Do all writers make bad fathers, as John Banville asserted controversially last week? John Burns investigates
On a hot summer’s day at the end of the 1970s , the writer John Banville, then in his early thirties, was working on his novel, Kepler. His study was at the front of a house he rented near the top of Howth Head, and its bay window offered an enviable view over Dublin Bay.
Because stunning vistas distract writers, Banville worked by day with the curtains pulled, and by the light of an electric lamp. At night he was a sub-editor in the Irish Press and admits he rarely saw his two young sons, except at weekends.
On this particular day, a friend from London was staying and she and Banville’s wife had a picnic on the front lawn. “Hunched at my desk in the lamplight, I could hear them outside, the boys at play, and my wife and our friend desultorily conversing, with the occasional clink and gurgle as they refilled their wine glasses,” he later wrote.
Eventually, becoming stuck on a difficult passage, Banville went to the window and opened a chink in the curtains. What he saw was a beautiful pastoral scene: the women reclining on the grass, the children playing in the sun and the lovely village of Howth below.
Any normal human being, any right-minded husband, friend and father would have put the cover on his typewriter, turned off the lamp, and gone outside to join the picnic and play with the children, Banville admitted. Did he? “Of course not. Instead, I closed the chink in the curtains and, my eyes readjusting to the gloom, sat down at my desk and set to work again.”
Describing this incident three years ago, Banville depicted himself as an “obsessed mind-worker and a negligent father”, but, in an interview with the Irish Times last weekend, the Booker prize winner upgraded his categorisation. “I have not been a good father,” he confessed. Then in a generalisation that infuriated his peers, Banville added: “I don’t think any writer is.”
I think it’s hard to juggle the demands of any kind of work with being a full-time attentive parent
The retaliation was swift and furious. “Speak for yourself, f***nuts,” tweeted David Simon, creator of television series The Wire. “Family is family. The job is the job.” Was Banville doing any more than bear witness to Cyril Connolly’s aphorism that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”? Writers, according to the author of The Sea and The Book of Evidence, are “never absolutely there”; their lives are going on inside their heads rather than with the people around them.
Literature is densely populated with bad fathers. Ernest Hemingway was a monster, who damaged his children — one of his sons died, an alcoholic transvestite, in a women’s detention centre. Ernest Gebler was psychologically abusive, Saul Bellow was neglectful, while William Styron’s daughter admitted she was relieved when he died.
Henry James never married, believing his books would suffer and he would inevitably neglect his wife and children. Challenged by his daughter, Jill, to give up drinking, William Faulkner is said to have rebuffed her and snapped: “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.”
Stressing that he tries not to generalise, John Carey, emeritus Merton professor of English literature at Oxford, says writers perhaps tend to invest their hopes in their art rather than in their offspring. “Bad writer-parents would include Evelyn Waugh, Rebecca West (see her son’s book), Muriel Spark, C Day Lewis (see his son’s book),” said Carey. “In the 19th century, Dickens was a demanding, impatient father to his sons, though gentler with his daughters.
“Once you run your mind across the literary ranks it is surprising how few writers actually had children (D H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, George Eliot, T S Eliot, E M Forster, W H Auden, Philip Larkin) which is indicative in itself, I suppose.”
Indicative of a previous patriarchal generation, perhaps, which had a romantic notion of what is was to be “a writer”. It is impossible to think of any modern-day author being as politically incorrect as Evelyn Waugh, who once declared: “Of children as of procreation — the pleasure momentary, the posture ridiculous, the expense damnable.”
Poor John Banville, I wonder did he have any idea of the shitstorm he was about to raise when he said what he said?” mused Lia Mills, author of Fallen. The Dublin novelist was one of the few who had some sympathy with Banville’s argument. “I think it’s hard to juggle the demands of any kind of work with being a full-time attentive parent,” she said.
It must be difficult for anyone who lives with a writer, because many of them are mentally absent, she believes. “You’re thinking about people who don’t exist, instead of paying attention to what’s going on under your nose. You may as well be having an affair with the piece you’re writing — you’re always thinking about it.”
Mills points out, as did several Irish writers last week, that modern parents are far more involved with their children than their parents were with them. “Our ideas about parenting have changed completely, for fathers especially,” she said. “It’s less acceptable — and not at all desirable — for men to be unavailable to their kids, emotionally or in terms of interest or time. I don’t think there are many who would admit it so openly.”
John Connolly, author of the Charlie Parker series of crime novels, also allows Banville a certain credit and respect for the courage of admitting his failings as a father. However, he bristled at Banville “tarring everyone with the same brush, and saying all writers are bad fathers. They’re not”. Connolly recalls that for many years he lived alone, writing his novels, but then his partner, Jennifer Ridyard, moved in with their two sons. “There was a period of transition when I did find it very difficult, because I had grown used to being a little bit selfish and got used to my own space,” he said last week. “Now, one of the great joys for me is to leave my office and come down and know the family is there.”
Sheila O’Flanagan, author of The Perfect Man, says that some writers who were bad parents would have been so even if they had pursued other occupations. “It’s an ego thing, and it doesn’t really matter what those kinds of people were doing, they wouldn’t have been good parents anyway,” she said.
O’Flanagan argues that the writing/parenting conundrum is an old-fashioned, older-male preoccupation. “Many contemporary females say writing is a good career for any woman to have, because you can fit it in around the home and when your children are at school,” she said.
Some male authors are starting to do the same. Rob Doyle, author of Here Are the Young Men, recalls passages in the later books of Karl Ove Knausgård’s series My Struggle in which the Norweigan author is “pushing the buggy around while his wife is off earning, and he’s going to the children’s sing-along hour and feeding the kids”.
Doyle, who is now in his thirties and has no interest in having children because it would allow him less time for art, does know male writers of his age who are doing “the stay-at-home father thing, because the job kind of lends itself to it, in a way”.
He contrasts this with a previous generation of rampant male power, when big literary beasts such as Mailer, who stabbed one of his wives, “acted pretty atrociously, and a large part of that was to do with the privilege of being a man in an era when male power was more absolute and unquestioned”.
In fact, Mailer, though a rotten husband, was a decent dad. There are many examples of exemplary literary parents, including Thackeray, “a fond father to his two daughters”, according to Carey. “Seamus Heaney was a loving father, also Robert Graves,” he adds. “Also, I think, James Joyce.”
Banville, of course, may have been hopping a ball, or being gnomic, as he might say himself. After all, the Wexford author does have a book to promote (Time Pieces : A Dublin Memoir).
Dermot Bolger, the Dublin poet and novelist, suspects that generalisations such as “all writers are bad parents” are normally intended to be more rhetorical than rooted in actuality. “Maybe the only people who can really answer the question of whether writers make good fathers are the children of writers. Speaking as both a father and a son, I can’t imagine that being a writer makes it any harder to be a father than being a sailor, which is what my father was,” he said.
Some children of famous authors have delivered their verdicts publicly, and even in print. Greg Bellow, a psychoanalyst, wrote a candid though sympathetic account of Saul. Carlo Gebler wrote Father and Son: A Memoir, which concludes: “You can’t change the past but, with understanding, you can sometimes draw the poison out of it.”
Or inject more poison in. Waugh’s reputation will forever be tarnished by an anecdote recounted by his son, Auberon, in a 1991 autobiography Will This Do? During the Second World War, Waugh’s wife managed to get three rationed bananas for each of their children. When she brought them home, Evelyn sat down in front of his family, peeled all three bananas, added cream and sugar, and scoffed the lot.
“It would be absurd to say that I never forgave him,” Auberon wrote, “but he was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment.”
It must gall writers who are bad parents that their children get to have the last word.