“Bookselling is full of characters. You don’t have to be an eccentric to be a bookseller, but it helps.”
- Gordon Graham, Editor of Logos
They say you should never meet your heroes. I met John Banville in a pub in Grand Canaria in 2005. His bare legs dangled red and swollen from a bar stool while he sipped a pina colada from a novelty straw, with a little penis on the end. He was oblivious to his fellow patrons. The pub opened out onto a street filled with scantily clad young women and topless men, who Banville seemed to watch from beneath a pair of fake designer shades, a little pot belly peeking through a multi-coloured shirt.
I was still young and half hopeful back then. I crept away from my horde, a mean group of hoors, tried to steady my drunken legs and slowly approached the creator of The Book of Evidence and Kepler.
He moaned softly and continued to stare at the passersby.
“I’m a big fan sir. I loved The Revolutions Trilogy. I’m from Wexford and I take great pride in your work.”
“Why? Did you fucking write it?” He still didn’t look at me and continued to sip at a now empty glass.
“Well no. No, I didn’t. But it inspired me to. I mean, you inspired me. To be a writer.”
Finally, he looked at me. Looked me up and down. John Banville. The great one. Regarding me the way you might a banana that you find at the back of the fridge and aren’t certain how long it’s been there. The way you might look it over for signs of decay or rot. The way you might smell it secretly before even attempting to pull the peel back.
“Well, no actually. I’m not very good at it you see. And I’m quite lazy and undisciplined.”
Banville snorted almost theatrically, moving his gaze away again to the young beautiful people in the street.
“Readers. God damn readers. Most of them look for escape, or knowledge, or the pretence of intellect, but there’s always that minority who become enamoured with it and think they want to be writers. If every god damn wannabe author in Ireland actually wrote a book, the weight of paper would sink the island.”
“I don’t think that’s physically possible,” I began but he cut me off.
“Reading is easy but what, praytell, have you written?” Banville was close now. I could smell his breath. A hint of cola, eggs and genius. “What could you ever hope to write? What noble truth or insight into the human condition can you offer mankind?”
“Well now that you ask, I do have this idea,” I told him excitedly. “It’s about this lad who was born with a deformity. It’s a disease actually but it gives him the appearance of a sheep. A sheepman. That’s the title. He’s growing up in rural Ireland in the 1980s and his father is a small farmer and his mother has ran off to join the IRA.”
“I’ll stop you there,” Banville cried, signally the barman for another drink.
“Ok, I’m going too fast...”
“No, I just want you to shut up. That was horrible. It’s a terrible idea for a book. I doubt that you could ever put it to paper because you seem illiterate and mildly retarded but, if you did, it would be grossly offensive to any human brain which had the misfortune to encounter it.”
“Are you saying it might be better as a novella Mr Banville?”
He grunted, lowered his fresh glass and walked away. He turned at the street and had to shout at me. “There’s three types of people in this world kid. People like me. Writers. We live at top of the tower. Then there’s the readership living their lives in the light that we cast below us, going all the way down to the ground.”
He moved off into the crowd of early evening revellers and lost families. I followed. I had to. My face flush with shame and rage.
“Mr Banville. John!”
I was face to face with the literary legend again. He didn’t seem to recognise me. How little a dent I had made in his reality.
“You said three types of people. The writer, the reader, and who’s the third?”
He laughed, searching his pockets for something. A cigar, or gum or maybe a handgun. “Oh they live below the tower. Underground. In the depths of the dungeons. Their day has come and gone kid.”
“Booksellers. You might be a terrible writer but take solace that you can be a reader and bask in our light. The only other alternative is down there with the booksellers and that’s a world reserved for misfits, degenerates and madmen.” He smiled and told me rather too politely to kill myself.
As I watched him walk away, I had an epiphany. My future flooded my brain in a single second.
I had a revelation. John Banville was a bit of a shite.
And I might really like to spend my life selling other peoples books.
“You know who you should get to open the bookshop extension?” Flash asks, as I try to drag a bookcase across a rubble layered floor in a soon-to-be bookshop. “John Banville.”
“I think he’d be too busy.”
“I have his number you know! We lived together on a barge in Amsterdam once. I helped him write that book about the sea. Ah what was it called again?”
“Yeah, that’s the one but I can’t remember the name. I more or less wrote it for him.”
“Do you, amm, you know, I mean to say, think maybe, ammm, that you’re, amm, making a mistake expanding the bookshop?” Pockets asks, in between breaking down a wall with a sledge.
“Don’t be stupid Pockets,” Flash screams. “Wally knows what he's at. He has a plan, don’t you Wally?”
“He has a plan Pockets. Only a bloody idiot would expand a precarious occupation like a secondhand bookshop in the midst of rising inflation, a cost of living crisis and possible third world war. Obviously he has a plan.”
I say nothing, suddenly feeling deeply concerned. Pockets nods gently and starts swinging the sledge again.
“It’s not so bad,” I whisper to Flash, who just nods knowingly. “I mean, if I can make it to Christmas without going bust or jumping off the bridge, things could look good for the future, right?”
“Right,” Flash grins. “So will I ring John Banville? He owes me you know. I once taught him the ancient art of tantric orgasm up in the rocks. Didn’t even charge him a penny for it neither.”
“We have built armaments more powerful than the total of all those used in all the wars in history.”
- George Whitman, Shakespeare & Company Bookshop, Paris