An inversion of the world, phrase by phrase

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

ANTHOLOGY:In a new collection of John Banville’s work, it’s his writing about other writers that reveals the most

Possessed of a Past: A John Banville Reader, Edited by Raymond Bell, Picador 502pp, £14.99

John Banville’s first published piece of fiction – a short story called The Party, written when he was 17 and published four years later in a 1966 issue of the Kilkenny Magazine – depicts a young man going to a party despite his deep foreboding about the enterprise, his crippling self-consciousness about any form of social engagement. He gets ready too early and ends up pacing his one-room digs to kill time. He worries that the sole of one shoe will give way on the walk to Rathmines. He frets that in fact he has not been invited, that a cruel trick has been played on him, that no party is going on in this house at all.

Once inside, he blinks at the coloured light and grimaces at the couples kissing in a corner. Studying the unattractive girlfriend of a colleague, he contemplates the strangeness of life, with its countless transitory encounters. Sitting down, he narrowly escapes being hit by a door.

Hours pass. Still, he holds out; maybe, somehow, it will be a good night. “Something will surely happen. I kept saying that to myself, but it was only words, all the hope was gone.”

Nothing does happen, except that, in an echo of the Joyce story Banville must surely have read as a beginning writer, his partygoer stands next to a girl on the sill of a bay window and stares out at the Dublin night. He feels melancholic, adrift, a deep cynicism fixing its lens on to his perspective on the world; he is, in other words, the classic Banville protagonist as a young man, and it is fascinating to make his acquaintance in Raymond Bell’s new selection of the author’s prose, essays and playscripts.

Juvenilia should not be judged alongside mature work, so even the summary above risks crossing a critical line, but, for what it’s worth, Banville’s precise, introspective “firstling” – a term he coined himself in a 1994 essay on his first novel, 1971’s Nightspawn – is a nose ahead of most; indeed, a nose ahead of most secondlings and thirdlings. The editor does well to include it, and the same can be said of the other previously unpublished pieces in this volume, among them two recent works for radio about the scientists who were some of Banville’s earliest subjects (Copernicus, Kepler and Newton) and a clutch of facsimile pages from the notebook for The Infinities (2009, with the pages themselves dating from 2006). The latter afford a close look not only at the sabre-tipped calligraphy in which Banville lays down his words but also at the highly evolved code by which he composes, folding revised and alternative phrasings into lines apparently even as they emerge.

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