By Mark Peters
Photo by Jean Lachat

I feel as if I were in one of Henry James’ ghost stories. I’m not mystical, and I’m not saying I’m possessed by the soul of Henry James, but some part of my brain is able to cease to be me while I’m working on it.”
—John Banville, on writing sequel to Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady

Several weeks into John Banville’s class on the novels of Henry James, students came to understand why the acclaimed Irish writer had such deep insight into the characters in The Portrait of a Lady.

Banville is more than an astute reader. The winner of such prestigious literary awards as the Man Booker Prize and Franz Kafka Prize is engaged in something he described as arrogant and foolhardy: writing a sequel to the James classic.

“It is quite an intimidating undertaking. Henry James is regarded as the greatest novelist in the English language,” says Robert B. Pippin, the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, who is author of Henry James and Modern Moral Life.

Banville spent the fall quarter writing the novel, which he has titled Mrs Osmond, in a rented apartment on Woodlawn Avenue. On Wednesday afternoons, he crossed campus to teach in Foster Hall, continuing a tradition of writers from T.S. Eliot to J.M. Coetzee who were visitors in the Committee on Social Thought.

“From the first week, it was apparent that he had been reading and thinking about James for many years, and that The Portrait of a Lady was particularly important to him,” says Drew Dixon, a doctoral candidate in the committee. “He had clearly thought deeply about its central characters—which made sense, in retrospect.”

Embodying the spirit of Henry James

Banville’s sequel almost didn’t make it into class discussions. He off-handedly started talking about the new novel several weeks into the quarter, having thought he already had mentioned it. The mix of undergraduate and graduate students were interested to know where he would take character Isabel Archer after Portrait’s ambiguous ending.

“They were fascinated, and I am of course fascinated myself. It is a very strange process. I feel as if I were in one of Henry James’ ghost stories,” Banville says. “I’m not mystical, and I’m not saying I’m possessed by the soul of Henry James, but some part of my brain is able to cease to be me while I’m working on it.”

Later in the quarter, Banville read the first chapter to students and faculty packed into the fifth-floor seminar room where he taught. The reading included an excerpt in which James himself makes a brief, Hitchcock-like appearance.

“We write the books we would like to read,” Banville says. “One of the more peculiar aspects of writing fiction is that you sit in your room for weeks, months, years, and doing this strange, fantastical thing, which you’re doing entirely for yourself. Then you publish it, and by some sort of strange magic, other people find it sympathetic—find it interesting.”

History of scholars in Social Thought

Banville has spent his career largely outside of the classroom as a newspaper editor and writer. In 1989, his novel The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and then 2005, he won the award for The Sea. Under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, he also writes mystery novels, some of which the BBC has adapted.

While Banville has done little teaching, he expressed an interest to Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla, a former UChicago scholar in Social Thought. Lilla introduced his friend to Pippin, and in turn, the committee’s unique nature and storied history of visiting writers.

“The committee provides a rare chance to teach literature the way you want and not to fit a certain category,” Pippin says. “John is one of the most well-read people I know and largely self-taught.”

The committee dates back to the 1940s and has never focused on a single intellectual discipline. Instead, it brings together scholars in a variety of fields, with a goal of teaching the precision of scholarship while fostering awareness of the questions at the origin of all learned inquiry.

The approach has long drawn writers and poets as visitors and faculty members, including Nobel laureates Saul Bellow and Coetzee as well as Adam Zagajewski, Margret Drabble, A.B. Yehoshua, Mark Strand, Rosanna Warren, Bette Howland, and Eliot.

Rare opportunity for teacher, students

Banville found the experience of teaching intimidating and inspiring. As he read Portrait with the class, he found himself discovering a new novel and enjoying the energy the students brought to James.

“It’s fascinating that people of 20 years old or so are really, really interested in the questions Henry James raises,” Banville says.

For Dixon, it was a rare opportunity to be in a class in which an acclaimed writer discussed great literature. Most courses are either authors teaching students creative writing or literature scholars analyzing great books with students, he says.

“It was wonderful to discuss a great novel with someone who has made the writing of such works his life’s work,” Dixon says.

Originally published on February 9, 2017.