A Lady From 1881 Gets A New Portrait In 'Mrs. Osmond' | WYPR

A Lady From 1881 Gets A New Portrait In 'Mrs. Osmond'

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on November 18, 2017 8:36 am

John Banville has written a novel that is at once an epochal act of imitation, salutation and imagination. He's taken Isabel Archer, Henry James' protagonist in his 1881 novel The Portrait Of A Lady, and painted a portrait beyond that classic frame. The result is a sequel, Mrs. Osmond, in much of the manner of Henry James.

"It was years ago my wife said to me, 'Look why don't you write the second half of The Portrait Of A Lady?' At the time I thought, 'No, it would be like feeding on the carcass of a lion,'" Banville says. "But then, I guess, last year I needed a change of direction."


Interview Highlights

On how writing and reading have changed over the years

You know, when I started publishing fiction back in 1970, very few people read fiction. In Ireland, it was all poetry. Everybody read poetry. It was only in the 1980s that fiction suddenly became fashionable, and we've had a good run of it. But it's still one of the most immediate experiences one can have in life is to read a good novel. The extraordinary thing to me about writing itself is that these black marks on a white space are transformed into images, ideas, fantasies, philosophies. It's only because we've got used to it that we take it for granted.

I remember I was sitting on a bus one day, and I saw these people with these phones in their hands, flicking them up and up and up, and I said to my friend — I said, 'What are they doing?' and he said, 'They're reading.' You know, reading on a screen is still reading. I have a very democratic attitude to reading. My wife and I bought our first dishwasher — great luxury in those days. The instruction manual was written in the most beautiful English: very plain, very clear, precise, even witty. Good writing can happen anywhere.

On not going to college

Oh. I only regret it because I regret those three or four years of drinking too much, and chasing girls and being generally lazy. I started to work too early. [University] probably would've made me afraid to tackle subjects that I have tackled in my writing life ... because education, to a certain extent, limits the really good teachers. They don't teach you. They just say, 'Here's what you should read. Here's the direction you should go in,' and I did that for myself.

On Mrs. Osmond's character

I mean, I first read The Portrait Of a Lady when I was in my early 20s, and I immediately fell in love with Isabel Osmond, and as well as falling in love with her, I saw her as myself — young, impetuous, determined. When I read the book again in middle age, I saw her differently. I saw how subtly James had shown up her weaknesses and her failings. One thing that I discovered when I read the book very, very closely in order to write the sequel, is that I think Henry James forgot at the end just how young Isabel is. At the end of The Portrait Of A Lady, she's still not 30. He treats her as a sort of middle-aged, grande signora, so I had to bring her back and make her younger again. I had planned the end of this book that she was going to meet a personable young man, fall in love, go back to America. But when I came to the end of it, I realized I couldn't do that. So, in fact, the end of my book is just as open as the end of The Portrait Of A Lady. So maybe somebody else will take it up.

I'm hoping that a woman will write the third book, take Isabel to America, and give her a life there.

On if he ever goes a day without writing

Well I would if I could. I would like a weekend-less week. You know, a card said, 'Work is more fun than play.' I say work is more fun than fun. I remember getting a postcard from Brian Friel, the playwright. He was on holiday in France, and he said, 'Here for two weeks. One with good behavior.' That's my attitude to holidays. People need holidays who lead boring lives. I like my life, so why would I need a holiday from it?

This story was edited for radio by Ian Stewart and Barrie Hardymon, and adapted for web by Sydnee Monday and Patrick Jarenwattananon.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

John Banville has written a novel that is at once an epochal act of imitation, salutation and imagination. He's taken Isabel Archer, Henry James's protagonist in his 1881 novel "The Portrait Of A Lady," and painted a portrait beyond that classic frame, writing a sequel in much of the manner of Henry James but to the same outcome, John Banville's novel "Mrs. Osmond." And John Banville, a Booker Prize and Guardian Fiction award winner who is often mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize for literature, joins us in our studios. Mr. Banville, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN BANVILLE: I'm very glad to be here.

SIMON: What active imagination or effrontery or - what was it that inspired you to try and write a sequel to a book that is so well-known and precious to so many people?

BANVILLE: I know. Well, it was my initial foolhardiness and overweening pride that made me do it. No, it was years ago my wife said to me, look, why don't you write the second half of "Portrait Of A Lady?" At the time, I thought, no. It would be like feeding on the carcass of a lion. But then I guess last year I needed a change of direction. I needed to do something new. And I thought, I will do it. And I found to my amazement that I could write somewhat in the style of Henry James. I mean, it's not Henry James's style. If you put a page of Henry James beside a page of mine, you see the difference. But it sounds enough like it to get away with it. And late in life, I've discovered that I'm a kind of parrot (laughter).

SIMON: Well, in this case, of course, Henry James.

BANVILLE: Henry James - it's a wonderful and a great style. And great styles are much more easily imitated than plain styles.

SIMON: Right.

BANVILLE: But James's style is so particular and so - well, I was going to say unique. But, of course, it's not unique if I can do it, as well.

SIMON: (Laughter) Oftentimes, when reading the book and enjoying what I'll refer to as luxuriance of some of the descriptions, it occurred to me we don't read this anymore. For one thing, they don't fit on the screen of an iPhone.

BANVILLE: You know, when I started publishing fiction back in 1970, very few people read fiction. In Ireland, it was all poetry. Everybody read poetry. It was only in the 1980s that fiction suddenly became fashionable. And we've had a good run of it. But it's still one of the most immediate experiences one can have in life - is to read a good novel. The extraordinary thing about - I mean, about writing itself - is that these black marks in a white space are transformed into images, ideas, fantasies, philosophies. It's only because we've got used to it that we take it for granted.

I remember I was sitting on a bus one day. And I saw these people with these phones in their hands - and flicking them up and up and up. And I said to my friend - I said, what are they doing? He said they're reading. You know, reading on a screen is still reading. I have a very democratic attitude to reading. When my wife and I bought our first dishwasher - great luxury in those days - the instruction manual was written in the beautiful English - very plain, very clear, precise, even witty. Good writing can happen anywhere.

SIMON: In interviews over the years, you've suggested that you regret the fact that you never went to university but don't believe it would have made you a better writer.

BANVILLE: Oh, I only regret it because I regret those three or four years of drinking too much and chasing girls and being generally lazy. I started work too early. Probably would've made me afraid to tackle subjects that I have tackled in my writing life.

SIMON: Because?

BANVILLE: Because education, to a certain extent, limits. The really good teachers - they don't teach you. They just say, here's what you should read. Here's the direction you should go in. And I do that for myself.

SIMON: You wound up, I gather, as a clerk - or should I say a clark (ph) - at Aer Lingus for a couple of years.

BANVILLE: Yes. You see, in those days, in the early '60s, it was almost impossible to get off the island of Ireland. And I was determined to get out, and this is a way of doing it. I remember one of the first flights I made was direct from London to San Francisco first class. And the cost was two pounds.

SIMON: (Laughter).

BANVILLE: And I went to Paris. I went to Rome. I went to Greece a number of times. And then I came to America. Like, I still remember the first time I went into a supermarket in Berkeley in California - this is May 1968. I can still smell the tear gas - and seeing a row of fruits and vegetables sort of stretching to infinity, it seemed. And I thought I was hallucinating. I thought somebody must've slipped me some LSD. I'd never seen such...

SIMON: Well, if you were in Berkeley, the chances are...

BANVILLE: I had never seen such colors and such variety and such richness. I remember thinking, my goodness. This is a new world.

SIMON: Let me ask you a bit more about "Mrs. Osmond." Were you careful in how you treated a character who is so important to so many readers, including you?

BANVILLE: Oh, yes. I mean, I first read "Portrait Of A Lady" when I was in my early 20s. And I immediately fell in love with Isabel - Osmond. And as well as falling in love with her, I saw her as myself - young, impetuous, determined. When I read the book again in middle age, I saw her differently. I saw her subtly. James had shown up her weaknesses and her failings.

One thing that I discovered when I read the book very, very closely in order to write the sequel is that I think Henry James forgot at the end just how young Isabel is. At the end of the book, she's still not 30. I mean, he treats her as this sort of middle-aged grande signora. So I had to bring her back and make her younger again. I had planned the end of this book - that she was going to meet a personable young man, fall in love and go back to America. But when I came to the end of it, I realized I couldn't do that. So, in fact, the end of my book is just as open as the end of "The Portrait Of A Lady." So maybe somebody else will take it up.

SIMON: Well, I wondered. In my notes here, I refer to it as a Jamesian (ph) ending. Or is it an invitation to your own sequel?

BANVILLE: Well, I'm hoping that a woman will write the third book. Take Isabel to America and give her a life there.

SIMON: John Banville - his novel "Mrs. Osmond." Thanks so much for being with us.

BANVILLE: Thank you. It's a great pleasure.

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