Show Me The Zulu John Banville


Julian Gough slams fellow Irish novelists as ‘priestly caste’ cut off from the culture | Books | guardian.co.uk

The Booker prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville also agreed that Gough “has a point, or more than one point”, but added that “his notion that shouting the word ‘feck’ – Father Ted has a lot to answer for – and being grossly scatological will make him seem echt Irish only harms his argument”.

“We who were born and continue to live in Ireland are always distressed by the stage-Irish antics so often to be encountered among the sons and daughters of the diaspora,” said Banville. “But it is true, as the critic Declan Kiberd remarks, that no contemporary Irish writer has yet attempted the Great Irish Novel on social and political themes. Where is our Middlemarch, our Doctor Zhivago, our Rabbit trilogy? The fact is Irish fiction tends to be poetic rather than prosaic, which is something that non-Irish reviewers find hard to grasp. John McGahern used to say that there is verse and there is prose, and then there is poetry, and poetry can occur in either form, and that in Ireland it occurs more often in prose than in verse. There may be a grittily realistic novelist even now writing a masterpiece such as Mr Gough says he longs for, and, if so, I applaud her/him.”

What a condescending turdbag John Banville is, assuming one need not be echt Irish to make such a judgement.
He is fond of that sort of thing, of making haughty declarations about what Irish people are really like. One time I heard him in an interview talking about how parochial Irish people were, offering the example of how some woman had asked him if he was John Banville, and when he confirmed this she said “I’m from Wexford too!” By contrast, Banville has been to Prague and loads of other places on a plane, so naturally this was awful. When the Lisbon Treaty was up for its first referendum, he said that more than Eurosceptic, ‘we’ (i.e. the Irish) were Euroignorant, and that the majority of people had no idea about Lisbon or about many other things.

As for Banville’s fiction, it’s a long time since I read any of it and I don’t feel any hankering to go back to it. At the time I thought his was a prose thriving with grim purpose and measured intensity, but in hindsight I think I was a bit of a tube. For people who haven’t read it, to get a sense of the experience of reading it you need to rent out a house somewhere along the east coast, doesn’t matter where. But preferably at the time of year when it’s raining and misty, but doesn’t matter when. And then think about someone who’s dead, even if they don’t seem dead and they may well not be dead. Think about this for about six weeks, but cook yourself the odd hearty repast and smoke the odd cigarette. Do all this in no particular order.

Hopefully it was Banville Julian Gough was talking about when he said that ‘the older, more sophisticated Irish writers that want to be Nabokov give me the yellow squirts and a scaldy hole’.

Read this, from Banville, translated from an interview in Spanish here.

I am Irish, and we Irish writers write in English, a foreign language. We don’t feel comfortable, we look at the language from the outside. When I read Nabokov I understand him perfectly, because he also writes English from the outside. An English author tries to make his prose easy and transparent, following the advice of George Orwell: the text should be like a sheet of glass. For me, for the Irish, it shouldn’t be a window, but a lens able to zoom in, zoom out or distort. Look, we come from Irish, an extraordinarily evasive language in which it is not possible to say things directly. You can’t say, for example, “I am a man”. You would need to say something like “I am in my manhood”. Irish is oblique and continuously moves away from the essential whilst English is the opposite, it goes straight to the point. That tension, born in the middle of the 19th century, when we stopped speaking Irish and adopted the English of the empire, created a new and potent language. The language of Wilde, Yeats, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, different from the English of England, the United States or Australia

You’d never know from him, representing Irish from the outside, that ‘Is fear mé’ is a rather direct form of saying I am a man, which goes straight to the point. Gough is right to refer to Irish novelists of a particular vintage as a ‘priestly caste’, and as good an example of this as any is the way Banville accords himself the privilege of issuing the definitive representation of what Irish people are.

“Ireland is a country of storytellers”, he continues. “Imagine that one of our politicians or one of our bishops does something terrible. OK. You would be interested in knowing exactly how this has happened. For us, that is secondary. What matters to us is how they’re going to explain themselves. If the politician or the bishop is able to justify themselves with grace, that is, with a human and inspiring story, they can get out of trouble without great difficulty.”

The joke in all this is that Banville is out to present himself as the cosmopolitan sophisticate by contrast with the charming but largely backward habits of his compatriots. But his insistent preoccupation with what the Irish are really like points up his inability to transcend his own provincialism.

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7 Responses to “Show Me The Zulu John Banville”


  1. 1 Kevin February 11, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    I agree he doesn’t come across particularly well here. In fact, he rarely does when not writing fiction or not writing about fiction. He is nevertheless one of my favourite writers. You say that you once thought his prose thriving with grim purpose, but now with hindsight you think it a bit of a tube. But you said as well that you haven’t read his fiction in years. Surely prose is best judged when reading it, not years after having read it.

    His plots are admittedly thin. I could barely finish Shroud. But in The Untouchable, say, he manages to combine a romping, roving plot with everything else his fiction is renowned for.

    Jesus, haven’t commented on a blog in a while. How are things, Hugh?

    • 2 Hugh Green February 12, 2010 at 7:53 am

      What up, Kevin. Tis indeed a long time, and probably longer still since our more corporeal discussion of outsized croquettes and the like – perhaps we should arrange a follow-up.

      As for what I think about Banville’s fiction: well, I think I was being scrupulously fair – it is not that I think Banville’s fiction to be a bit of a tube: on the contrary I was referring to the reader at the moment of reading. So the only judgement I can bring to bear on it is my rather hazy recollection. I think we probably agree that it is best possessed in the act of reading.

      By the by I find ‘tube’ quite a fertile insult. I don’t know where it comes from, but there are obvious phallic connotations, along with the sense of a hollow object through which other things pass. There is also some sort of association with potatoes, since potatoes are stem tubers.

  2. 3 copernicus February 12, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    It seems to me (who else?) that there is a distinct irony at the heart of a post wherein Hugh Green accords himself the privilege of issuing the definitive representation of what John Banville is.

    But his insistent preoccupation with what Banville is really like points up his inability to transcend his own Banvillism, if you ask me.

  3. 4 Hugh Green February 12, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    Har, well, considering it had been more than a year and a half since I last mentioned him, I figure I’ve been keeping my Banvillism under control. I’m not offering the definitive representation: I’m happy for a million different Banvilles to bloom. But this one here is a condescending turdbag. Maybe the next post my representation of him will be marginally different, perhaps a more acute condescension, or a more swollen turdbag.

  4. 5 Donagh February 16, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    I used to work with a guy from Glasgow who used the insult ‘tube’ alot, and apart from your use of it here I haven’t come across it since. I remember being very enthusiastic about Banville’s writing when I first started reading his books, but once I got through around four of them I was pretty sick of it — so I guess I was a tube too.

  5. 6 Kevin February 18, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Tube works on paper explaining its countless angles of insult. I’m willing to grant you that. But does it carry the same force on the street to those ignorant of its versatility? Sounds to me like something a culchie might say, like ‘ye spanner, ye”. The cosmopolis is at once to sophisticated for it, and not sophisticated enough.

    Anyway, are you asking me out on a second date?

    • 7 Hugh Green February 19, 2010 at 3:24 pm

      You underestimate the extent of my culchitude. I am not so direct that I would admit we were on a first date, but if that is what it felt like to you, who am I to deny you another chance?


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