SECOND THOUGHTS / Greece wasn't the word: John Banville on his first novel, Nightspawn (Gallery Press, pounds 6.95)

MY WIFE'S American grandmother always held that when pancakes were being made, the first one, being a test- run, should be thrown away. I am sure most novelists, with notable exceptions such as Thomas Mann and Joseph Heller, see the wisdom of this piece of advice when they take a cringing peek between the covers of their first effort. Writers in other genres do not seem to have such queasy feelings about their firstlings; the novel, however, is remarkably intolerant of youth and inexperience.

I have not read Nightspawn since I corrected the proofs more than 20 years ago. When I started to write it I already had another book - Long Lankin, a collection of stories and a novella - being prepared for publication, and at the age of 25 I had no doubt that I was about to transform the novel as we knew it.

I suppose my strongest feeling in those days, one which I have never entirely lost, was a deep distrust of the novel form. Plot, character, psychology: such words had me reaching for my revolver. The novelists I admired - Nabokov, Waugh, Lawrence Durrell - were master artificers whose primary interests were language and form. I remember a reviewer of Nightspawn gently suggesting that I had been reading the wrong people; at the time I was outraged, but now I think perhaps he was right. Not that I think the writers I have named, and the others I read in adolescence, are less good than I thought they were then; but perhaps they were not the best models for an ambitious tyro to adopt.

I set Nightspawn in Greece - on the island of Mykonos, to be exact - because I wanted to get as far away from Ireland as my limited experience of the world would allow. The novel, and the stories and novella before it, were concerned with the question of freedom: how to achieve it, and what to do with it when it had been achieved. The Greek setting was meant as a declaration that whatever my characters achieved, certainly I had freed myself. However, by the time Nightspawn appeared I had moved back to Ireland, where I have stayed. Freedom is not a matter of geography.

I have no doubt that Nightspawn was the most difficult of my books. In the space of a year, in a small upstairs room on a damp and dreamy street in Fulham, I wrote eight versions of it, all in the third person; then one afternoon - I remember the moment with piercing vividness - I realised that what the poor thing had been crying out for was a first- person narrator. After that, it took me about a month to write the finished version.

Do not mistake me: the book holds a dear place in my heart. Whatever its faults, it contains the best of what I could do. It is incandescent, crotchety, posturing, absurdly pretentious, yet in my memory it crackles with frantic, antic energy; there are sentences in it that I still quote to myself with secret and slightly shame- faced pleasure. I love the first paragraph, the first of my first paragraphs, that place of engagement where the new reader is taught anew how to read. There sounds in it too, I think, however faintly, that tragic note which is the mark of all true works of art, great and small.

It catches, I believe, something of the harsh thereness of the Greek landscape. I remember the moment when the idea for the book - not characters, not plot, not any of that, but the idea - came to me. I was on a boat rounding a headland off the island of Delos. The light of the October afternoon was dense as bullion, the sea was, well, wine-dark, the meltemi was blowing; suddenly from behind the rocks there appeared a sloop with a sail the colour of old blood angled sharply to the world, and I knew I had it in me.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test