by SRB

Despatch from the Book Festival – Tuesday 17 August

August 18, 2010 | by SRB

by Alan Taylor

Aminatta Forna 10.15

John Banville 11.30

John Burnside and David Vann

BORN in Glasgow to an Aberdonian mother and a Sierre Leone father, now living in London, Aminatta Forna is a cocktail of cultures. Her father, a doctor who was also a political dissident, was murdered in 1975 in Sierre Leone whose calamitous civil war inspired her novel, The Memory of Love. In an interesting but low key session, Forna spoke of the country she regards as home with affectionate dispassion.

After the war ended the rebuilding and recriminations began. Sierre Leone, Forna suggested, is a country where the default reaction is silence. There are those, she said, who are at ease with silence, those who are silent because they are traumatised, and those whose silence is “borne of having been complicit”. Her novel’s main character is a man who survived and is apparently eager to justify his existence and “decades of inertia”. As a launch pad for a novel it sounded promising but the passages Forna read failed to take flight.

This is not an accusation that can be directed at Man Booker winner John Banville, who said he’s been known to spend three months honing a paragraph, ensuring that he has its rhythm finely tuned. Such surgical care is evident in his most recent novel, The Infinities, which is set
in Ireland in an old house where its principal character, an innovative mathematician, is dying.

Evocative of Shakespeare’s comedies and an homage of sorts to Heinrich Von Kleist’s play, Amphitryon, it shows Banville at his most playful, philosophical and mischievous. It is also a family saga. “I think there’s even an Aga in it,” he said, in the Book Festival’s most shameless example of product placement to date.

An aphorist as well as a novelist, Banville simultaneously welcomed and bemoaned the process of ageing or, as he put it, “the spectacle of the dissolution of the self”. He is also a walking dictionary of quotations  T.S. Eliot, John Updike, Rainer Maria Rilke, Iris Murdoch and Pablo Picasso were all name-checked. Whereas in the past, he said, he planned his novels meticulously, “now I drift”. He also said he is contemplating writing an autobiography which will be more or less untrue. Hence, one supposes, the term ‘fiction’.

John Burnside and David Vann share Banville’s irreverence towards what is often called the real world. In a session on how writers deal with writing about their families, Burnside  arguably Cowdenbeath’s finest living writer  read a passage about learning to drive while Vann, who is American, described a trip to Alaska where halibut the size of houses are caught and cut into giant steaks.

Both pieces, we were told, were not really what they seemed but were actually different ways of dealing with the writers’ dysfunctional relationships with their fathers. In a telling commentary on the state of publishing, Burnside said that publishers these days are more interested in fact than fiction. “It’s better if you can pass something off as true,” he said. File under ‘priceless advice’.

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