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He's No Cellblock Novelist

JOHN BANVILLE has just written an award-winning novel about a man doing life in prison. But ``I have never been in a prison in my life,'' he says, In an interview at his New York publisher's office, Mr. Banville explains this feat by referring to William James, who said it should only take one glance through the window of an army barracks to make it possible to go home and write three volumes on war. The author of ``The Book of Evidence'' didn't even glance in the window.

But the book really isn't about prison, says Banville, editor of the ``Irish Literary Times.'' It is all about imagination, about ``how we apprehend the world.''

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Freddie Montgomery, the imprisoned murderer, does little else but reflect on his past and the murder he committed. A drifter, literal as well as moral all his life, he reviews the evidence against himself. But ``when there is no [moral] center, you can drift in any direction,'' says Banville, echoing the famous lines from William Butler Yeats's poem, ``The Second Coming.''

Banville isolates Freddie's imagination, or ``fancy,'' (``A great pity the meaning of this word is gone,'' he says) tracking motive and event, as if by literary sonar, until it rests, credibly, on Freddie's shame. ``I haven't decided if Freddie is redeemable. About three-quarters redeemable I suppose,'' says Banville.

``Ireland was extraordinarily stable when I grew up,'' he says. ``This is no longer the case.'' And ``the Catholic church is not a great influence for the educated class to which Freddie belongs.'' When the moorings of morality are cut, Ireland can present itself as a ``very pagan country,'' he says. Freddie, who was incapable of imagining any of this when a free man, now has little left in prison but his imagination. Through his own concentrated musings, he is inevitably led back to the necessity of being a moral agent, says Banville.

``The Book of Evidence,'' took two years to write. ``Much bet-ter,'' than the five needed for his previous book, Banville says.

Descriptions of nature, written he admits from the perspective of a 17th-century Dutch painter (a subject of an earlier novel), sometimes took ``two weeks to write one paragraph,'' he says. However, ``to do the murder scene, but one afternoon,'' and little more than that to create the scene in which Freddie first encoun-ters the painting of the Dutch woman that mesmerizes him. The picture becomes the catalyst for the murder.

Where next might Banville's imagination lead? ``I have always wanted to write about an individual who has never heard about God and who reads the Bible,'' he says.

``What is the point of an artifact of words?'' he asks. What is the purpose of art in other words? ``There must be a moral dimension ... the imaginary act is the act of atonement,'' perhaps the only way one can be moral, he says, answering his own question.

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