Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Am reading John Banville's 2010 novel The Infinities. In earlier years I made my characteristic little remarks here, here and here about reading other Banville novels. And it has gradually become plain to me that the thing about his writing that I never tire of has to do with cadence – the placement of stresses, the pitch, the pacing, the vowel-patterns within and between sentences. Verbal play as well, and irony. Percussion. Often I feel no particular affinity with the subject of the book, sometimes I don't even care much what happens to the characters, but the rhythmic armature itself is balm.

Not that this ear-determined admiration on my part is exclusively devoted to Banville. There is a specific hall of honor inside my head for a recognizable group of living Irish writers. To me at least they seem to share certain musical virtues, certain traits of diction that I take to have something to do with the way English has evolved in Ireland. Among the others: Ann Enright, Colm Toibin, Sebastian Barry, William Trevor.

I don't know how other people decide whether or not they want to read a particular story, but I do it by opening to the first page and listening to how the words fall. Within half a dozen sentences it is either a "yes" or a "no" – and perhaps I am writing about John Banville this time because I think his current opening paragraph is one of the most alluring in my long and promiscuous experience. And this is it –

Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally. It is a spectacle we immortals enjoy, this minor daily resurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day. What a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy. Many of them sleep on, of course, careless of our cousin Aurora's charming matutinal trick, but there are always the insomniacs, the restless ill, the lovelorn tossing on their solitary beds, or just the early-risers, the busy ones, with their knee-bends and their cold showers and their fussy little cups of black ambrosia. Yes, all who witness it greet the dawn with joy, more or less, except of course condemned men, for whom first light will be the last, on earth.