John Banville and Sebastian Barry (Booker Prize Article)
Vancouver Sun. (Published Oct 2005)
Ireland loves a good auld contest. Eurovision, rugby, World Cup 1994: The country likes to debate the possible outcome and moan about the verdict. Monday’s annual pilgrimage to the Man Booker Prize is no exception. Historically, having laid my flutter at a Dublin betting shop, I would hole up with a gang of writer friends and a full teapot and crank up the small black-and-white television in the corner to watch the six authors appear, uncomfortable and then generous, while they ate supper, live, on the BBC.
It’s not just the megawatt $100,000 prize; the fervent book-buying is the true boon of the Booker. This year, two of Ireland’s finest literary bullocks – Sebastian Barry (author of the novel A Long Long Way, published by Penguin) and John Banville (author of the novel The Sea, to be published in Canada next spring by Random House) – stand together in the six-stall Booker Prize shortlist barn. Both writers come complete with pedigree papers for the calibre of their work and their literary endurance. Four fine British writers nuzzle beside them: Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith and Zadie Smith.
John Banville has shifted from foot to foot in this hay before. His novel The Book of Evidence made the Booker shortlist in 1989. Born in County Wexford, Ireland, in 1945, the former literary editor of the Irish Times has published 13 previous novels and has a list of literary awards as long as a bus timetable. He is a master prose stylist whose writing has a relentless solidity. It equally demands of, and nourishes, the reader in buckets. His devotion to revealing characters in their entirety – complex, flawed, brilliant, passionate, obnoxious, unpalatable, with technique as emotionally precise as a syringe – is what lands them on the page, alive and gasping. Much is made of Banville’s exuberant prose, yet when the agony of deliberation over his work subsides and you actually read his books, you experience the same symbiotic fizzle as you do when dancing the tango. Give yourself over to his rhythm and you’ll find the possibilities of language, and your satisfaction with it, change.
He has acknowledged Samuel Beckett as a mentor. “I admire Beckett greatly,” he tells me in a perky e-mail exchange, “for his tenacity and courage as well as for his writing, but I dread his influence. The greater the writer, the easier he is to imitate, and one can fall into writing sub-Beckettese with alarming facility.”
Some of his many novels have arrived in triptychs. In earlier works such as Dr. Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter: An Interlude (1982), he explored the lives of distinguished scientists. The Book of Evidence, Ghosts (1993) and Athena (1995) were narrated by Freddie Montgomery, a convicted murderer. The Untouchable (1997), Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002) delved into espionage; a bitter, withdrawn actor, and a rogue academic.
The Sea is a long, beautiful exhale of a book. After his wife’s death, narrator Max Morden revisits a childhood holiday spot. In doing so, he is deposited back into the almost adoptee relationship and childhood worship he experienced with the middle-class, neighbouring Grace family. Banville’s rendering of Max’s intrigue with Chloe Grace, and the cruelty he suffered at her hands, alongside his depiction of the now aging, grief-stricken Max trying to rationalize his wife’s debilitating illness and death, create a potent portrait of a man confronting a distant trauma and the fresh wounds of his recent loss.
“One simply looks back to one’s own early years and everything is possible,” Banville tells me. “I remember vividly girls who treated me like that, poor love-sick dog that I was.”
‘Nobody writes a more perfectly crafted sentence than Banville, and Sebastian Barry has all the heart and poetry in the world,” says their compatriot Colum McCann, author of the novel Dancer. “Together they represent the best things about Irish literature.”
Born in Dublin in 1955, Barry is an internationally acclaimed playwright who also has six previous novels to his name. A Long Long Way imparts the story of Ireland’s entry into the First World War through the heart and mind of one young soldier, Willie Dunne. Readers met him in Barry’s play The Steward of Christendom, and he is the brother of the main character of Barry’s previous novel, Annie Dunne.
“Annie, in ‘real life,’ was my great-aunt and I knew her well. Willie is invented. He just turned up. All the good things have just turned up,” he explains cheerfully in a conversation where we swiftly establish that he keeps a house in rural Mayo, not far from my mother’s kitchen.
The novel is regaled in buoyant humour interwoven with a poetic sensibility that embeds Willie Dunne and the lads in the reader’s heart. It charts a virulent, troubled time in both world and Irish history, particularly poignant for Canadians. Two hundred thousand Irishmen died in the Great War serving the king and country of England. Many enlisted in the hope that it would expedite home rule in Ireland. As the war began, a more militant nationalism took hold in Ireland, resulting in the Easter Rising. The soldiers essentially died representing a country that no longer existed and found themselves regarded as traitors. Barry works from the inside out, bringing us behind the gas masks to share the bewildering experience the men endured.
Career-wise, it hasn’t all been happy stamping for Barry. His play Hinterland, which explored a controversial period in Irish politics, provoked a remarkable furor and personal attacks in the Irish media delivered in tones usually reserved for corrupt politicians. His tumble from the pedestal (which, he insists, was a mere inch of concrete) was “strangely enabling, freeing. As Mr. Dylan sang, ‘If you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’ “I’ve been through wonderful times and proverbial dark days,” he continues. “I cannot tell you the happiness writing A Long Long Way gave me.”
It was providing a home for his family – his wife, Ali, and their three children (“I owe them everything”) – that helped him make the imaginative leap into the trenches. He spent two years restoring his house in Wicklow, outside Dublin, alongside builder Christy Moran, who became the sergeant in the novel. “The building of the house here taught me a huge amount about structure – I mean in the novel, oddly enough. If it ain’t right, it will fall down. Very simple, but crucial.” In line with what has become a tradition in his work, Barry has gone back and reclaimed the soldiers’ lost history, affording them justice on the page.
“Anything that gets their story told more widely I will put my back to. I sometimes fancy I can hear the hearts of 200,000 Irishmen beating, all gone into the dark, giving me a soldier’s grim smile and a graceful wave. For them, anything. From them, everything.”
Few in Ireland will be complaining if, come Monday, the Booker cheque is cashed in Wicklow or Dublin.