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Arts & Culture

The Rescue

April 2, 2012 | by

Our Spring Revel will take place tomorrow, April 3. In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Robert Silvers, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize.

“I first met Robert Silvers in 1989 at a party that George Plimpton gave for me at his apartment on Sutton Place.” It would be hard to exaggerate how gratifying it is to be able to write down such a sentence. Those were heady days. My novel, The Book of Evidence, had been shortlisted for that year’s Booker Prize, and I was riding on the crest of a wave that, as it turned out, would quickly run into the sands, though the ride was fine while it lasted. I may not have been exactly the toast of New York, but an evening at George’s place that included an encounter with the editor of The New York Review of Books was bubbly enough for me.

Bob that night inquired where I was staying in New York and said he would “send something round.” When I got back to my hotel room there was a parcel waiting for me, containing Denis Donoghue’s memoir Warrenpoint, along with a note from Bob asking if I would write on it for the NYRB. At least, that was what it seemed to be asking, for this was my first experience of Bob’s handwriting and it took a good ten minutes of peering and squinting before I had deciphered enough of the message to guess at the overall import.

I have had many notes from Bob since then, most of them brief and all of them hard to read, but never less than courtly in tone. The few longer ones have tended to be typed, on what is evidently a real typewriter. This last is oddly comforting; somehow a man who continues to type is a man one can trust.

Bob’s edits are scrupulous, comprehensive, and precise. They are frequently aimed at saving the reviewer’s face. I recall, through a pink mist of embarrassment, a notice I wrote some years ago of a book on Nietzsche. I had been reading Nietzsche since I was an adolescent, and here at last was my chance to say about him everything that was in my heart. However, the heart, as we know, is an undependable organ, and the ten-thousand-word dithyramb I dashed off was as overblown and self-contradictory as anything old Zarathustra himself ever wrote.

In his first response, a note that was the written equivalent of a tactful clearing of the throat, Bob pointed out that the Review really could not accommodate a piece of that magnitude; and besides ... After much to-ing and fro-ing the review appeared at one third its original length, but even that was enough to bring down upon my head a snowstorm of letters from irate Nietzsche specialists, all of whom said, more or less, that they and not I should have been commissioned to write the review; had Bob not been the editor he is, and had the piece appeared in anything like the form I'd written it in, I would surely have perished in the blizzard.

That was not the only occasion on which I was rescued by Bob from my own excesses; nor, I am sure, will it be the last.

John Banville is the author of many novels, including The Book of Evidence, The Untouchable, Eclipse, and The Sea, which was awarded the 2005 Man Booker Prize. Banville’s novel Ancient Light will be published later this year; a crime novel, Vengeance, written under the pen name Benjamin Black, will appear in the summer.

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