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John Banville: The Personae of Summer

The Personae of Summer

John Banville

May 17th, 2008


It is a very great honour to have been invited to speak on the occasion of the second Premio Vallombrosa—Gregor von Rezzori. I come here in the lively consciousness that I am following in the steps of my honoured friend Claudio Magris, who last year, at the inauguration of the prize, delivered the, in his case, suitably titled Lectio Magistralis. I can hardly hope to match the eloquence, elegance and wit of his address; and then, of course, he had the good fortune to be able to speak to you in a language that all of you could readily follow. Which is a roundabout apology for my shameful lack of Italian. In an essay on the writing life, George Orwell wryly dismisses the myth of the artist generating masterpieces of unageing intellect while starving in a garret. The best writing, Orwell contends, is done in a cosy room with a nice fire burning in the grate and someone bringing in regular cups of sustainingly strong, hot tea. The first time I stayed at the Santa Maddalena Foundation at Donnini it was a bitterly cold March, but the work-room allotted to me, in the famous tower, was warm and well-lighted, and had a magnificent and, I admit, occasionally distracting view across the crowding treetops to Vallombrosa. Beatrice von Rezzori, if she did not bring comforting cups of tea to the tower, but, rather, left me tactfully alone at my work, made up for this in the evenings with something stronger than tea, fortified by some of the best conversation to be had in these increasingly morose and monosyllabic times.

The spirit of Gregor von Rezzori was palpable about the house and garden at Santa Maddalena. It was not a wholly benign spirit, and I would not have wanted it to be—mere niceness, especially in the kingdom of the ghosts, is a greatly overrated quality. What remained of Grisha was mischievous and challenging; it wanted to know by what right I was there, tramping his acres, drinking his wine, being entertained by his wife’s anecdotes. And I suppose since I had come there to create literary characters, it occurred to me suddenly that this is what Grisha was, now, at Santa Maddalena: a character. His lingering spirit had all the qualities—urbanity, illusiveness, faint mystery of provenance—of a personage such as one might happen upon in a tale by Henry James, in an old house and a fine garden, in springtime, in Italy.

For this is what the intimate dead become to us, characters in the ongoing story which we tell ourselves is our life. “To create characters”—it is as odd as it sounds. What does it mean? The noun is no less perplexing than the verb. What are fictional characters? What reality have they— and is it even permitted to speak of reality in this context? Is it possible to imagine reality into existence? Asking that question, I think of once of Wallace Stevens’s ringing declaration:

The world imagined is the ultimate good.

Let us consider what the poet might have meant, the same poet who, not incidentally, in another poem, was aware that There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases — the poet who, along with Gregor von Rezzori, is the reigning spirit here with me today. 


I once went to see the Grand Canyon. My wife and I had been driving in the American South-West, and although we both disapprove of tourism and consider it a pernicious form of big business that is cheapening beautiful places and corrupting entire peoples—you certainly know something of this, here in Tuscany—nevertheless we felt that we could not leave the area without seeing this great natural wonder. So we drove up from the town of Flagstaff, parked the car, and walked to the viewing area. It was late in the season but the day was sunny and clear, and we could see for many miles. The Grand Canyon looked . . . well, it looked like the Grand Canyon. After a moment or two of dubious contemplation of this vast hole in the ground, my wife turned to me and, quoting Elizabeth Bishop’s poem Questions of Travel, asked, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” We then retired to the hotel which stands a few hundred metres from the rim of the Canyon and passed the rest of the afternoon happily in the hotel’s handsome bar. Later, as we drove away into the evening sunset, I knew that what I would remember of our visit would not be the Grand Canyon itself but the few pleasant hours we spent sipping good California wine and talking, and thinking, of many things, including the Grand Canyon.

Next day, in a bookshop in Phoenix, Arizona, I found Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems and looked up Questions of Travel, a superb poem which manages at once to celebrate and deplore our species’ urge to rush off to foreign places, exotic landscapes, strange and barbarous shores. Towards the end of the poem the poet presses again, in modulated form, the same rhetorical question my wife had asked at the Grand Canyon’s edge:

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come

to imagined places, not just stay at home?

I had what must have been my first glimpse of the golden world of art when I was a very young boy and read a little book called, if I remember correctly, Maggie’s Rosary, written by a woman whose name, I am embarrassed to say, I have long since forgotten. I also have the barest recollection of the circumstances of the story. Yet I do know that the book, if one could call it that, for it was hardly more than a religious pamphlet, moved me strangely. What I found affecting was not the moral of the tale, whatever it may have been—I think Maggie had been naughty and was set on the road to sanctity by the chance finding of a set of rosary beads—but one particular scene in it, of scant content and scanter consequence so far as the “plot” was concerned, has stayed with me with remarkable vividness for more than half a century. 

In fact, it was not a scene, but a moment only, a mere mood, one might say. Maggie was playing truant from school—this was the form of her naughtiness—but as all criminals are said to do had returned to the scene of the crime, and in mid-afternoon was loitering guiltily and somewhat self-pityingly outside the convent walls. It was summer, and the road was deserted, and the sun was shining on the high white wall—all this I saw in my mind, as if I were there, and not sitting in a chair reading a book—and, from within, the little girl could hear faintly her classmates in choir singing a hymn. That is all there was of it, that is all that remains with me. I do not know why I was so deeply stirred, and am stirred again whenever I recall Maggie’s little epiphany there in the silence of that summer afternoon.

So what happened, and what happens, within me in this radiant fragment of time-out-of-time? Thinking of Maggie there, dreamily alone in the sunlight and the stillness, I have a sense, as one has in dreams, of clearly remembering a place where I have never been, a place that is at once strange and wholly familiar. It is not a magical or enchanted place, but entirely mundane. It is the world as I know it, ordinary and everyday, yet somehow immanent with inscrutable significance. My heart is shaken, as the heart of Proust’s narrator was shaken, so he tells us, when he dipped the humble madeleine into the homely cup of tea and all the past opened before him, tender, resplendent, sordid, funny and, despite his author’s claims, unregainable, though somehow not entirely lost. For it does seem that the pleasure we derive from art, even art as lowly as Maggie’s Rosary, is the sweetly melancholy pleasure of perceiving something that is gone and at the same time still present, in however vestigial a form. In art, we cross over into a world that does not exist, never existed, that is imagined entirely, and yet entirely real. At every instant time falls away from us, at every instant of time we are falling away from ourselves. We are constantly shedding our essential selves, invisibly, impalpably, like scurf. Where does it go to, this of our essence that we are losing? Where is preserved what we once were, what was once us? 

Some years ago, an English television arts programme made a documentary on my work. The production when it was broadcast was painful for me to watch, since it consisted almost entirely of a conversation between the presenter and me, and the sight of myself pretending to be a television personality was an unappealing spectacle. However, in one short section an actor read a paragraph from my novel Ghosts in which the narrator describes an imaginary painting the inspiration for which was Watteau’s The Embarkation for Cythère, while on the screen there was reproduced an approximation which the technicians had manufactured of the painting. As the actor spoke, on screen the figures in the painting began to move, by the magic of technology, and somehow walked out of the frame towards the viewer. It was one of the most beautiful moments I had ever seen on television, not only because of the technical wizardry that had made it possible, but because suddenly the little tableau that had been static on the page was transformed into life before my eyes. The moving world!

Yet when I stop to consider the matter, I realise that it is not accurate for me to posit the world of art as an alternative world. One does not cross over into the world of art to escape, but to bide; not to flee from, but to enter into. In art we may not have fact, but we do have truth. And perhaps this is the real source of that aching, poignant sense of combined recognition and strangeness, of gain and of loss, that we experience in the presence of art, the sense, that is, that this world is our home and yet we are not at home in it; that the world itself is always alternative. As, again, Wallace Stevens wonderfully puts it: 

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place

That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves

And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

Now, consider this. A man wakes in the morning, feeling light-headed, even somewhat dazed. Standing in the curtained gloom in his pyjamas, blinking, he feels that somehow he is not his real, vital, fully conscious self. It is as if that other, alert version of him is still in bed, and that what has got up is a sort of shadow-self, tremulous, two-dimensional. What is the matter? Is he “coming down with something”? He does seem a little feverish. But no, he decides, what is afflicting him is no physical malady. There is, rather, something the matter with his mind. His brain feels heavy, and as if it were a size too large for his skull. Then, suddenly, in a rush, he remembers the dream.

It was one of those dreams that seem to take the entire night to be dreamt. All of him was involved in it, his unconscious, his subconscious, his memory, his imagination; even his physical self seemed thrown into the effort. The details of the dream flood back, uncanny, absurd, terrifying, and all freighted with a mysterious weight—such a weight, it seems, as is carried by only the most profound experiences of life, of waking life, that is. And indeed, all of his life, all of the essentials of his life, were somehow there, in the dream, folded tight, like the petals of a rosebud. Some great truth has been revealed to him, in a code he knows he will not be able to crack. But cracking the code is not important, is not necessary; in fact, as in a work of art, the code itself is the meaning. 

He puts on his dressing gown and his slippers and goes downstairs. Everything around him looks strange. Has his wife’s eyes developed overnight that slight imbalance, the right one a fraction lower than the left, or is it something he has never noticed before? The cat in its corner watches him out of a malevolent stillness. Sounds enter from the street, familiar and at the same time mysterious. What is happening, simply, is that the dream is infecting his waking world. 

He begins to tell his wife about the dream. His wife listens, nodding distractedly. He tries to give his words something of the weight that there was in the dream. He is coming to the crux of the thing, the moment when his dreaming self woke in the midst of the dark wood, among the murmuring voices. Suddenly his wife opens her mouth wide— is she going to beg him to stop, is she going to cry out that she finds what he is telling her too terrifying?—is she going to scream? No: she yawns, mightily, with little inward gasps, the hinges of her jaws cracking, and finishes with a long, shivery sigh, and asks if he would like to finish what is left of the scrambled egg.

The dreamer droops, dejected. He has offered something precious and it has been spurned. How can his wife not feel the significance of the things he has been describing to her? How can she not see the bare trees and the darkened air, the memory of which is darkening the very air around them now—how can she not hear the murmurous dream-voices, as he heard them? He trudges back upstairs to get himself ready for another, ordinary, day. The momentous revelations of the night begin to recede. It was just a dream, after all.

But what if, instead of accepting the simple fact that our most chaotic, our most exciting, our most significant dreams are nothing but boring to others, even our beloved others—what if he said to his wife, All right, I’ll show you, I’ll sit down and write out the dream in such an intense and compelling formulation that when you read it you, too, will have the dream; you, too, will find yourself wandering in the wild wood at nightfall; you, too, will hear the dream-voices telling you your own most secret secrets.

 I can think of no better analogy than this for the process of writing a novel. The novelist’s aim is to make the reader cross over into the reality of the novel and have the dream—not just read about it, but actually experience it: to have the dream; to write the novel.

I want to quote yet another passage from Wallace Stevens. Here are the closing stanzas of Credences of Summer:

The personae of summer play the characters

Of an inhuman author, who meditates

With the gold bugs, in blue meadows, late at night.

He does not hear his characters talk. He sees

Them mottled, in the moodiest costumes,


Of blue and yellow, sky and sun, belted

And knotted, sashed and seamed, half pales of red,

Half pales of green, appropriate habit for

The huge decorum, the manner of the time,

Part of the mottled mood of summer’s whole,


In which the characters speak because they want

To speak, the fat, the roseate characters,

Free, for a moment, from malice and sudden cry,

Complete in a completed scene, speaking

Their parts as in a youthful happiness.


I ask again: who and what are a novelist’s characters? What are they to him, and what are they for him? I distrust authors who claim that at some point or other in the course of a novel the people in his story “developed a life of their own” and “took over the plot”. I always assume that such authors are either deluded or foolish. In the particular lunatic asylum wherein the novelist works, his little manufactured madmen are never allowed to wrest the pen from his hand and assume command. 

However, we keepers of the padded cells are not entirely free, either. When I was a young man, beginning to publish fiction, I believed that I was wholly in control of what I wrote. To Beckett’s famous question, “What does it matter who speaks?”, the resounding answer I would have given is, “It matters everything”. Then something happened. In the mid-1980s I broke with my own rules of engagement, and began to work in a far more instinctive way than I had heretofore. I am not sure what caused this shift, although I do remember the precise moment when it occurred, or at least I remember the precise moment when I noticed that it had occurred. My parents had died, and I suspect I was in deep, subconscious mourning for them, and in Mefisto, the novel I was writing at the time—this was the mid-1980s—I arrived at a section in which the narrator, wandering erratically in the wake of Goethe’s Faust, pays a visit to a priestess of the Eternal Motherhood. Suddenly I realised that I did not know what I was doing, and that this was perfectly reasonable, perfectly good.

Perhaps all artists at some point in their artistic live have such moments of revelation, of clarification. For Kafka, the long night from evening to dawn during which, in a white heat of composition, he wrote in its entirety the story “The Judgement”, was the occasion of his coming-of-age as an artist. Samuel Beckett’s transformative insight, fragmentarily described in Krapp’s Last Tape, came to him on Dun Laoghaire pier one stormy night at the end of the war when he at last began “to write the things I feel”.

What I had found—in my humble fashion—was a new way, for me, of presenting human experience in fictional form, in which my characters would have at least a certain autonomy.

Yet what does it mean to say that a “character” will have “autonomy”? The marionettes who populate my novels are all aspects of me, necessarily, since I am the only raw material that I have, that is, since I am the only human being I know from the inside—though what “knowing” means in this context is a knotty philosophical question we shall not try to unravel here. My fictional characters are like the figures I encounter in my dreams, all generated out of my subconscious mind. They take the forms of others, of loved ones and strangers, friends and relations, objects of desire and harbingers of terror, but in the end they are me, the fragments of my self that has been temporarily disassembled by the mysterious agency of sleep. 

To write fiction is to be made myriad. There is a hypothesis in physics, the “many worlds theory”, which posits that reality is at every instant splitting into billions upon billions of alternatives of itself, other worlds in which each singular probability becomes a realised certainty. In our small and all too finite way, we novelists present ourselves, and our readers, with the means to cross over into other realities and live out other lives.

 People will insist on believing in the reality of fictional characters. Don Quixote, Emma Bovary, Leopold Bloom can seem more vividly real to us than the real people among whom we live our lives. The pact the reader makes with the fictional text is a mysterious and fascinating one. No matter how hard the novelist presses upon the reader’s credulity and willingness to suspend disbelief, the contract holds: Lemuel Gulliver, however improbably pinned to the sand by a multitude of tiny people or quizzed by talking horses, is for us alive in one of the multiple worlds of fiction.

How is this magic trick effected? By the power of the imagination, working in its dreamlike fashion. The imagination, that “inhuman author”, makes worlds and populates them. It is a kind of transcendent playing. Our little, lifelike figures are made, like us, in W.H. Auden’s phrase, “out of Eros and of dust”. Who on earth are they? And are they on earth? They are real, and yet how can they be? But if unreal, what a clamour they make.

 I shall close with the paragraph that the actor read on that television programme in which my imagined painting was brought magically to life. The narrator has been considering a painting by one Jean Vaublin, an invented artist—invented by me—who is not entirely dissimilar to the great Jean Antoine Watteau.

What happens does not matter; the moment is all. This is the golden world. The painter has gathered his little group and set them down in this wind-tossed glade, in this delicate, artificial light, and painted them as angels and as clowns. It is a world where nothing is lost, where all is accounted for while yet the mystery of things is preserved; a world where they may live, however briefly, however tenuously, in the failing evening of the self, solitary and at the same time together somehow here in this place, dying as they may be and yet fixed forever in a luminous, unending instant.