Tuesday 7 December 2010

The god of his own pathetic little world

This post was originally written on 9th September, 2009.

Foyles Bookstore, London

Tonight we saw John Banville (who is also Benjamin Black) at a free author’s talk organised by the Foyles Bookstore. In the event, Banville discussed his latest novel, The Infinities. It is interesting to know that the narrator of the new book is the god Hermes. This seems to be a deliberate spin on the modernists’ and postmodernists’ refutation that narrators are god-like. Indeed, Banville jokingly said that when he is writing a book, he is the god of his own pathetic little world. But he also emphasised that once a book is sent to the publisher, he can no longer claim that it is his. (That is to say, he needs to go back to being human after the completion of a novel.) Apart from references to Greek gods and goddesses (Banville claimed they are as petty, lustful and mischievous as human beings), there are also quite a few biblical allusions in the book: the family in the story is the Godleys, and the country house they live in is named Arden. The main character is the Mathematician Adam Godley, who has supposedly cracked the mystery of infinity. [Webmaster asked: "I wonder how accurate the characterization of the mathematician was; usually they tend to be portrayed in fiction as glorified numerologists."]

Other than commenting on The Infinities, Banville also shared his experience as a writer. When asked his view about the categorisation of his books, Banville said when he first started writing, there were not as many genres as today. “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction” were pretty much it. But there is now another category called “Literary Fiction”. Banville thought that he would just want his books to be on a shelf labelled “Good Books”.

Banville is often said to be influenced by Nabokov, Beckett and Joyce. But he said his biggest influence would be Henry James, who according to Banville is the most important realist and modernist writer. He went on to say that literary influence is something you try to flee from, and yet it is difficult to completely escape your predecessors.

Someone in the audience asked about this year’s Booker Prize. Banville was very honest to say that it would be foolish of him to pretend that he wasn’t disappointed that his book was not on the list. But he thought it is generally a good thing that the Booker Prize attracts more readers to mainstream fiction and that the ‘trade’ needs the attention and money to help fund writers who are just beginning their career. Talking about the Man Booker Prize, Banville’s The Sea was the winner in 2005. I had the chance to attend two events featuring him held in Hong Kong. Tonight, Banville also mentioned his Hong Kong tour, saying that after a talk, a Hong Kong woman came to him and said that the story in The Sea is very much the story of her life. And Banville’s response was: “But you are Chinese!”

It would be interesting to know that Banville is not satisfied with The Infinities. As it turns out, he has never been satisfied by his books, saying that he just wants to ‘get it right’ but is still not able to do so. He again half-jokingly commented that although his books are better than everyone else’s, they are still not good enough for him. And the only thing he could do is to heed Beckett’s advice from Worstward Ho (1983): “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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