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An Irish passion for the language

November 06, 2005|Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

THIS year's Man Booker Prize-winning novel, "The Sea" by the Irish writer John Banville, represents a vote for the importance of language over plot. Plot, after all, comes and goes; elegant language remains. It pierces deep into the human condition. It tells us who and what we are. And the Irish are the undisputed masters of language. "[The English] forced it down our throats," says Irish playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry, whose novel "A Long Long Way" was on this year's Booker shortlist. "And we spit it back at them better than it was."

Banville's perspective is more measured. "Sebastian grew up in the upper middle class," he says during an interview in London in the tense hours before the Booker winner is announced. (Banville places himself firmly in the lower middle class.) "I would put it differently: The Irish language is very oblique, very poetic. It's a mode of avoidance. We would never say, 'I am a man.' We would say, 'I am in my mannishness.' It's not a declarative language. English, on the other hand, is a language of command." Irish, adds Banville, is guttural, consonantal. And nature is ever-present. "The world is a constant in Irish literature. It is possible to read an English novel and still not have a sense of the weather in the story."

Colm Toibin, author of "The Master," has a different theory about why the Irish produce such fine writers. "It has always been cool, in Ireland, to be a writer. In the 19th century, the only way out of abject Catholic poverty was to learn to read and write. The British need clerks, so reading and writing took on a value. If you could read and write, you could work in a post office or a bank."

Separating plot from language is an if-you-had-a-gun-to-your-head-and-had-to-choose proposition. Plot without language is myth, and language without plot is screed, babble, chaos. But when language trumps, it is, according to many writers and readers, a vote for inventiveness over control.

"A good sentence can make any plot beautiful," says El Monte writer Salvador Plascencia, whose recent novel, "The People of Paper," comes down firmly on the side of language. "In workshops, no one says, 'Hey, man, that was a bad narrative move.' But they do say, 'That sentence doesn't work.' And anyway, if it's true there are only seven stories in the world, why try to invent a new one? Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy."

Perhaps no writer embodies the transformative force of language more than William Shakespeare. "Even students who deeply love Shakespeare," says Shakespearean scholar and UCLA professor David Rodes, "can barely recite the plot of even one of the 37 plays. I'm not sure I could. It's the inventiveness of the language they remember. But even inventive language can seem purely evangelical without serious matters behind it. Out of context, any language can seem ripe." How does Rodes explain the Irish talent for distinctive writing? "More than any other place," he says of Ireland, with its tall-tale telling and pub culture, "the spoken and written language are vibrantly in touch with each other. There's an intense playfulness that keeps the language vividly alive."

Banville is sometimes accused of writing dark, "gothic" novels. "I'm not Bart Simpson, scribbling on the blackboard," he says. "I have a harsh, bitter music, a scream in my head." "The Sea" was going to be a little book about childhood and the seaside, he says, quoting Baudelaire's idea that literary genius is the ability to summon up childhood at will. "And then I brought Max in. I am astonished by how much people feel about this book."

The author identifies himself as a Beckettian as opposed to a Joycean: "You must have control, you must have rules, or the rosebud will never open." But both Banville and Barry admit to getting "lost" in writing. "Time is different when I write," says Banville. "I sit up in the attic. My wife comes in: 'I'm going to the shops, do you want anything?' 'No,' I say. A minute later, she's back. 'I thought you were going to the shops,' I say. 'I've been,' she says.' " *

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