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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