Jason Kelly '95 | January 9, 2019
I don’t know what John Banville’s trying to say. Equipped with my bachelor’s degree in English, I should be able to tease out meaning in the Irish novelist’s poetic, impressionistic lines. I can’t. But he makes me wonder.
That’s enough for me — wonder — and I think enveloping readers like me in imaginary worlds made of words is enough for Banville, too, never mind the library shelves of analysis devoted to his work. Once described as “a true literary anarchist,” he all but dares critics and scholars to go spelunking in his pages. He seems to delight in what they find in the recesses of his sentences, game either to agree or to parry in high-minded salons.
For a couple weeks in November, Banville engaged in just that kind of badinage as a visiting scholar in the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies.
He’s a man of wandering interests and intellect. He knows poetry and philosophy and astronomy, his fiction exploring those murky fathoms of the human mind and scientific imagination. His quiver of reference points includes Gary Larson cartoons. Banville’s serious novels have drawn comparisons to Beckett and Nabokov, his pseudonymous noirs to Raymond Chandler. He won the Booker Prize for his 2005 novel The Sea. For his half-century body of work, you could get decent odds on him for the Nobel.
Reputation preceding him at age 73, Banville dispenses little piths like a grandfather with a pocketful of candies. Like: “Art is both consolation and illumination.” And: “Beauty has become a problem word for us. It’s a bit like sex to the Victorians, you don’t quite know what to do with it. It embarrasses us. But we all crave beauty.”
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