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

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.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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