'I'm at last beginning to learn how to write, and I can let the writing mind dream'
“Confidence or increasing senility,” he says. “One or the other. I suppose it is. I feel that I don’t have to worry so much about the technical aspect of the language. I’m at last beginning to learn how to write, after all these years, and I can let the writing mind dream.”
A major element in Banville’s literary progress, though he doesn’t take kindly to the suggestion, has been his decision to write, under the name Benjamin Black, a series of crime novels featuring a delightfully mismatched pair of investigators, Det Insp Hackett and his pathologist friend Quirke. Since Christine Falls appeared, in 2006, he has produced five Black books and two Banville novels, The Infinities and Ancient Light. Having spent a couple of days reading first the latter, then the most recent of the crime novels, I was surprised by the similarities I found.
“Oh, God.” Banville looks appalled. “You’re not supposed to say that.”
I’m not saying the books are alike; not in the slightest. But they share preoccupations, even images. Happening, in Vengeance, upon the sentence “The leather seat was hot where the sun had been shining on it”, it’s hard not to recall the paragraph in Ancient Light when Alex and Mrs Gray “climbed back into the front seat, exclaiming at the hotness of the leather where the sun had been shining on it . . .”
Banville nods grimly. “Did Benjamin borrow his . . ? Yeah. They’re both completely ruthless. They will steal from each other mercilessly; they have no shame. Of course they leak into each other. They have to. I can’t be two people. Banville will get interested in a sentence that Black is doing, or Black will say to Banville, ‘Just write the bloody thing. Leave it alone. Stop worrying about it.’ ”
Has writing crime novels changed the way Banville plots the literary novels, or modified his storytelling? “I don’t think so,” he says. “But I suppose everything we do influences everything we do. And I suppose Black is getting more subtle as the books go on. He’s getting more interested in the characters. Apart from anything else, he’s had them for a while. I mean, I’m writing the sixth book now, and I’m interested in Quirke’s daughter Phoebe. I think Phoebe is me.” Really? Not Quirke himself? “No. I don’t know Quirke at all. Curiously, when I think about Quirke and when I think about Benjamin Black, I mix them up. I think of them as the same person. But they’re not me.”
And what is it about Phoebe that is John Banville? “Well, she’s so troubled. So fascinated by life’s oddities. And she doesn’t quite fit into things. There’s more of me in her, certainly, than there is in Quirke.
“And you know” – his eyes take on an impish, dangerous twinkle – “Quirke is a big man in his 40s, impossibly attractive to women and so on. When I’m doing readings I see readers looking at me and going, ‘Oh. He’s very old. And he’s very short.’ So I say to them, ‘I’m not Quirke. I’m not even Benjamin Black.’ But I have a good time writing the Black books.”
The Quirke books are due to be made into a television miniseries next year, with Gabriel Byrne as Quirke. The Man Booker-winning The Sea is also to be filmed, with Rufus Sewell and Ciaran Hinds in leading roles and Banville at the screenwriting helm. He’s working on an adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Failing memory be damned. John Banville’s writing mind is clearly dreaming at the speed of light.
Ancient Light is published by Viking