John Banville: Art is a Minority Sport

The Franz Kaf­ka Soci­ety announced yes­ter­day that it was award­ing the pres­ti­gious Franz Kaf­ka Prize for 2011 to the Irish writer John Banville, who has built a rep­u­ta­tion for being one of the finest prose styl­ists work­ing in English–and for being a bit dif­fi­cult.

First, there are the books them­selves. “In their archi­tec­ture and their style,” wrote Belin­da McK­eon in the intro­duc­tion to Banville’s 2009 Paris Review inter­view, “his books are like baroque cathe­drals, filled with elab­o­rate pas­sages and some­times over­whelm­ing to the casu­al tourist.” And then there is the per­son­al­i­ty. When Banville won the 2005 Man Book­er Prize for his nov­el The Sea, he pro­claimed, “it is nice to see a work of art win the Book­er Prize.” As he explained lat­er to The Vil­lage Voice, “the Book­er Prize and lit­er­ary prizes in gen­er­al are for mid­dle-ground, mid­dle­brow work, which is as it should be. The Book­er Prize is a prize to keep peo­ple inter­est­ed in fic­tion, in buy­ing fic­tion. If they gave it to my kind of book every year, it would rapid­ly die.”

Art may not be for every­one, but for those who have read his books–16 nov­els pub­lished under his own name, four crime nov­els under the pen name Ben­jamin Black, and one col­lec­tion of short stories–there is no doubt that Banville is an artist. “It all starts with rhythm for me,” Banville told the Paris Review. “I love Nabokov’s work, and I love his style. But I always thought there was some­thing odd about it that I could­n’t quite put my fin­ger on. Then I read an inter­view in which he admit­ted he was tone deaf. And I thought, that’s it–there’s no music in Nabokov, it’s all pic­to­r­i­al, it’s all image-based. It’s not any worse for that, but the prose does­n’t sing. For me, a line has to sing before it does any­thing else. The great thrill is when a sen­tence that starts out being com­plete­ly plain sud­den­ly begins to sing, ris­ing far above any expec­ta­tion I might have had for it. That’s what keeps me going on those dark Decem­ber days when I think about how I could be liv­ing instead of writ­ing.”

For an exam­ple of Banville’s singing prose, we leave off where The Sea begins:

They depart­ed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morn­ing under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, ris­ing to unheard-of heights, the small waves creep­ing over parched sand that for years had known no wet­ting save for rain and lap­ping the very bases of the dunes. The rust­ed hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remem­ber must have thought it was being grant­ed a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spec­ta­cle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blis­ter, lead-blue and malig­nant­ly agleam. They looked unnat­u­ral­ly white, that day, those birds. The waves were deposit­ing a fringe of soiled yel­low foam along the water­line. No sail marred the high hori­zon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.

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