Banville on Books: “I think popular fiction should present a moral character…”

So it’s World Book Day, and all the kids around here have gone off to school in character costume from their favourite book from Girl Online to The Pirates Next Door. On foot of that I’ve put a few of my favourite Children’s books in a separate section of the Slugger Bookstore.

My own favourite book of the last year would be Paul Burgess’ White Church, Black Mountain. Other highlights are Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate (which I picked up through Henry Farrell’s great essay on the dark web recently); Robert Caro’s four part biography Lydon B Johnson; Roddy Doyle’s Brilliant.

But if you get a chance, have a listen to the Guardian Books interview with John Banville on one of my favourite authors of all time, Raymond Chandler.

Banville himself has just written on from Chandler’s canon in the form of The Black Eyed Blonde, and he talks well on the whole business of the sourness of voice and limitation of vision in American fiction since Watergate.

Chandler’s one of the few authors whose whole output I’ve managed to read. Totally noir, and redolent of coffee, whiskey, melancholy and tension.

He talks about the ‘essential decency’ or ‘the knight riding through the plague ridden city’ reminiscent of Bryan Delaney St Patrick’s day appeal to Ireland “to be extremely vigilant about the stories we choose to tell ourselves”.

The whole thing is worth listening to the whole way through, even if you haven’t read Chandler.

And if you haven’t you really should.

Feel free to share your own favorites…

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  • Practically_Family

    Umberto Eco, Tom Clancy, Spalding Gray, Sven Hassel, Kenneth Grahame, Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley, Hemingway, H.S. Thompson & James Axler.

    Depends on which room I’m in.

  • mickfealty

    What if I pushed you you pick three books?

  • Practically_Family

    The Blind Assassin.
    Brave New World.
    Foucault’s Pendulum

    Ask me tomorrow, or even later today and I might give you a different answer. I also genuinely enjoy (for want of a better term) “pulp fiction”, like Mills & Boons but with vulgarity, violence & ladies of poor moral standing.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    “True Grit” by Charles Portis, a simple western story that is elevated above the rest due to some very interesting and intriguing characters along with some fantastic dialogue that is humourous, authentic and at times poignant.

  • notimetoshine

    Homage to Catalonia, global catastrophe, a wonderful thematic history of the 17th century world and of course Angela’s ashes

  • Korhomme

    A favourite for me would be a book I could read again and again, and still get enjoyment. Such books are mostly fiction, such as Pride and Prejudice and Ulysses; or books of poetry—The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

  • Practically_Family

    Two out of three. Ulysses however is an Irish Republican plot to subvert English literature.

  • mickfealty

    I have read number two, and I think I might have tried reading number three, but I have no recollection of it whatsoever. I do remember most of the Name of the Rose however. I have some false memory of reading whilst traipsing around the pleasantly green countryside of Piedmont (near Alba) occasionally contemplating the pretty awful fate of the Cathars…

  • mickfealty

    I have a copy of Fitzgerald’s translation. It’s one of a handful of possession I inherited from the Da… Must get down and read it at some point…

  • Korhomme

    It’s well worthwhile. I prefer the original (first) version to the later ones. Translation is, though, a bit strong; by comparison to a literal translation, Fitzgerald’s versions are almost as much his original work as Omar’s.

  • Korhomme

    A recent discovery in reference books is Escoffier’s <Le guide cuisine. It’s available in an English translation from amazon; it’s not cheap, and not a reference for beginners.

    But it is the classic culinary work, the inspiration for all the celebrity chefs of today.

  • Practically_Family

    Surprised that’s not available in digital form por nada.

  • chrisjones2

    Name of the Rose was superb …as was the film

    Foucault’s Pendulum much less memorable. In the end I felt cheated but to say more would be a spoiler

    The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius for all the tittle tattle and gossip. Everything you might ever want to learn about the corruption inherent in power

  • Kevin Breslin

    There’s no such thing as an immoral fictional book, just immoral readers.

  • Korhomme

    Doh! How could I omit the two most imaginative, cleverest books for adults for children. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass.

    “Life, what is it but a dream?”

    (Like Ulysses, Alice really demands a good, annotated edition.)

  • terence patrick hewett

    Ah, the Big Sleep.

  • mickfealty

    Banville does qualify his remarks in the podcast. He was responding to certain nihilism he reckons has taken hold in American fiction since Watergate.

    Chandlers Philip Marlowe is a particularly moral anti hero (hates authority and rich men), unlike say Highsmithi’s GodAwful Ripley.

    And throughout Chandler you feel the presence of booze: mostly whiskey. In some books more than others.

  • Margit Appleton

    I love John Banville, and dare I say it – Benjamin Black (!) even more.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh course, it would have to be my near neighbour (if she’d lived to be one hundred and fifty-five) the inimitable Amanda McKittrick Ros, whose first novel, “Irene Iddesleigh” has recently been re-issued in a newly edited edition by a new local publisher which includes the reviews that (most incorrectly) described her first as “The Worst Writer in the World) and her delicious reposts that inspired James Joyce’s style in “Finnigan’s Wake.”

    Check out the “look inside” feature for the introduction’s reappraisal of this much misunderstood local girl, Larne’s only internationally famous author!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Fitzgerald was a great favourite of Ezra Pound, who called his son “Omar” after the poet. Ezra would have thougherly approved of such broad interpretations of the term “translation” with his Make It New” motto.

    Now there’s another writer, Ezra Pound, whose “Cantos” are well worth a re-read.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I had a pre-publication copy of “The Name of the Rose” passed to me by a family member (US resident) who was a good friend of Willie Weaver, Eco’s translator. Fun to have read it before the ballyhoo started, so as not to have my literary elitist sensibilities overstretched to enjoy the book.

    Three books just, good call:

    “Irene Iddesleigh”, as above.

    Ronald Firbank’s “The Flower Beneith the Foot”:

    I love satire and Evylen Waugh did not dare write a word of his inferior “Woman’s Fiction” style diluted versions inspired by Firbank’s masterful prose until Firbank (a big Amanda McKittrcik Ros fan, and a fellow Irish writer, little known fact) was safely dead.

    Wyndham Lewis’s “The Apes of God”.

    This is perhaps the very best novel written on the “modern movement” (1920s) cultural scene, by Ezra Pound’s old sparring partner (Lewis included Pound in his “Men Without Art”). I cannot lift the book without laughing out loud within a few paragraphs. Lewis was an important painter, too, who drew Firbank (brilliantly!) once, and said that Firbank was so squirmy and impatient, he just kept wanting to look over the painter’s shoulder as he was drawing him.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Real books aren’t, usually!

  • chrisjones2

    If you love satire try Tom Sharpe

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Have tried him, (I’ll read anything once!) and still thought Wyndham Lewis and Firbank both better, but kept reading Tom’s books beyond the first one. I can be pretty elitist in my tastes, but, like W.B. Yeats, I read other books too. Yeats was a big Zane Grey man, like my grandfather, a lot of cowboy and detective fiction to keep the poetry flowing. I’m as bad as them, reading Terry Pratchett and Ian Rankin when my family (who need to be set an example!) aren’t looking.

    But I’d forgotten to mention that the best of all (satirically) is the Tyrone man, “Flann O’Brien”, whose “At Swim Two Birds” is going to be made into a movie (an impossible script, glad I’m not writing it) by Brendan Gleeson. If my experience of raising funding for anything in movies that is not 14-18 age range/blockbuster is anything to go by, he’ll still be looking for funding in another century! But good luck to him, it’ll be a great movie if it ever gets made, and in the meantime we still have the book…….

  • chrisjones2

    I find the South African ones great but a bit dated now. Blott etc though are superb and still true to life

  • SeaanUiNeill

    What I really love about Ronald Firbank is his surreal trueness to life! You have to read the entire first page of “Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli” before you realise the exact reason for the poor cardinal’s discomfort at a long elite event, a baptism he is conducting. The poor man is being compelled to humour his wealthy patron by baptising her week old police dog:

    “And thus being cleansed and purified, I do call thee ‘Crack’!” he addressed the Duquesa’s captive burden.

    You can see exactly where Tom Sharpe went for the seeds of his more bizarre scenes!!!!!


  • Practically_Family

    Oh… They have their place, but I do love Kindle-ing.

    It’s like the vinyl (or in my case, shellac) Vs MP3 ‘debate’. Lovely to own the ‘originals’ but I can carry a device in my pocket that will play music in quality as good as my ears can appreciate, non stop for a month without repeating a track. I can’t carry enough records to play for more than a couple of hours…

  • SeaanUiNeill

    My wife, an anthropologist, tells me, P_F, that the act of reading a paper book and the reading of a screen operate with very different physically encoded processes, so they are not in fact really the same thing! When I’m researching, I find that I read to and fro, not continuously, as the screen seems to require, also that I remember ideas within a book quite physically (early, middle, late page positions in the text). This is what she describes as the physical encoding of a group of activities that mediate the text, and drop it into a different place in the poor old brain. The habits of screen reading, developed from the actions of watching TV or Cinema screens, encourage an onward momentum, also plant the impressions in quite another section of the brain. A lot of research work was done on this in the 1950/60s that seems to have been sidelined nowadays.

    But I’ve found Archive org invaluable for providing access to seventeenth/eighteenth century texts (Carte’s “Ormond” for one) I’d usually have to go to at least the MCClay, or even to the NLI in Dublin or the British Library to access, so I’m grudgingly grateful for that.

    But anyway, the kindle revolution is over, at least from what my media friends in London tell me. And even from my own observation. A few years back on London trips I’d see the tube trains full of Kindle readers, these days I see a lot more paperback readers, especially the under thirties. It seems only the over forties are still using Kindle much in the great seat of the media.

    And I can never get over the unconscious plug in the name “Kindle” in regard to “Books”:

    The worst of it is what you are seldom told. You are not buying book with kindle, only a license to read a text owned by others. They can withdraw this at any time. I own a copy (one of perhaps only twenty not actually pulped), of Wyndham Lewis’s “The Doom of Youth” a book about media inspired “age wars” in the 1930s, the edition destroyed by court order as it libelled someone important. Now it would not be on my shelves if everything had been Kindle. Books are dangerous to authority in very many ways, and any centralised control of access to books such as Kindle necessitates is a dangerous precedent in a world less and less free every year.

    Many of our freedoms have come of the back of printing presses, Kindle and all such digital media subject to central control is a retrogressive move to my mind.

  • kalista63

    I think Swiss Tony could put it better.

  • kalista63

    And drugs. Don’t forget the drugs. I first encountered Marlowe novels about the same time I first saw Sinatra’s The Detective. I’ve a wee obsession about how each generation reinvents the wheel, deluded that it’s their idea. Marlowe is a great reminder that the hippies didn’t start the whole drugs culture, nor were they limited to the ghettos and the poor.

  • Devil Eire

    Did you miss Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice?

  • Korhomme

    No, I have it; I meant, for fullest understanding, an annotated version is invaluable.

  • Korhomme

    Kindles etc have a facility to make notes and to search for a word, much harder than dead-tree books.

    But, I gather that using a Kindle etc late at night interferes with sleep, because of the light. A real book doesn’t.

    You’re quite right about titles disappearing from the Kindle—this has certainly happened at least once, though I don’t remember the name.

    However, Kindles are useful for collecting classics at minimal or no cost.

  • Devil Eire

    Ah, of course.

  • Devil Eire

    Doctor Copernicus and Kepler are his standouts for me, but then I stopped reading Banville after Mefisto

  • Korhomme

    Books like Alice and Ulysses are very complex, and full of references. Sadly, some annotations aren’t always quite correct. Somewhere in Ulysses there is a reference to ‘Bray’; this is referred to as being a seaside resort in Wicklow in my annotated version. Quite correct, but the wrong Bray; the reference is to the Vicar of Bray, a town on the Thames in England; the vicar’s allegiance was variable, depending on who seemed to be in power, who was winning: that vicar wasn’t a man of principle.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Probably could! But as a point of info you’ll have to unpack the term “Swiss Tony” for this poor Luddite!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yes, and I have used the search facility with PDFs in my work. But familiarity with physical books makes the finding of information pretty much just easy, at least for me. As I’d said the way anyone works with a physical book is encoded when you handle it, and the return to particular facts or points of information relates back to the physical size and presence of the book.

    But for me the central control of literature is teh real issue. Such control over knowledge by anyone is always going to be a problem. You only access the books on your kindle because someone somewhere has them on their server. This has serious power implications that the decentralisation of knowledge through the dissemination of information in (reasonably) easily printed physical books for most of the modern historical period has avoided before the digital revolution has permitted true central control of text.

    And the old “something for nothing” rule applies even in digital media; “collecting classics at minimal or no cost” is simply a “loss leader” to encourage people to drop out of the personal ownership of the physical book (which we own when we buy it) for something that is leased, and may even require a yearly lease in time, so you may have to buy books that you really need over and over again. Those of us who use Adobe design software are becoming very familiar with that particular rip-off scam by a sole supplier!

    Long ago, during an interview with “Creative Review” when I was working with the Computer Film Company on developing special effects technology, I used the term “Technelogical Hypnotism” (I think I was the first to use it) about the tendency to think something is better simply because it comes via a piece of electronic equipment.

    I think some of the first research to examine the different manner in which we “read” a screen or “read” a page of images or text was done by Aby Warburg in the 1920s, but I’d have to check my files for detail. Warburg was a passionate explorer of the concept of the visual experience (this field of study still carried on at the Warburg Institute) and he wanted to examine what was different about a moving image as in the new art of cinema, as against the symbolic iconography of the Reniaissance, which was his particular field of study. He came to the conclusion that the screen rapidly produced habits (“expectations”) of short termism, and of non-negotability with its flow of images (no digital rewind in his day). These things need to be considered. The experience of reading (or writing into) a screen is in its essence a very different experience with differently encoded habits to those developed in handling print and paper. We are conditioned to experience them in very different ways, no matter how superficially similar the text experience in both may seem to be.

    And “Dead Tree”, bit emotive, is it not? So the generation of electricity uses up nothing, eh? A lot has been made of saving trees, but even short term it may be more expensive to keep up the steady flow of electricity that other media requires.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    At the risk of sliding of topic a wee bit, the “Vicar of Bray” is a late version of an earlier interregnum satire on a turn coat priest shifting from Anglican to Presbyterian to Independant in the time of Old Noll. Less “finished” poetry but just as much fun.

    And I seem to remember that the Vicar stated his (conditionally “final”) strong allegience to the Protestant Sucession:

    “The illustrious House of Hanover and Protestant succession
    To these I do allegiance swear – while they can hold possession.
    For in my faith and loyalty I never more will falter,
    And George my lawful king shall be – until the times do alter.”

    Not a million miles from the self same hole we have all been dug into here!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ah “Swiss Toni”……I’ve been avoiding most TV ever since I stopped working in media myself, the production standards are sinking so low on most programmes, perhaps just a few DVDs like “Madmen” now and then, as these are well made. Enough of that. Never a fan of kindle either but I suppose if you prefer not actually owning books but simply leasing them from a centralised provider who can decide waht you should have available to read, a bit too “tele rental” or “book club” for me as I’d like to feel that I have proper permenent access to the best tools of my trade……

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Found my original, although its a reprint from a 1693 broadside printed in London, and mine was printed in Dublin in 1711, obviously in the wake of the political confusions following the Henry Sacheverell trial. “The Religious Turncoat, or a Late Jacobite Divine turn’d Williamite.”

    It ends with similar sentiments to “The Vicar of Bray.”

    And now Preach up King William’s Right.
    Pray for his foes confusion,
    And shall remain a Williamite
    Till another Revolution
    A Turncoat is a cunning man
    That cants to admiration
    And prays for any King to gain
    The People’s approbation.

    And, hey, you can sing it to the Vicar of Bray’s air!