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

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The Independent Culture
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.