Ireland | 2003, 2005
John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. He is the former literary editor of the Irish Times and the author of twelve novels, including Kepler (Guardian Prize for Fiction), Copernicus, The Newton Letter, The Untouchable, The Book of Evidence (short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize), Eclipse and Shroud. His latest book Prague Pictures: Portrait of a City, completed at Santa Maddalena, will be published in 2003. He lives in Dublin. He returned to Santa Maddalena in 2005.
As I think you know, I went to Santa Maddalena with some reluctance. I had been to “writers retreats” before – when are writers not in retreat, in all senses of the word? – and I had not found them congenial. Indeed, after a four-month stint at a place I shall not name in America, in the 1980s, I came home and promptly tore up all the work I had done there, and started over, at my own desk, with my own piece of wall to stare at, and, most importantly, with Irish rain beating against the windows. I have always needed my own grim little nest in which to work. When I was young, I envied people such as Lawrence Durrell who seemed to be able to write in any circumstances and any surroundings, even in a villa by the Mediterranean, or an olive grove in Greece. For me, such places would produce only weeks and months of inactivity. As a writer, I agree with two of Philip Larkin’s dicta: for him, he said, deprivation was what daffodils were for Wordsworth; he also remarked wistfully that he would very much like to go to China, provided he could come back the same day.
What I am saying, is that, for me, the exotic, the luxurious, the sunlit, are usually inimical to work. Santa Maddalena, however, vas different. Not only did I fall in love with the place, and the people, but I was able to write there, too, with splendid results. In my three weeks in the Tower – with a four-day trip to Paris in the middle – I was able to finish a book on Prague, write two-thirds of a three-hour television drama, and a radio play for BBC. Not bad, even if it is I who says so.
I had heard glowing reports of Santa Maddalena from others who have been there, including Zadie Smith, Edmund White and Colim Tóibìn. Frankly, I did not believed them. Nowhere, I thought, could be that good. They were right, and I was wrong. There is something in that house, that tower, those grounds, a quality of tranquillity, that I have not experienced elsewhere. Even the dead offered a welcome: from the window of my work room I could look down on the stone pyramid where Grisha’s ashes rest; his spirit was a wholly friendly, wholly benign presence.
And then there was the conversation. In the middle of the afternoons, I confess, as I ploughed through another chapter on Prague, another scene for actors, the only thing that kept me going was the prospect of the night’s dinner table: some good food, some good wine, and a very great deal of the most entertaining talk I have been lucky enough to share in, anywhere. Beatrice, your stories, as you know, are unique – fascinating, colourful, moving, sometimes outrageous, and, above all, funny. We laughed a lot at Santa Maddalena. That was the most unexpected thing. And perhaps the nicest.
Thank you for everything, Beatrice, and please, please – when can I come back?