On being Banville - and Black


THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW - JOHN BANVILLE:‘THERE ARE no original questions,” says John Banville in a weary tone as he sips a dry white wine in a Dublin hotel. “The only way you can do an interview is to have a conversation. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing it.”

 So begins a conversation about interviews, Banville recalling the only time he’s ever been on the other side of the dictaphone, when he interviewed Salman Rushdie over the course of a full day the two writers spent together. “Then I had to transcribe it. I hated him, I hated me, I hated tape-recorders. I was sickened!”

Transcribing a conversation with John Banville is a much less painful endeavour, in part because he speaks in the kind of articulate, ornate sentences that recall some of his more eloquent creations. His speech is in fact as antique and architectural as Frederick Montgomery’s in The Book of Evidence, or Max Morden’s in The Sea, scattered with the kind of “rathers” and “I dare to thinks” not normally associated with a Wexford native.

But the pain of transcription is also alleviated by the fact that Banville is just such good fun. He is all charm, wickedly funny and sharply engaged, at times softly meditative and others stridently opinionated, even exuberant. This latter may be down to the fact that he has just finished his 15th novel, The Infinities, written in part through the voice of a Greek god. Surely an ironically chosen device from a man known for – here I fudge a little – “a slight arrogance”? “A slight arrogance?” he smiles at the understatement. “Yes, when I told my publisher years ago what this book was going to be, that the main voice in it was going to be the voice of Hermes, his face fell and he said: ‘Oh. Another crowd-pleaser, eh John?’” Banville knows that some find his novels highfalutin and hard work, but he is quick to defend this latest. “A lot of people will be put off by descriptions of it, but it’s quite a simple book. It’s quite straightforward. And I dare to think it’s quite entertaining in its way.”

There’s that slight arrogance again, but he’s right, and in person, Banville is himself quite entertaining in his way. He takes pains to explain the debt he owes to Heinrich Von Kleist and his version of Amphitrion, then catches himself and with a wry grimace acknowledges: “That won’t send people out to buy the book.” Getting people to buy the book is a repeatedly voiced concern of Banville’s, though for a man who pocketed a Man Booker prize for its predecessor, The Sea (2005), as well as making the shortlist for The Book of Evidence (1989) and the longlist for The Shroud (2002), he is guaranteed to shift a few copies of this latest on name alone. Yet those who pick up The Infinities may be surprised at the narrative shifts and divine perspectives, a marked departure for a man who has made a career writing from a single point of view, usually that of a gentleman of a certain age. “I’ve been doing that since, oh my God, since about 1980,” he says with a groan. “Book after book, sour old guys spilling out their bile into the readers’ ear.” The Infinities, however, is certainly less bilious. “Everybody who’s read it says to me ‘Oh you must have had wonderful fun writing that!’” he says with characteristic immodesty. “And I say, ‘Yeah, five years of heartbreaking fun.” He maintains that it’s a whole lot easier to write the grim stuff. “When you have a sad story, you can never lose. If you have a dead wife or a dead parent or something in the middle of the book, you’re home and dried already from the start.”

YET, THOUGH The Infinities is being published four years after The Sea, there was plenty more going on in between, courtesy of one Benjamin Black, Banville’s pseudonym for a series of crime fiction books that began with Christine Falls in 2007. “It’s a different kind of work. I regard my crime fiction as craftwork, and I regard the other stuff as artwork.” Having two different writing personas can be confusing, he admits. “Sometimes if one or other of them loses concentration, the other one will step in and try to do something,” he says of the moments when Black takes over Banville and vice versa. “If Benjamin gets really interested in a sentence, he has to stop.”

Which is not to downgrade his work as Black, or indeed crime fiction itself. In fact, Banville loathes the categorisation: “There should be just fiction. It’s either good or bad.” Often, he agrees, it falls into the latter category. “Just like so-called literary fiction, [crime fiction] has all its awful dead weary conventions, but the best of them, like Richard Stark, like [Georges] Simenon, like Patricia Highsmith, transcend that.”

The key, for Banville – or in this case, Black – is to steer away from the hackneyed clichés of the convention. “When I started being Benjamin Black I made two promises to myself: that I would not write in cliché, and that I wouldn’t give the characters, who are from the 1950s, my hindsight. They live absolutely in their time.” It’s a time that Banville, who was born in 1945, keeps coming back to. “The 1950s, looking back, was both a fascinating and an appalling time and as these reports [on child abuse] come out we see just how appalling it was in those days and the awful things that we accepted.”

The publication of the Ryan report moved him to write an op-ed for the New York Times on the subject of the collective knowledge of the abuses being carried out. “I should have put a note on the bottom saying, ‘Anybody who reads this must buy a book of mine as well’,” he says with black humour. “Everybody seems to have read it!” While acknowledging the huge response the article garnered, he downplays the content. “To me it was just a straightforward brief description of what life was like in the 1950s.”

It’s a time that continues to haunt him, and that now finds expression in the Black books. “This was one of the reasons for the existence of Benjamin Black,” he says. “It was a way for me to write about the 1950s, which absolutely fascinate me. You know, we got here from there.” Yet here, according to Banville, is not necessarily a better place. “We always assume that our time has learned all the lessons from the past, that we aren’t doing what they did, but of course we are, in different ways.”

It may be a worrying thought, but Banville is forgiving in his analysis. “We can’t be all-knowing. We can’t have a panoptic vision of history. We have to live in our historical moment and do our best. That’s all you can do, that’s all any generation does.” For Banville, the danger lies in believing that the human race necessarily alters for the better over time. “Human beings do not change,” he says dismissively, his statements always strikingly definitive. “The notion of progress is completely spurious.” He pauses, as if for accuracy, to cite the improvements that he will acknowledge. “We have dentistry, which is far better than it was. Imagine having your wisdom tooth out in 1843? So that’s progress. We have dealt with disease. In tiny pockets like here, and [throughout] the West and so on, we value our children more than we did. We have to a certain extent liberated women, to a certain extent, mostly to do with language rather than action. But in most of the world, life is as it always was: nasty, brutish and short.”

So he admits that there have been changes over the years, some of which were brought to his attention by the HBO television series Mad Men, which is set in the US in the 1960s. “I remember watching the first episode and saying ‘We didn’t treat women like that in the 1960s’ and then I thought ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how we treated them in the 1960s’ and it was shocking!” It’s not just Mad Men that has him glued to the box these days. “HBO is now doing what the Victorian novel used to do,” he explains. “It’s telling the stories of our time and of where we came from and where we’re going. I think HBO is making the middlebrow, middle-class novel redundant.” He lists off his favourites – Mad Men, The Sopranos – and acknowledges that these shows are “where the real creativity is now”.

Is he worried then, about the threat they pose to his own work? Not John Banville. “It makes people like old Banville more necessary than ever because there has to be something else as well, there has to be a different kind of art that’s going beyond the way we actually live to the essence of what we are. If I were to define my programme that would be it, going past what we do to what we are.”

What John Banville does is write, something he’s been doing most of his life in some form or other, having spent much of it earning a living as a journalist with the Irish Press and later The Irish Times, an experience which in turn fed into his career as a novelist. “Any dealing with language helps, because you learn because language is such a slippery medium that any practice at it is good.” And when it comes to writing, the language is all. “It’s not the characters who have the power, it’s language which has the power. Because characters are made of words, they don’t exist any more than dreams exist.”

Speaking of dreams, Banville has his own nightmares. “I’m standing on a stage reading to an audience and the words are decaying on the page. They’re literally decaying, like a computer screen will decay before it crashes. And I’m having to make it up, and of course I can’t remember what it was, and the audience is getting more and more restless and annoyed, and I’m apologising, and I wake in a terrible sweat.” A psychoanalyst would probably have a field day interpreting this glimpse into Banville’s subconscious, but he follows up so quickly with a joke that it’s hard to take his nightmares too seriously. “The thing about audiences and public appearances . . . is that there’s always great disappointment on the part of the readers. You can see them looking at you and saying ‘God, he’s a lot shorter than I expected.’”

What he does say of readings and signings is that he is filled with a desire to tell those who approach him: “I’m not the person who wrote the book. The person who wrote the book ceased to exist every time I stood up from my desk. Somebody else wrote the book.” To clarify: there’s the Banville who wrote the book, and the one who is signing it afterwards; there’s the literary novelist and the crime writer. It turns out even his books have a double life. “There are two books: the book that I am writing and the book that I have written.” Then there’s Banville’s public person and the private man, the one off-bounds in this interview. He will not talk about his family: he is married to the American artist Janet Dunham, with whom he has two sons, and also has two daughters from a relationship with former Arts Council director Patricia Quinn.

THOUGH HE DEFLECTS questions about his private life – “It’s a very private life,” he says, smiling – he is happy to talk about his public duties as an artist. “My only responsibility is to make works of art and make them as good as I can make them. That’s the best public duty that I can perform, and it’s not a negligible public duty. Works of art mean something. They may not mean much in my time, but if they have any life after my time they will go into some kind of public fund.”

In the potential immortality of his art is a tacit acknowledgement of the limits of his own physical life. Does death scare him? “Death is merely the end of life,” he says. “Of course at four o’clock in the morning I’m as terrified as anybody else. But at three o’clock in the afternoon, with a glass of wine in my hand, I think ‘Well, I’m not going to die, they’re going to figure it out before my time.’” Though he’s joking as he says it, it’s clear that this John Banville is not in the mood to dwell on death, despite its looming presence in so much of his work. Even the otherwise upbeat The Infinities revolves around the dying bed of one pater familias. “I hope that what the book shows is that . . . death is what gives life its savour and its point.

“Everything we do is tinged with the knowledge that this may be the last time that we will do this, and that makes what we’re doing incredibly sweet.”

YOU CAN TELL that John Banville finds such a sweetness in his own living, though he is not without regrets: “I probably would have been a poet if I’d been able,” he says wistfully. “But I don’t understand [poetry]. It’s as mysterious and magical to me as music is. I can read it . . . but I couldn’t do it, so I have to try to ape it in my prose, and if there’s any difficulty in my books I suppose that’s it. I try to make them as demanding as poetry is.” He throws his eyes up to heaven as he says this, once again aware of his own pomposity. “Ah, another crowd-pleaser.”

Yet, though he speaks passionately of art’s purpose, he can also see its lack of practical use: “The wonderful thing about art, it is completely and utterly useless. There’s no practical value to it – that is its great joy, it is pure pleasure.” Banville is full of opinions: on art, on sport, on working life, on the internet. “Most of the stuff that people churn out on the internet is rubbish. People should learn a little bit of reticence and not imagine that they have things to say.”

He is equally scathing of phone-in radio shows. “Twenty years ago, if you phoned up a radio station you were regarded as a crank. Now you’re allowed to talk minutes upon minutes upon minutes of utter rubbish.” And don’t get him started on budget airlines. “I think that’s absolutely pernicious, allowing people travel to places they don’t want to go to, where they will not be happy. That kind of travel is bad for people.” Such travel, he tells me, “narrows the mind”.

He doesn’t have much time either for a certain kind of self-described artist: “A great deal of what is supported by the State is kind of self-therapy. It’s nothing to do with art at all, it’s people expressing themselves. The last thing that art does, that you do as an artist, is express yourself.” This doesn’t mean he doesn’t see State support of the arts as important. In fact, a little like the Oracle of Delphi, he has a word of warning for those who would withdraw State funding from this area: “Woe betide the nation that considers art a luxury.”

Yet for all his pronouncements, it’s hard to know at the end of an afternoon with John Banville how much of the person regaling me with humorous tales of dodgy newspaper headlines and previous interviews is Banville public, and whether Banville private ever showed up at all. Which is not to say he doesn’t offer intimacy.

“You’re talking about the most intimate thing that I do. This is the inside of my head we’re talking about, and you have to get the questions out of inside of your head as well. This is a head conversation.” Any tips for interviewing John Banville, then? He smiles, and you can sense that something wicked this way comes. “I couldn’t do it. I’m too slightly arrogant to do it.”

BORNWexford, 1945

FAMILYBanville is married to American artist Janet Dunham with whom he has two sons. He also has two daughters from a relationship with former Arts Council director Patricia Quinn

BEST KNOWN FORFifteen novels, including the Man Booker prize winner The Sea, and three crime novels written under the pen name Benjamin Black

CAREERBanville worked with Aer Lingus before moving into journalism, working as a sub-editor with the Irish Press and later with The Irish Times, where he went on to become literary editor. He continues to work as a book reviewer

ON THE SENTENCE“I regard the sentence as the greatest invention of human kind. What else have we invented that’s greater than the sentence? Everything springs from it.”