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John Banville

Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 2014

It is a very great honour, and a very great pleasure, to be here today, at the heart of the Principality of Asturias to receive this splendid award, for which I offer heartfelt thanks.

Humankind’s most momentous invention is the sentence. There have been great civilisations that did not have the concept of the wheel, but they had to have had the sentence, for without it they would have been neither great nor civilised. It is with the sentence that we think, speculate, calculate, imagine. It is with the sentence that we declare love, declare war, declare oaths—it is with the sentence that we declare the self. Our laws are written in sentences. One might go so far as to say that it is in sentences that our very world itself is written.

Others will make other claims. The scientist will say that the invention of mathematics is our supreme achievement as a species. And it is true, the language of mathematics is a thing of sublime beauty. Its great strength is its rigour. However, the great strength of the sentence, and by extension language, is that rigour is precisely, gloriously, what it lacks. No matter how clear, direct and simple a sentence is, it will always at some level be ambiguous. And the essence of life is ambiguity.

The language of sentences wraps itself around reality, in an endless effort to encompass it, to comprehend it, to express it. The effort is in vain, as it must be. Ultimate reality is ultimately beyond us. There is no such thing as the thing-in-itself: there are only the relations between things. All is contingency. As Emerson beautifully says, ‘We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.’ Language, we may think, cuts no ice, but it does cut wonderful figures.

As writers, we hone our sentences so that they might cleave through to the quick of things. They will not; we are too humanly slow. Yet we go on, trying to say it, trying to get it said, trying to get it right. We shall not succeed, but our glory is, as my fellowcountryman Samuel Beckett knew, that we carry on, daunted but never quite defeated. The effort is not in vain, even though every full stop is an admission of failure. To speak is to be. Rilke, in the Duino Elegies, puts it as well as it has ever been put:

Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Fruit tree, Window,— possibly: Pillar, Tower? . . . but for saying, remember, oh, for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be.

I have spent my life wrestling with sentences. I cannot imagine a more privileged existence.

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