Saturday, February 25, 2006

The angel at his back

John Banville at the Guardian on the footage (from Blunt's press conference the day after Margaret Thatcher outed him in parliament as the fourth member of the Philby-Burgess-Maclean spy ring) that inspired his novel The Untouchable:

Blunt, in tweed jacket and corduroys, was seated on a small chair at one end of the room, while at the other a scrum of journos was getting itself ready with pens and notebooks and flashbulbs. It was obvious that Blunt did not know that a camera off to his right was already rolling, for although he remained for the most part motionless and impassive, at one point, as he watched his interrogators fussing with their implements of persuasion, the faintest ghost of a smile passed across his face. What the smile said was: Do these people really imagine they will get anything of consequence out of me, a man who has spent decades being grilled with scant success by the best spycatchers in the land? It was at that moment that I knew I would have to base a novel on this man.

The Untouchable is a remarkably good novel, the only one of Banville's that I really have loved (I read two or three all in a rush in 1994 or so on the recommendation of someone whose judgment I think very well of, and concluded with reluctance that they were just not for me--there is an attenuated quality to the worlds he makes which in conjunction with the heightened language leaves me relatively unmoved--and I don't like very much of Michael Ondaatje either, for some reason I associate the two of them, the Ondaatje book I love is Running in the Family and I did like Anil's Ghost but I actively disliked The English Patient with its awful lushness--oh, and there's the link that made me associate them, I was just thinking "Wait a minute, why on earth did I get Banville and Ondaatje connected in my head, their prose styles could hardly be more different?" but it is the thief Caravaggio who reminds me by association of Banville's art-obsessed protagonists): something dramatic happens here, something to do with character and voice that I haven't seen in the others and that made me really fall for this one. I've got The Sea here waiting to be read, I'm looking forward to it, and yet it is never quite the book I want to pick up next. Perhaps this will spur me to read it this weekend?


  1. How *do* you decide to read next? For example recently I just have been wanting to read "short" things, perhaps because of getting the sense of accomplishment fairly quickly, so it's been "Lucy", "The New York Trilogy", "July's People", "Utz", and all the long things (Hello "Angle of Repose" and "A Fine Balance") have been sitting idle, making me feel a little guilty...but maybe I shouldn't, because reading something when you don't want to is not fun at all. But I've gotten away from the original question - how do *you* decide?


  2. "Decide" seems too conscious a word when it is really more a matter of instinct or even desire. I feel that I do certain things (everyone has their own checklist, more commonly I suppose athletic rather than intellectual activities) as a matter of almost physical instinct rather than conscious will; copy-editing and proof-reading have always both felt like that to me, my eye just jumps to the thing that needs to be fixed and it's all between the eye and the hand with the brain hardly involved at all.

    Finding the next book to read (assuming that I am not tired & irritable and short of suitable light reading--of course we all have those irrational times when nothing seems quite right, and then I am likely to reread a favorite, it might be David Copperfield or The Fountain Overflows or anything by Robin McKinley) is basically (I'm not otherwise a spiritually inclined person) like dowsing--almost as if I could close my eyes and put out my hands and the right book would vibrate in a way that would tell me it's next. I realize this sounds absurdly fanciful, but all of my relations with books and reading and writing are sort of bizarrely concrete in a surreal yet matter-of-fact way that only catches me short when I try and put it into words for someone else.

    I find I have this with my work-related reading also, I race around the stacks gathering books (yesterday I had so many I almost gave up, it's at least 20 minutes walk from the library to my office, and made a resolution never to try and carry so many again, but of course I was back again this afternoon getting almost as many more, maybe 22 instead of 26 or something like that but still too many--my shoulders are aching tonight) and then I put them in piles and then blind instinct leads me to suck them into myself in order from most to least important. Almost in a trance state. It's my favorite thing in the world! (Basically it's like when Homer Simpson goes "Mmmmm... donuts...." Only in my head it's "Mmmmm.... new novel by Kazuo Ishiguro...." or "Mmmm.... Hume...." or "Mmmm.... 6 volumes of Monboddo's 'Antient Metaphysics'...." Seriously, I'm not exaggerating. I am in the grip of obsession!)

    I don't think short vs. long ever strikes me as a distinction; many of my favorite & easiest & most pleasurably rereadable books are long, I guess. But I definitely have the "is this a book that could be read on a train" test; sometimes you can't tell, the happiest thing is when you belatedly pick up something you thought couldn't be read on a train (Chabon, Lethem) and discover with delight that it is completely train-reading. Banville is not train-reading. Neither is "Arthur and George," which I've also got waiting; and yet it is not as if there is anything particularly difficult about either Banville or Barnes (or Auster), just that on a train my eye would be likely to drift out the window & daydreaming would supersede reading.

    I must stop going on at such length! I expect that was a much more rambling answer than you anticipated. I like your recent booklist, though (I am out of sympathy with Auster and Gordimer and Chatwin, actually, those are three books I cannot really say I enjoyed but I think they must all be read in any case). Kincaid on the other hand is rather a favorite of mine. I don't think I know what "Angle of Repose" is, should I be ashamed? (The title visually makes me think of a word I have always really liked, anglepoise--as in anglepoise lamp.)

    All right, now I really AM stopping, I don't know what's wrong with me! My Cambridge life is understimulating compared to New York, I must get home as soon as possible. I like the feeling of being in conversation here, though. I'll look forward to actual rather than virtual conversation in May.

  3. Hmm, interesting. Angle of Repose is Wallace Stegner.

    The interresting thing is that I don't follow the "First In, First Out" rule - oftentimes I will buy a book and read it shortly thereafter, avoiding the 25 or so that still haven't been read. For example I've recently gotten it into my head to read "A Hazard of New Fortunes" as the result of a few people talking it up, and I have to actively resist because I really can't justify it with all the other things I have waiting.