John Banville and me

To Paris on Tuesday. An event at the Centre Culturel Irlandais to publicise the French edition of John Banville’s last book, Mrs Osmond. For some years now, I’ve been busily not writing a PhD thesis on Mr Banville. In doing this, I’ve read all his published works several times, and I’ve accumulated a substantial library of critical books and papers on him – everything from Partial Bodies, Ephemeral Subjects: Uncanny Corporeality in John Banville’s Eclipse, Shroud, and Ancient Light by Mehdi Ghassemi of Université de Lille, to What’s in Your Basket?, a Guardian article in which a doctor analyses someone’s weekly shopping and delivers a verdict on its suitability. (Banville drinks too much red wine but gets bonus points for liking dark chocolate, fish, and unpasteurised cheese.)

I have recordings of TV and radio programmes devoted to his work, and I have spent happy hours in the National Library in Dublin poring over microfiches of now-defunct magazines in order to access his earliest reviews and articles. If I went on Mastermind and were to get through to the second round, my chosen subject would be ‘The Novels of John Banville’. (In the first round, it would be ‘The Public Houses of South-West London, 1970–2000.’)

I admit that, up till now, the results of all this might seem less than impressive; an unkind person might say non-existent. But what people don’t realise is that the more one explores one’s subject, the more paths open up for new research (further trips to Dublin will definitely be required).

Equally, there has been a shift in emphasis in thesis writing – textual analysis is seen as old hat, and the tendency now is to write a first-person account of one’s relationship with the subject’s work and its effect on one’s life. I’ve noticed that, in their own writings, some established authors have had commercial success with this; for instance, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (on his admiration for D. H. Lawrence) and Nicholson Baker’s U and I (on John Updike) have both sold well.

With this in mind, I am currently mulling over a new approach – a lightly fictionalised account of my relationship with Mr B. in which he and I meet by chance in Mulligan’s bar in Dublin. We discover that we get on extremely well, and then we embark on a trip around European cities discussing literary matters and helping the local police to solve crimes.

To date, no biography of Banville has been published. Given the amount of material I have amassed, I am increasingly tempted to start not writing a biography alongside my thesis, though I fear that might be biting off more than I could chew.

Anyway. There I was in the Centre Culturel on Tuesday evening. It’s a lovely building in Rue Irlandais, close to the Panthéon, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. As we mill around in the courtyard waiting for the lecture room to open, it’s clear that many of the audience are regulars who know each other; as an outsider, I am glanced at with mild curiosity. They are predominantly female. Clusters of two or three well-dressed, middle-class women of a certain age who would be quite at home in Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. Their slightly less soigné male counterparts, usually on their own, might be more comfortable in one of William Trevor’s seaside boarding-houses. A couple of them look as if they, too, are not writing something – probably a novel.

Banville spoke for half an hour, without notes, on James Joyce and his time in Paris. He was, as always, witty, self-deprecatory, and wise. There were anecdotes about Beckett, Yeats, and Joyce’s wife, Nora. At the end there were surprisingly few questions from the audience, so I asked one about his current writing plans. He said that in 2022 he hopes to finish a book that he has been working on for five years; he thinks it may be his last, as he is 75 and his memory is not what it was. Referring to a passage from Birchwood that had been read out when he was being introduced: ‘For the life of me, I don’t remember writing that at all.’

A glass of wine was being offered at the end, but I decided to leave the regulars to it. I strolled down to Place Saint-Michel and headed for Corcoran’s in Rue Saint-André des Arts.

Place Saint-Michel

Dinner was a pint of Guinness and a croque-monsieur, eaten with one eye on my scribbled notes from the talk, the other on Arsenal vs Leeds on the TV. Over the years, much of my research work has been done in this fashion, which probably explains quite a lot.

***

Earlier in the day, I’d spent a pleasant few hours flâneuring around the city. I popped into the Bibliothèque Nationale in Rue de Richelieu to see the wonderful reading room, which looks a little like the one in the old British Library before it moved to St Pancras. (If you click on the photos, they will open in a new window.)

***

Nearby, at no. 10 Rue des Petits Carreaux, you can see (though perhaps not for much longer) this controversial sign above a long-closed coffee shop. It shows a scantily-clad slave serving coffee to his master, who is comfortably seated on sacks of coffee beans.

Splattered with black paint, the sign, like the recently toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, is a reminder of nineteenth-century colonialism. There is an ongoing debate about whether it should be pulled down or not.

***

An exhibition will soon be under way at the Hôtel de Ville to mark Paris’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2024.

The logo for the Games is meant to depict the Olympic flame within a gold medal, and the hair and lips of Marianne, the personification of the French Republic since the 1789 revolution. However, some say it looks more like an advert for a hairdressing salon or a dating website.

***

Just before going to the talk, I stopped to take a photo of PLATHEON, a lovely little shop around the corner from the Centre Culturel that sells ceramics, jewellery, and knitwear; it’s well worth a visit if you are in the area.

To my surprise, the owner, a charming woman by the name of Serpil Utebay, asked me in for a chat. She said that events at the Centre are always welcome, as they are likely to bring potential customers in. It turns out the shop is really her husband Cem’s project, and Serpil devotes most of her time to philosophy research. As I left, she called me back and presented me with an attractive canvas bag with the shop’s logo on it. Inside was a stylish pair of Aegean-blue socks. I thanked her and promised to mention the shop in my blog. So here it is, my first ever venture into commercial sponsorship.

I am very receptive to suggestions for more of this, particularly from vineyards and distilleries.

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