Award Presentation Dublin Castle – June 15th 1996
Lord Mayor, Minister, your Excellencies, my Lord, ladies and gentlemen,
We have already heard something of how this prize came into existence, and as the inaugural winner, I’d like first of all to thank Gay Mitchell for conceiving this prize and Jim Irwin for his quite remarkable generosity in giving it life.
But also this city of Dublin for adding to it’s long history of love for writing and this language we all speak, for offering it a home and a name and lending it some of the glory of a long tradition. I want to thank you very briefly my publishers Chatto and Windus, in England and Australia and Pantheon in the United States. For nearly twenty years in Chatto’s case, of faith in my work, and especially Carmen Callil who was my publisher for most of my time there. But I also want to thank many of the writers on the original long list for this prize and all of those on the short list, many of whom are here and all of whom are here in spirit, for the company they have given me over the years and in many cases the pleasure, the enlightenment, the inspiration and the challenge.
I also want to thank the two libraries in Australia that nominated me and made it possible for me to be considered, and last of all the judges, those very special readers who made the difficult and I would have said impossible choice and singled the book out among so many grand contenders – and I should remind you that it is a book that has won this prize.
It’s here. It’s come along in great numbers, and is lying asleep on the table in front of you. Having spoken once and been heard it does not intend to say any more. Like all books it speaks only one to one and in private, which means that it is up to me.
The writing took place four years ago, and the judges read in private and let the book speak to them in it’s own way, loudly or quietly before they spoke to one another. So let me just say a few words about that, about reading, about the workings in private of language and imagination and about what fiction is and what at it’s best it can do.
Dublin in these days offers us a good example of this. The city is real enough, you who live here will know. Real stones, real grit, real traffic jams and daily lives. A real history too that has sometimes been dark and painful. But to many people around the world it is also the city of a book and the city they know is the book; without ever having been here they have actually lived in these streets, they know how they smell, they know what lies around each corner, they have learnt to speak without the accent of this place, and all this because one man created it for them out of words, made it real for them as few actual cities ever can be.
Fiction is all about that. It puts us at the centre of an experience we may never have had but which we can have in the reading. It takes us where we have never been, into a world that ceases to be strange or other, the moment we step into it. The moment our imagination is touched and opens the writing takes us in. This is what we mean when we turn to fiction, as we say we are taken out of ourselves. Of course, this is a form of diversion, but also has, it seems to me, a use, and one that is essential to us.
What fiction allows us to do is experience events, people, relationships, the world in all it’s richness and contradiction without that confusion that in real life comes from our standing at the dizzy centre of things. It presents us with life heightened, but also slowed down so that we can look about and take in the details, catch up with our feelings, with the why and how of things. And all this while still experiencing the body immediacy of the moment as it puts pressure on our senses and our moral sense as well.
It is as if we were both there in the body and at the same time be able to stand aside and watch. And this is the condition, also, I want to say of that very first reading of the book, the very first reader of the book – the writer, who just happens as he writes to be reading blind, find the next page as he turns if for the moment blank, but only if he is lucky.
There is in this something intensely satisfying to us but something healing too, something we need for our good health, a feeling of being in the moment but free of it, above the muddle and in view at last of the meaning.
All fiction, high or low, in some way recalls the deeper reaches of our nature and we should pay the highest tribute to those who in an age of quick fixes are willing to put time and love and money too, into making sure we have it in full measure.
The writers, publishers and readers, the librarians, the booksellers, but also those like Jim Irvin and places like Dublin where the word still has something of its old magic and awe and where magicians are still given moment of public honour.