John Banville and Mike McCormack, hosted by Ian McGuire, Martin Harris Centre, 10 October 2017.

John Banville and Mike McCormack, hosted by Ian McGuire, was a gentle classic of a literature festival event. Technology, language and loneliness were perhaps the major themes of a discussion that ranged from influences and nationhood to Banville’s creation of the pseudonym Benjamin Black in the hope that Black would make a living for Banville. Banville was funny, McCormack interesting and Ian McGuire’s questions were open enough to give the writers room to talk and careful to link aspects of their work together so that their writing and interests were in easy conversation.

Banville read from his new work Mrs. Osmond, a sequel to Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and spoke about how despite thinking that Henry James’s writing comes closest to catching the meandering sense of consciousness that is the human condition he had no desire either to update or emulate James, more that he thought James had forgotten how young Isabel Archer was at the open-ended close of that novel and that Banville wanted to write more of her story.

It is necessary to note at this point that from the start this was an event with three men in back on stage. Three… venerable looking white men in shades of black suit and shiny black boot on a stage. McCormack, answering a question about influences said that as a young writer he wanted to be the bastard love child of J. G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon and John McGahern. An entertaining and thought-provoking combination but it is fortunate that there is no need for mothers in the imagining of literary procreation since in an hour of (diverting) discussion the only women even mentioned on stage were those the writers had created for their fiction. Apart maybe from Banville’s indication that by constructing an unresolved ending to his new book he was opening the space for the third instalment Portrait of a Lady to be written, “maybe by a woman”. Banville described Portrait of a Lady as a great feminist novel, whatever James meant it to be, and in this spirt it seems unlikely that the three were entirely unaware of this other way in which this event was classical.

Of course Dostoyevsky, Henry James, James Joyce, T S Eliot, Beckett, McGahern, Pynchon and all the other writers mentioned on that stage make for a great reading list and their being well trodden ground does nothing to undermine their value and their work has not become bankrupt in the many years that it has been read and recommended, far from it. Answering the same question about influences Banville looked wryly grumpy and said that “Influences are horribly dangerous.” He went on to say that it was particularly difficult, since one becomes a writer by reading, to find one’s own voice but that it is obviously vital and the work of a life time.

McCormack read from his new work Solar Bones which has already won various prizes. The whole story is told in one long line and McCormack was quick to point out that since it neither starts with a capital letter nor ends with a full stop this is not one sentence but rather the longest fragment of a sentence ever written. “God gave us heaven and earth and then turned it over to the engineers”, he said, and that he thinks his “books recognise technology as one of the glories of human kind.” His obvious fascination and playful determination to focus on structure is not limited to language and narrative: his main character is an engineer and McCormack discussed how, since helping his father build a house as a teenager, he has always been enamoured of engineers.

The rhythms and structures of language and particularity Hiberno-English are clearly of interest to both McCormack and Banville. Both are considered Irish writers but it was obvious when asked that neither think that this is a clear or unproblematized category. Banville described himself as at home in America and Ireland as he imagines he would feel in outer Mongolia and, when asked “like a citizen of the world?” by McCormack, rather gruffly responded that he had been trying to avoid the cliché but stood by the sentiment. The outsider relationship of Irish writers to the English Language was something both felt in different ways and for two writers who seem so much literary insiders this tension and complication in writing for English audiences or publishers was clearly a worry and a motivating factor. Banville and McCormack’s work has always been deeply engaged in and elegantly observant of the world, these two books seem to maintain that standard.

The Manchester Literature Festival continues until October 22 in venues across Manchester. This piece also appears at Chapter & Verse, the Manchester Literature Festival blog.

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