Sara Keating, interview with John Banville, in The Irish Times (4 June 2011)

Details: Sara Keating, interview with John Banville, in The Irish Times (4 June 2011), Weekend Review, p.1 - available online; accessed 28.06.2011.

Subheading: ‘All artists think they are gods, creating worlds that didn’t existing, bringing something into the world. You might call me an unreconstructed 19th century

John Banville appears to relish his reputation as a literary ‘curmudgeon’ - even when he’s being Benjamin Black. As his latest book is published, he talks about being two people at once and why he now writes more fiction than he reads

“I AM IN A BIT of a fix at the moment,” John Banville says by way of introduction when we meet to talk about his latest book, A Death in Summer , which appears under his crime-writing pseudonym. “Because while I am promoting a Benjamin Black novel, I am in the process of finishing a John Banville book, so I have to be two people at once. It’s a nice running gag, this idea that I exist in two different guises, and yet there’s no point in doing anything unless you enjoy it.”

Banville really does seem to enjoy the mischievous multiplicity of selves the Banville-Black dichotomy offers - not just because of the creative diversity it offers but also because of the contradictory positions it allows him to hold. As we talk he simultaneously delights in the opportunity to talk about himself in the third person yet is wearily impatient with the subject before he has even finished explaining himself.

He also goes to great lengths to correct the public perception of him as a Romantic aesthete removed from everyday life, talking about the reader as the ultimate author of his novels, for example, and saying that “all reading is an act of imagination; even reading the back of a cornflakes packet is an engagement with the printed word, provoking image, thought and speculation”.

Yet at the same time he appears to relish his reputation as a literary pedant and surly “curmudgeon”, a word he uses several times to describe himself. There are frequent references to Nietzsche, Jung, the Iliad  and Greek myth, and he uses words such as “numinous” - which refers to a strong religious or spiritual quality, or suggests the presence of a divinity - to describe the act of writing, drawing a clear line between the artist and us earth-bound citizens. “All artists think they are gods, creating worlds that didn’t exist, bringing something into the world that wasn’t there before. I suppose that you might call me an unreconstructed 19th-century Romantic artist,” he says, “in that I believe that the artist is not quite human.”

During an interview that is best described as efficient, there is also a near altercation with a waiter and an abrupt ending to our conversation when Banville attempts to walk off mid-sentence. So, as much as he says he has been unfairly branded ornery and difficult, his defence is delivered with a jowly scowl.

“The person sitting at a desk writing is entirely different than the person who gets up and has a drink and re-enters the world,” he explains, as if the Banville-Black dichotomy is nothing compared with the split between the writer and the person who must live in the world.

“It is like when you are asleep and in the process of dreaming: you are both yourself and a different self as well. And fiction is a process like dreaming, where you have to be in some other zone. It is shocking sometimes when you are doing revisions and you come across a passage that you have no memory of writing. Artists are Pinocchios trying to be real boys, our noses growing longer as we tell more fictions.”

The association between dreaming and “the numinous otherworld of writing” has become more vivid as Banville has aged, to the extent that dreaming has taken the place of reading fiction. “I find I have no use for fiction any more,” he says. “Indeed, I write far more fiction than I read these days. I think it is one of the great losses of age. And yet I did not know what other riches awaited me. Now I read histories, letters, biographies, poetry, philosophy, which offers a rich cleansing of the mind. But I don’t seem to need stories the way I used to.

“I think it is because my dream life has become so much more elaborate over the years. I have these Technicolor dreams that go on for hours, and that is some compensation, because there is a natural collaboration between the creative mind and the sleeping mind. I am not a Freudian, but my dreams offer some vivid material for my writing.”

But if some of the material for his books comes from his dream world, just as much comes from the world that Banville engages with when he is “playing being human” - the phrase he uses to describe himself when he is not writing. The 1950s Dublin landscape in which the Benjamin Black novels are set, for example, are drawn from his childhood.

“Every year we would make the trip up to Dublin from Wexford for my birthday, on December 8th - ’culchie day’ - and I still vividly remember the smell of the diesel buses on the streets. There is a pleasure and childish amusement in that remembering, in using all the details I can muster from that time, and it is these real flashes from the past that paint a portrait of the time.”

The material world offers Banville, writing as Banville, equal richness. “Just as you were coming in,” he says by way of example, “I was writing a note to myself about the puddle that’s left behind you when you get up from one of these fake-leather seats. Now, Black would never notice that sort of detail. That’s not what he’s about. He’s interested in character, dialogue, whereas Banville is interested in texture.”

The difference in style, structure and tone between John Banville and Benjamin Black is a subject that has got Banville into several well-publicised spats since he launched his crime-writing alter ego, in 2006. When that first Benjamin Black book, Christine Falls, was published, for example, he provocatively spoke of the joy of “slumming it” with “cheap fiction” that you can write in “three or four months”, to the predictable consternation of the crime- fiction world.

He says his interest in writing crime fiction surprised him. “I started writing it as something of a frolic, and found that I could do it. I was amazed to discover that I had a facility for this kind of writing, possibly because I was a subeditor for so long, where you turn plain English into even plainer English, where your focus is always on narrative and structure. I write really quickly and fluently - and other crime writers get really annoyed when I say this - but with crime writing I think it needs to be spontaneous. You need to make decisions on the fly. Other crime-fiction writers get very annoyed when I say I can write a Black book in three or four months. But Georges Simenon could write a masterpiece in 10 days. James M Cain wrote the greatest noir thriller, The Postman Always Rings Twice  , over the course of a bank-holiday weekend.”

Banville, on the other hand “writes slowly, painfully, very meticulously. Banville has to notice everything” - including our fake-leather seats. “Nothing can get past him at all. I mean, in The Book of Evidence  , the only person who is not described is the woman who he kills, and that’s deliberate. And yet I suppose some of my John Banville books could have been written by Benjamin Black: The Book of Evidence  , maybe, The Untouchable  , because they are to some extent crime books. I am not necessarily saying that one [type of book] is better than the other. They are just two different ways of writing.”

YET FOR THE READER the differences between the Banville and Black books are not just differences of craft. There is language, for one. Black would rarely use a word such as “numinous”, for example, and it is rare to come away from a Banville book without at least one new word in your vocabulary. “People often remark [on the unusual words], but I rarely use a thesaurus or dictionary, and if I do it is usually just to remind me of words that I can’t remember.

“There are two reasons why I use rare or difficult words. The first is accuracy: I am striving to be as accurate as I can, to find the word that closest describes what I mean. The second is for the irony of high rhetoric.”

This leads Banville on to the other big difference between the writing styles, tone, although it distresses him that people don’t understand this, “that they don’t see how funny the Banville books are. I am doing revisions on a new Banville at the moment, for example, and I wanted to describe banana sandwiches stacked just so on a plate.” He uses his hands to indicate them overlapping at an angle, like the petals of a flower. “So I used the word ’imbricate’, and to me that’s really funny. That’s high rhetoric. To use a word like ’imbricate’ to describe something as ordinary as banana sandwiches!

“But Black wouldn’t get away with that. It is difficult to be funny in crime fiction. There is an earnestness required that militates against wit. Crime fiction is all about dark deeds and black secrets, the wickedness of the human heart, and that does not conduce to humour. It is not that Banville lives in a happier, mellifluous world, but the humour comes from the point of view [of the narrators’ perspectives on the world]. So the most tragic thing can be given a comic slant just by the skewed way the narrator looks at it. Black can’t do that.”

This double life and third-person description of the Banville-Black quandary is a complicated, confusing and exhausting business. But for Banville that is the nature of being an artist: existing in a detached, “not quite human” relation to the world.

“Alan Bennett says writers don’t suffer as much as other people,” he offers, as if Bennett’s perspective is consolation that it is not just Banville who feels this way. “Because anything bad that happens to them is also material. And yet that distance, which alleviates the pain, also dulls the pleasure. You are always watching, with a beady eye, looking for material.” But that objectivity, he says, is “not just about finding material: it is about finding a way to live more intensely. To be alive is to notice the world. To be dead is to notice nothing. I was invited once to contribute a piece in homage to Ernest Hemingway’s short short story - ’For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ - and I think he was right when he said it was the best thing he had ever written. My contribution was, ’Should have lived more, written less,’ and I believe it, but would I do it if I had the chance? Probably not. I let my characters do my living for me.”

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