Soon after winning the Booker Prize for his novel The Sea, John Banville was quoted as saying:
We writers are shy, nocturnal creatures. Push us into the light and the light blinds us.
His quote seemed to echo the sentiments of Max Morden, the central character in The Sea:
To be concealed, protected, guarded, that is all I have ever truly wanted, to burrow down into a place of womby warmth and cower there, hidden from the sky’s indifferent gaze and the harsh air’s damagings.
When I heard that John Banville would be speaking to a crowded London Review Bookshop therefore, I immediately bought a ticket, imagining a shrieking man, melting and writhing on the floor.
In The Sea, Max Morden finds shelter in the past, vividly recounting events that have taken place some fifty years previously. He recalls in rich detail one summer in particular where, as a boy, he is befriended by the Grace family, despite the vast differences in class that exist between them.
That I had managed to scramble from the base of those social steps all the way up to the level of the Graces seemed . . . a token of specialness, of being the one chosen among so many of the unelect. The gods had singled me out for their favour.
When I find myself amongst the attendees of author events, I too am gripped by a sense of achievement. In my experience, it is often the intelligent, well-read, well-to-do classes that frequent such literary gatherings, and the John Banville event proved no exception. On the evening in question, I had arrived in my gardening clothes, flapping about like a pigeon inside a train station, not quite sure how I’d got in. It’s difficult to know the dress code for these bookish occasions. Part of me acknowledges a certain formal reverence that comes with the presence of the authors themselves (in this case a Booker Prize winner), and also my fellow audience, who are, for the most part, exceptionally groomed. At the same time, however, our seats were plastic fold-out chairs; we were in a bookshop, not Grosvenor House; and books themselves are often read on toilets by people with their bottom bits bared.
The woman seated to my left was all fancied up in a brown sequinned dress, and her leg was positioned across her knee, causing her suspended leather-strap shoe to breach my space, the area in front of my chair. I gave her foot a polite little pat with my hand, beckoning it back into its rightful zone. But she took exception to this, and began to jerk about like a vibrating chair.
‘I-BEG-YOUR-PARDON!!’ Her voice sounded like a very slow printer printing a large jpeg image.
Meanwhile, her foot still bobbled in my region, so I pushed it again and gave her shoulder a little nudge.
‘Get out,’ I said.
Her face flushed with colour and her pincer hand squeezed my fleshy side hard, her shoe delivering a sharp heel kick to my shin. Swivelling on my bottom, I raised my feet to the side of her chair and began shunting her out into the aisle. We were pawing and clawing like a flippered fight between sea lions when a red-finger-nailed woman in front turned and hissed, ‘STOP IT, YOU TWO!!’
John Banville must have been waiting in some side room, drinking wine for the nerves, or brandy perhaps, like Max Morden favours in The Sea. I too was drinking, having helped myself to a bottle of white from the complimentary drinks table. I’d placed this bottle on the Current Affairs shelving to the right of my seat, and while waiting for John Banville to appear I began to browse the titles, my mucky hands policed beneath pulled-down jumper sleeves. None of the books had been pre-signed, and I attributed this to their non-fiction nature, having been written by journalists, academics and other unsexy people.
It was interesting to think, however, that someone would purchase the very book I happened to be holding, and they would take it back to their house in some borough or village and read it. Having digested a small passage myself, for free, but finding it rather dry, I decided to add a passage of my own. Tearing a page from my notebook, and tearing this, in turn, in two, I wrote, upon the first sheet, SEE PAGE 241. Inserting this between pages five and six, I proceeded to write on the second sheet:
BEWARE THE DWARD INSIDE YOUR BODY! BEWARE THE LITTLE STARING DWARF THAT PEERS OUT THROUGH YOUR BODY! YOU HAVE A LITTLE DWARF INSIDE YOU! IT’S LOOKING OUT OF YOUR EYES, MAKING THEM TWITCH ABOUT! IT’S STARTING OUT OF YOUR EYES! A LITTLE DWARF!
Glancing around at the lightly chattering audience sipping at their single helpings of wine, I discreetly inserted this second note between the polished pages numbered 240 and 241, replaced the book in its shelf slot and rubbed my sleeve hands.
The complimentary wine was tasty, and I was drinking it rather fast, but I certainly wasn’t cut when I suddenly heard a voice introduce the evening’s author as Benjamin Black.
After the audience applause, a man sat at the table, absorbing the full glare of the spotlight. Unlike most author events, there was no accompanying interviewer, so he faced the crowd alone, as if representing himself in the dock. He began reading from a book, but it wasn’t The Sea. It wasn’t even a John Banville title. It was a book by Benjamin Black. I’d paid good money to see John Banville. Enough for a couple, three brandies. I’d even stored a first edition of The Sea safely in my satchel in the hope that it would be touched and signed by the author. But having come to hear Max Morden through the voice of John Banville, I was lumbered with Benjamin Black instead.
Still, it was John Banville, in a sense.
He had a rich Irish voice for instance, and his physical features matched the photo I’d found on the Internet. It was pinned to my wall in fact, above the photograph of his Writer’s Room that I’d cut with scissors from the Guardian. His Dublin study had bright red carpet, postcards affixed to the white walls, and a thin rug beneath a table, which I’m sure concealed an escape hatch.
‘… I used to shut my door on entering each morning and put the chain on… Here I am unassailable. Or so I like to think.’
John Banville also writes books under a secondary name, and this particular night he had come as the other. He isn’t the only author with a pseudonym or an alter ego. Ian Rankin is Jack Harvey, Ruth Rendell is Barbara Vine, and Iain Banks is also Iain M. Banks. However, I’d thought these were names to be hidden behind, to protect the identity, to safeguard the truth. But John Banville wasn’t even wearing a disguise. He could have donned a false moustache, or an Ace Frehley painted face. But he must have forgotten. We all forget things, I suppose. Even Max Morden.
I was reminded of people I know who pretend to be other people. People who, when greeted by me in the public domain, feign knowledge of our acquaintance, saying, ‘No, you must be mistaken, I’m not that person, I’m someone else.’ Though normally at pains to avoid others, preferring the company of plants, birds and insect life, I will, if found to be somewhat loose, loudly sing out a greeting to a comrade. Having spied such a fellow in the pub or across the street, I’ll shout their name, repeating it, and then again. But such people, I find, will often look away, or they’ll shake their heads and the hands they are extending, saying, ‘No, no, no. No, you’re wrong.’
I wondered if Benjamin Black had his own Writer’s Room. Maybe it was inside one of those mysterious doors on the Underground that read: DANGER: RISK OF ELECTROCUTION. Or perhaps he wrote in a secret chamber in the side of a hill, accessible only by driving one’s car into a cave. Could it be that John Banville was the Bruce Wayne character and Benjamin Black was the caped crusader? I nodded vigorously, tapping the side of my nose.
When he read from the passage in his novel, he didn’t hold the book right up to his face, obscuring his head, which is what I’d have done to hide the rivulets of brow sweat and my inner dwarf ’s manic darting eyes. And I’d have brought an A0-sized copy of my book so if I squatted down, I could also block out my torso and legs, existing purely as a voice with shoes. Benjamin Black, meanwhile, held his book out like a red cape, as if daring the assembled crowd to stampede. It was surely just a matter of time before those pre-drinks of his wore off and he began to clutch his cheeks and wail.
The free bottle of wine I’d claimed earlier was empty, so I decided to head back for another. The drinks were positioned just a few large strides to the right of Benjamin Black himself, who, having finished the passage from his book, was now addressing the gathered literati with anecdotes and amusing tales:
‘People tell me things about my books that I know nothing of.’
‘There is no black and white, no Black and Banville; there is seepage.’
‘You can’t say “schmuck” in the New York Times.’
I stood there and listened for a time, scrutinizing his performance from the wings. He was a big strapping fellow, with the right sort of physique for lifting cars. But he didn’t appear grizzly or dangerous, like Ernest Hemingway; he clearly felt no need to live up to some big-guy image, so there were no tales about tree fellings or monster trout beheadings. His hands actually looked rather soft and prissy, although I was very sure he could have ripped his book in half with those hands. But you see, he didn’t.
He was desperately under-disguised, however, and so, after some time had passed, I set about capturing his attention with a series of arm flaps, like a chimp dance. His speech faltered slightly, like a car that continues to move after its engine has fallen onto the road, and he enquired of my movements with a pensive, awkward stare. Ringing my hands around my eyes, I mouthed the words, ‘YOUR MASK! YOUR MASK!’
On the journey back to my seat, I passed a simple paper sign that read ‘toilet’. Ducking between an expanse in the rows of chairs, I cautiously descended the steep staircase which led to the loo in question. I’d never been for a wee in a bookshop before, and as I stood in the small basement room, cushioned from air-strike by thousands of books, I found myself thinking about the radiant light that Max Morden sees in the bathroom of his guest house:
A spot of it on the curve of the hand-basin streamed outward in all directions like an immensely distant nebula. Standing there in that white box of light I was transported for a moment to some far shore, real or imagined, I do not know which, although the details had a remarkable dreamlike definition…
My eyes had gone cross-eyed in the mirror, and when they refocused I realized my hair and face were completely drenched, leaking great streams onto the tiled floor. I set about paper-towelling my person dry, and as I did, I noticed the disturbed water in the toilet bowl, the shimmering ripples reflecting a muted light that I myself had activated by pulling a cord that stretched almost to the floor. Toilet paper abounded on a shelf behind the seat, and I unravelled four rolls, wrapping two around each arm before covering them up with my jumper sleeves. My hair was tightly slicked back as I clambered up to the shop, loudly clicking my fingers in time with every new step ascended by my sturdy, no-nonsense shoes.
When the final drops of the second wine bottle had all but disappeared, I headed back with the empty, eager to tidy away my litter. A narrow aisle had been formed between the plastic chairs down the centre of the bookshop, and as I made my passage like a hairy bride in gardening trousers, I had to support my hands on the shoulders of the congregation because I was walking without a steadying bar across an imaginary wobbly wire. When I passed Benjamin Black a further time, I discreetly slipped him a scrawled note folded inside a knotted handkerchief. The note read:
TIE THE HANKIE ACROSS YOUR FACE!
The Fire Exit door was to the left of the free drinks, and a green plastic sign above it featured an illustrated character running urgently and pointing to his bottom, as if it were aflame. The frame around the door was painted a sullen road-surface grey, and in its centre was a single large glass pane, which I ran towards with a protruding arm and shoulder, smashing through and sounding the alarm.
Although I am a small man, the toilet paper around my biceps gave me the appearance of a Greek god, such as He-Man, muscle-bound and bronzed. However, I found myself susceptible to the icy blast of wind outside, given my damp hair and the fact that I was barely clad within a light toga. After picking myself up, brushing off the fine shards, I beckoned to Benjamin Black/John Banville, holding my goose-pimpled arms forward and upwards in a gesture of flight. It was time to deliver him back to the quiet solitude of his cave, an action given greater resonance by the noisy kerfuffle now erupting within the boisterous confines of the London Review Bookshop.