inside his tunic; in my case, howeber, it seemed I was myself the precious vessel. Yes, that was it, it was I that was happening here.
This kind of paragraph is why I read. Circumstance transforms person as smells are smelled, sights seen, and a complex experience develops inside a person. An experience that requires a similie, since the circumstances are not extraordinary - only the experience of it is. The person is transformed and then, in turn, transforms the environment - a shop door breathes and not only breathes, but does so 'brownly.' John Banville writes here to get at the birth of self awareness in a boy. This boy becomes the man we then read of in his novel Eclipse - an actor - who has suspended his career having frozen up on stage one night. Banville actually spends less than a page taking us through the interior actions carried out in this man on that day in his boyhood, but I feel like I have known him always, so well imagined is this small moment.

Sheila tells me that Banville has an alternate writing persona in Benjamin Black, where he drops his care and can write fiction in a pulpier vein. It sounds like the way some actors are freed by working in a mask, or playing a character behind a big beard or false nose. Knowing they are 'not themselves' they can take risks they would not otherwise take. Now that I'm getting to know Banville I am going to have to check out Christina Falls and meet his alter ego.


JY said...

I have been reading this blog for awhile, and have decided to leave a comment today for no reason in particular.

There was a writers' festival here a couple of years ago and I paid to go to a certain event because it was to be a couple of hours with Jan Morris. Unfortuately Jan was ill and was replaced with some guy called Rick Gekofski. Who? Anyway I went.

He happened to be the guy who was on the Booker judging panel that backed Banville's The Sea and made it win. He was very illuminating on the judging process. For example he told us that every publishing house in the Uk is allowed to submit one book for the Booker. This means some shonky two bit publishing shack can submit as many books as Penguin. This is why, he explained, someone like Maurice Gee will never win the Booker, because he is with a big publishing house that can only pick one book per year to go forward.

This story ends lamely.

Anyway, this is why I read The Sea by Banville (twice), and I have to say (actually I don't) he's a fantastic writer.

Unknown said...

I'm coming from the opposite direction. I quite like Benjamin Black's crime fiction and would like to know more of his other persona, John Banville's, work.

I've put Eclipse on my wish list.

Ted said...

JY - Glad you made yourself known. I'll have to try The Sea.

CB - I'm looking forward to sampling Black and making a comparison.

JY said...

Having surfaced fleetingly like a whale in the sea of this blog (don't worry, I'm dropping this simile at the end of this sentence), I would like to say:

1 - This blog inspires me to read and THINK about what I am reading, and

2 - I love it when "proper" authors slum it under an alter ego. I never knew that Banville wrote under another name. Have to go and check it out.

3 - Gekoski said that after The Sea won he was approached by angry bookstore owners who said: "How the hell am I supposed to promote this latest Booker prize winner?" Gekoski said: "How about as the latest Booker prize winner?"

They didn't. It languished.

You say Gekoski as Jerk-off-ski. Sort of Polish for... well, you know what for.