John Banville: Her prose had an exuberance, an effervescence, that was visible in her very typing


When I was books editor at The Irish Times in the 1990s, I managed with surprising frequency to persuade Maeve to review for our pages. Surprising since, after all, she was by then a best-selling novelist with a worldwide reputation, and could have been expected to disdain such work as I was asking of her, or at least to plead a prohibitively busy schedule. Maeve, however, was a trouper, and a refreshingly modest and obliging one, at that.

One thing she was not was a tidy worker. In her accommodating way, she was perfectly happy to let an editor do what he was paid to do, and her copy would arrive in peppered, or better say sprayed, with ellipses, which I was expected to turn into seamless links and transitions.

The task of editing Maeve always looked daunting, at first, but in the event proved surprisingly easy. That was due to what I can only call her writerly shrewdness.

She knew what she wanted to say, and knew how to communicate what she wanted to say; the fact that she didn’t actually go so far as to say it, in so many words, was of scant consequence.

In a very little time I came to enjoy grappling with Maeve’s prose. It had an exuberance, an effervescence, that was visible in her very typing – those ellipses could look like so many champagne bubbles. She wrote well, and she wrote generously. She could find something to praise in even the duffest of the books I sent her. Gore Vidal used to say that it was not enough for him to succeed, but others must fail. Maeve wanted everyone to be a success.

My warmest memory of her has nothing to do with books or reviewing or editing. One summer day many years ago I was driving, after lunch, somewhere in west Cork, when there appeared ahead of me, going in the same direction as I was, a large and somewhat dingy Mercedes. The car was progressing between the hedgerows at a 30-mile-an-hour weave and wallow, and from its wide-open windows there were issuing audible peals of helplessly happy laughter. I waited for a straight stretch, and, overtaking, glanced in and saw that it was, of course, Maeve and Gordon, on holiday and returning from lunch, no doubt, glorying in each other’s company, as happy as happiness itself. It is a great gift, the gift of knowing how to live; Maeve had it in abundance.