‘The past beats inside me like a second heart,’ says widow and art historian Max Morden in John Banville’s 2005 novel The Sea. He has returned to the seaside village of his childhood, where he first experienced love, in all its gentleness and brutality; re-imagining this personal enclave, the grieving Morden wonders if all that followed in his life is simply a different colouration of this beautiful and terrible time. It is the past – how it entrances the mind and transforms the present – that sustains the entire body of Banville’s work.
Born in Wexford, Ireland in 1945, Banville left home for Dublin when he was eighteen years old. In Time Pieces (2016), his memoir about the city where he still lives, he writes that, despite its ‘grey and graceless’ appearance in the 1960s, ‘Dublin was for me what Moscow was for Irina in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a place of magical promise towards which my starved young soul endlessly yearned.’
At the start of the next decade, Banville rose to prominence, most notably with Dr Copernicus (1976), the first in a scientific tetralogy that ended with Mephisto (1986). Next came The Book of Evidence, about a man called Freddie Montgomery, who is on trial for stealing a painting and murdering a chambermaid in a botched day of madness. The novel is Montgomery’s written ‘defence’ of his crime. It is full of black humour and grubby sadness.
Banville is one the great stylists of our time. In this regard, The Untouchable (1997) and The Infinities (2009) deserve mention. His writes out of a tradition that includes Henry James, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. No surprise, then, to learn that he is a dedicated European. James, of course, was fascinated with European life, and Banville’s most recent novel, Mrs Osmond, continues the story of A Portrait of a Lady. He has inhabited the style of another writer before – Raymond Chandler. The hardboiled crime novel The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014) was written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Over the last ten years Banville has split his writing life between the high literary work written under his birth name and the crime writing under Black.
Nick Major met John Banville on a cool sunlit day at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. They sat at a table outside the authors’ yurt. Banville looked a man apart from the crowd and the times. He wore smart dark clothes: a deep green waistcoat and shirt with black trousers. His Homburg lay on the table before him and his beautifully-crafted walking stick, swirled with a marbled white and brown, leant against the side of his chair. He is a strong talker, well-practised and assertive, but also gentle and self-mocking. Throughout the conversation, if a breeze blustered through or the light of day dimmed, he would stop and look up at the world. Then, he would sip his wine and return to business.
Scottish Review of Books: In Time Pieces, you wrote that ‘from earliest days I had no doubt that I was going to be an artist’. Why an artist?
I was baffled by the world. I couldn’t understand the place, this strange planet on to which we have been thrown. I couldn’t understand people. I had to find some way of explaining it all to myself. There wasn’t any point, when I was young, in going to confession or lying in bed telling myself stories. Being an egomaniac and a narcissist, I had to make my inner world public.
Did you know what sort of artist you wanted to be?
When I was about twelve I started writing short stories – bad imitations of Joyce’s Dubliners. Then in my mid-teens I thought I wanted to be a painter and I tried that for three years or so. It was disastrous. I couldn’t draw. I had no sense of colour and no sense of draughtsmanship. These are all distinct disadvantages if you want to be a painter. But it was useful in that it taught me to look at the world with a painterly eye. In the life of the artist nothing is wasted. But I had never stopped writing, and I think I knew in my heart that was my fate. ‘My fate’— listen to me!
In Time Pieces, you say it was a mistake to reject Wexford, where you grew up.
It wasn’t Wexford I was rejecting, it was childhood. Childhood is an utter waste of time. Children should grow up as quickly as they can. They should start sleeping with each other as soon as they reach the age of puberty — adolescence would be infinitely easier and certainly more fun. But yes, it was stupid, and wasteful, for a would-be writer to ignore my immediate surroundings, however unpromising or boring they might have seemed at the time. When I was fifteen, I had a friend who was about two years older than I. He was from a wealthy family, wore three-piece tweed suits, a watch-chain, a signet ring. He had a tremor in his hands – terribly doomed-romantic – and smoked Passing Cloud cigarettes, which were oval, and the acme of sophistication. He told me one evening about wife-swapping in the town. I had never heard of such a thing, and when he explained it, I simply didn’t believe that it could be going on in Wexford. But it probably was.
We live in an infantile age. People used to mature earlier.
Juliet was, what, fourteen? As I’ve said, childhood is just a boring and useless time. Gore Vidal once observed, very wisely, that children just pretend to be children in order to spare adults embarrassment. This is true — in a way there are no children, just stunted adults. We know everything by the age of twelve or thirteen. We know how the world works. We know how dreadful people are to each other. We know what sex is. So, why can’t we start living at that point? That’s what I wanted to do. I had girlfriends from the age of ten or eleven and I was seriously in love with them — really, I was. And I still am. I’ve never forgotten any of them. It’s just come to me that real life, then, for me, was females. I don’t mean sex. Women were infinitely more interesting than the males I knew.
You moved to Dublin in the early 1960s. You thought it was ‘mean hard-spirited place’. Was that mainly because the Catholic Church had a stranglehold over life?
It was because of that, and the cowardliness of the people in power. A politician could be destroyed with one sermon from the pulpit. They should have stood up to the priests and the bishops, but they were too mealy-mouthed, and brain-washed. Women too should have stood up against that male-dominated world they were forced to live in – if ‘live’ is not too strong a word in their case. It was a hard time. But when I say it was a bleak time, I suppose that’s because I’m looking at it from this distance. Life in Ireland was boring and narrow, but probably it wasn’t as grim as I paint it. You see, I’m projecting myself back. If I were me now and at the same time back there, it would be terrible. But being me then wasn’t quite as terrible as it seems now – it was just how things were, and we accepted that. Imagine how our world will be looked back on in fifty or sixty years’ time. People will say to each other in wonderment, ‘You know, they used to eat animals. And they believed in monogamy. Amazing.’
The Censorship Board is a malign presence in the book. How did it effect what was written or real?
The most innocuous books were banned. The odd thing about the Censorship Board was that it didn’t call in books. It had to be alerted to them by somebody from the public. I remember borrowing Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory from the Wexford County Library when I was about fifteen. In the book, there is a priest who has a daughter called… I still don’t know, because somebody had scratched out every mention of her name with a razor blade. Can you imagine the time and effort it took to scratch out just the name? It was madness – puritanism gone mad.
You mention the McDaid group of writers – Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh – who were coming to the end of their time in the 1960s, but you weren’t interested in them.
They seemed to me minor figures, which they were. I was interested in European Literature. God, how pretentious I was. But then, where would we be if we didn’t have pretensions?
You said maybe they would have written something good if they ‘went into exile’.
It always amuses me that no Irish writer ever emigrated. They all ‘went into exile’. But the fact is, Joyce emigrated. Beckett emigrated. In the previous generation, Shaw and Wilde left Ireland to see the greater world. They didn’t dream of calling themselves ‘exiles’. I like to think of myself as an internal exile.
You feel like a foreigner in your own country?
Yes, but that’s a good state for a writer to be in. The worst thing for an artist is to feel at home.
Do you know why you feel like that?
My world is wider than Ireland, wider than ‘home’. I am a European, a cosmopolitan, or like to think of myself as such – more pretentiousness, you see. But I always looked, or tried to look, beyond Ireland, to the wider world, even when I was a child. When I got into the wider world, of course, I saw just how narrow it is. But that’s another story.
It is a sobering time to be a European in Britain.
You fellows are in serious trouble over here, in Britain. You’ve stumbled into casting a stupid vote to leave the European Union. At a time when we should be uniting with allies, here’s Britain as good as setting itself adrift in the Atlantic. Thank God, we are separated from your shores. I have always been an Anglophile, but I think Brexit is disastrous, and that it will prove even more disastrous when the ‘divorce’ comes through. It’s a dangerous time for England and it should bethink itself. In Ireland, when votes go wrong, we just have the thing over again. We voted against the Lisbon Treaty, and the government, and Brussels, said, that wasn’t the result we wanted, so we had another referendum and we voted for the Lisbon Treat… Look, democracy, real democracy, with the demos in power, is the worst possible thing for the world. The lie of democracy is just that, a lie, but a necessary one. That the people run the world—God forbid! I’m all for elites.
People seem to be particularly angry at ‘elites’ at the moment.
The world, whether it knew it or not, was always run by elites, and we’ve survived. Do you ever listen to talk-shows on the radio, those phone-in shows? I hear them now and then in taxis, and I shiver.
On this notion of anti-elitism. It has spread to literature. There is a feeling around that a reviewer’s or critic’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, which of course it’s not. It carries greater weight and validity.
We live in an anti-intellectual age which wants to bring everything down to a very low common denominator. It is the duty of critics and reviewers to encourage people to keep reading, to keep looking at pictures, and to keep listening to good music. But it is also their duty to say, this person is a charlatan, and his or her work is fake. Or just to say, this is good work, that is bad work. In other words, to discriminate. But discrimination has become a word that frightens people. Recently, I was reading an art critic in the New York Review of Books, the splendid Jed Perl, who said, in effect, ‘Robert Rauschenberg was a fraud’. How many critics nowadays have the nerve, have the sense of duty, to say such a thing? But that kind of judgement has to be made, or culture will die, or at least become so anaemic as to be barely recognisable. Everyone is not an artist. As I once heard Will Self wittily put it, ‘Yes, it’s true, everyone has a novel in them’.
With one eye on Europe, how has Dublin changed since the 1960s?
It has become just another European city, for good or ill. That’s part of the price we pay for European unity. When I was young I would go to London or Paris or Rome and they were completely foreign to me: foreign food, foreign drink, foreign streets, foreign people. No longer. Twenty years ago, my wife and I used to come to Edinburgh and visit Valvona & Crolla and weep to see so much wonderful Italian food on sale. Now we have the same variety of Italian food in Dublin – and French food, and Polish food, and Lithuanian food… so we’ve lost that sense of the novelty of ‘abroad,’ but it’s a small price to pay. I think we would still have a strong and intact European Union if the financial crash in 2008 hadn’t happened. Unity was coming about slowly, perhaps even clandestinely, by way of bureaucrats. But I’m all for bureaucracy. I think a world run by bureaucrats is a good world. The really dangerous people are the ones who say, I have a great idea: let’s slaughter the Jews, let’s build a wall to keep out the Mexicans, let’s leave Europe. Look at the Islamic world, and the mad notion of the Caliphate. You know, as human beings we struggle through childhood, longing to get away from our parents, then afterwards we try to cherish them and take care of them. As grown-ups, we meet someone and we tell ourselves: this is not a human being, this is a god! So, we fall in love, and marry – well, we used to marry – then love stops and, if we’re lucky, friendship starts. And we have children and we look after them, trying to do better than our parents did, mostly failing, but sometimes, in some little ways, succeeding. None of that is a ‘big idea’. Or better it’s small, but at the same time enormous. The ‘big ideas’ come from individuals maddened by frustration, by what Nietzsche always called by its French name, réssentiment. The twentieth century had so many mad, failed artists. Hitler wanted to be a painter. Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot all wanted to be artists. There’s nothing more dangerous than a failed artist, unless it’s a politician with a big idea. So, give me bureaucrats.
You obviously have a scholarly mind. It makes me wonder why you didn’t go to university.
Oh, I’m not at all scholarly. I’m a magpie, I pick up bright bits and pieces and carry them off and store them away for later use. But I would say that I am infected with the bacillus of… let’s call it ideation. I am a great enthusiast for ideas – aesthetic, scientific, what have you – which of course is very dangerous for a novelist, or for an artist of any kind — lethal, in fact. Nothing kills art more comprehensively than mere fact. The truth of art is not the truth of fact – Oscar Wilde knew that very well. And look at poor Flaubert, reading all those big heavy books in preparation for writing Salammbo, which ended up smeared all over with midnight oil.
You became a sub-editor at the Irish Press in 1969. How did you get that job?
I had been ‘in exile’ in London, and I returned with my American wife to live in Ireland for a couple of years – we’re still there, some fifty years later – and I needed a job. I knew the Literary Editor of the Irish Press, and he got me an interview with the Editor, who gave me a try-out as a sub-editor, a job – a calling – which I found extremely congenial, and which I was good at. I still miss sub-editing, especially for a daily paper: the peace and tranquillity of shaping other people’s writing, at dead of night, was wonderful. Wonderful for me, but not for the reporters whose pieces I edited. The sub-editor is the most despised being in a newspaper office. As my Editor from those days, Tim Pat Coogan, put it, sub-editors are people who change other people’s words and go home in the dark…
How did you fit writing around your day job?
With great ease. I wrote during the day, from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, then changed into Mr Hyde and went into the office as night fell. It’s a way of life I would recommend to all young writers – though not to their spouses or children. It’s a tough life, but a productive one.
You were literary editor at the Irish Times for ten years. Has working as an editor helped you as a writer?
Good God no! My journalistic work was entirely separate from my life as a writer. It would have been fatal to allow Jekyll and Hyde to merge. But I had a wonderful time as books editor – new books coming in by the barrow-load, every day! I felt like a child who has been given the freedom of a toyshop.
Why did you leave?
I was made redundant. Simple as that. At the end of the 1990s the Editor, Conor Brady, sensibly suggested that I might like to hand on the job to someone new — that was when my dear friend the late Caroline Walsh took over, and did a splendid job, much better than I had done. Meanwhile I was set up with a Ruritanian title, I forget exactly what it was — Chief Critic and Associate Literary Editor, something like that — which required me only to write a couple of reviews a month, and stand in for Caroline when she was on holiday. That sweet arrangement went along merrily for a couple of years, then The Times ran into a financial crisis and my position of luxury was no longer sustainable, and I was bought off. It was a bit of a shock at first — no one wants to hear that his services are no longer required — but I knew in my heart it was time for me to go. Mind you, there is a part of me that still sorely misses the job.
Do you have a sense of how Irish fiction, or fiction in general, has changed over the years, in terms of the type or quality of fiction published?
I’m afraid I haven’t kept up at all. I have the impression that there are many good, energetic and gifted writers out there — for instance, Billy O’Callaghan is a wonderful writer disgracefully neglected, I think because he mainly writes short stories. I suspect few Irish writers now would dream of devoting decades of their lives to the development of a style. The younger writers seem to have eschewed ‘style’ for social and political awareness. At least that’s my impression. There are still stylists, of course — Kevin Barry, Mike McCormack are two that I know of — but they are a rarity. Mind you, perhaps stylists are always rare?
Do you have a particular place where you work your own writing style?
I had an apartment in the centre of the city, which was my office. But there is so much poverty in Ireland now, so many sad people around, so many beggars, so many drug addicts, that I gave up my ‘office’, and now I write at home. I’ve made a studio for myself. Being in the centre of the city was just too much to bear. There was one young woman beggar whom I used to look out for. I don’t think she was an addict or an alcoholic — I suspect she was the victim of a bad, abusive marriage. She had three children. I hadn’t seen her for some weeks, and then one day she was back in her usual spot. She looked dreadfully unwell, and I asked if I could get her a sandwich or something. She said no, but maybe I would buy some bread and some milk for her children. I went down to the supermarket and filled two big bags of groceries, and when I gave them to her she burst into tears. I thought, I can’t take this any more, I just can’t. That was the moment when I decided to move out of the area. I feel a bit of a coward about it, of course. But I had to go.
In Possessed of the Past, there is a facsimile of the first draft of The Infinities, which is written in longhand. Do you always write in longhand?
Yes. I use a fountain pen and paper. There is a master bookbinder in Dublin, a great craftsman, Tony Canes, who makes up beautiful blank books for me. They are a great pleasure—a pity I have to deface them.
Than you type this up on a computer?
Yes. However, the Benjamin Black books I write directly on to the computer, because it makes for the right speed. The computer is too fast for Banville books — I need the resistance of the nib on the paper. Also, certain things on the screen look as though they’re written, when in fact they’re just typed. But the computer offers BB the kind of spontaneity and risk that crime fiction requires.
I noticed there were bracketed sections in the draft.
I never cross out a word or a passage, I just bracket them. There’s something ugly, something violent, about a crossed-out word. When the word processor came in first, I was delighted with it, since it saved me the labour of typing a page over and over again to get it as near perfect as possible — as near perfectly typed, that is. A hopeless obsessive, you see. One day there was an electricity strike and I had to write without the computer, and later, when I looked back through my manuscript book, I found I had written differently that day than usual— many bracketings, as in the old days. I’m not sure the new ease of transcribing is a good thing…
In an essay called ‘The Personae of Summer’ (1993) you wrote, ‘as a writer, I have little or no interest in character, plot, motivation, manners, politics, morality, [or] social issues.’ Have you always felt like that or was it something you arrived at after years of writing?
It’s merely the kind of writer I am. I follow Nabokov in considering the inutility of art as one of its most precious attributes. As Auden says, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ — and a good thing too, say I. If art has any ‘duty’ to perform, it’s to make the reader, the viewer, the listener feel more intensely, more vividly, what it is to be alive. Which is no mean achievement.
Do you have an idea of what a novel is about before you start writing?
I don’t think a novel is ‘about’ anything. If it’s good, if it’s successful, then it’s about everything. Or better say, as Beckett said of Finnegans Wake, it’s not about something, but is the thing itself.
In both The Sea and The Book of Evidence both the narrators have little or no life in the present. The past only takes on significance once it is captured in the imagination, but the mind can be trapped there. What fascinates you about how the past lives in the mind?
The past is all we have. The present is an abstraction, the future is mere potential. What has happened has happened. It’s in the past that we live.
In ‘Survivors of Joyce’, you wrote that art doesn’t allow us to know more but that it ‘makes things strange.’ What novels other than those by Joyce have made the world strange again for you?
Any real work of art makes things strange, and ‘makes strange’, as we in Ireland say of children when they reach an age at which they become aware of the world outside themselves, and go silent and withdrawn. But really, I don’t need novels to show me the strangeness of the world. I’ve never become accustomed to being in the world, cast adrift in this astonishing place, where the sky is infinity, where clouds drift, where rain falls — isn’t rain an amazing phenomenon? — and where there are conscious beings. I imagine an extra-terrestrial sent to Earth to report back on human beings and their doings. He observes us closely for a week or two, compiles his report, and is preparing to depart for home, when someone sneezes, or, even more strangely, yawns — that soundless howl! — and he realises he has to tear up his report and start all over again, since we are clearly far, far stranger than he imagined.
Do you agree that in Finnegans Wake Joyce made the world too strange?
Ah, poor Finnegans Wake. A great disaster, with equal emphasis on adjective and noun. He set out to write a book that he alone could read, and succeeded triumphantly. A pity someone didn’t tell him… I suppose by that stage even Nora Barnacle’s restraining influence had waned. But what nerve, what determination, what self-control! I think of Joyce as the narrator in Beckett’s Malone Dies — is it? — thinks of one of his invented creatures, watching a hawk and marvelling at ‘such extremes of need, of pride, of patience and solitude.’
This quote from Henry James appears often in your non-fiction: ‘In literature, we move through a blest world in which we know nothing except by style, but in which also everything is saved by it.’ What do you like about James’s style?
What do I like about it? Its transcendent beauty. What more is there to like, or to say, about a literary style?
What did James bring to the novel form?
He showed that the novel could be as rounded and burnished, as finished a work of art as a painting by Piero della Francesca or a Bach fugue. In other words, he brought the novel to its fullest potential as an artistic medium. A great pity the avant garde of the first quarter of the 20th century obscured his achievement. He was a true modernist, a true revolutionary.
During my research on James, he is consistently referred to as ‘difficult’. I couldn’t work out why. Do you know?
There’s no denying the late novels — The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl — are difficult, since by then James had developed his characteristic style, which is dense and oblique and sinuous — an entirely new kind of prose, more revolutionary than Joyce’s. Simply, Henry James had found a way of showing exactly how it feels to be conscious — let’s not forget that his brother William invented the term ‘stream of consciousness‘ — and many readers are just not ready to recognize what they are being offered.
Mrs Osmond is a continuation of The Portrait of a Lady. Why did you pick that novel?
Because The Portrait always seemed to me the first volume of a two-volume novel. James himself, in a couple of places in his notebooks, considered writing a sequel, but by then, at work on the later novels, he had better things to do. I consider The Portrait to be a nearly perfect novel — though we must keep in mind Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel as, if I can remember the quote, ‘an extended work of prose fiction which has something wrong with it’. All the same, there are very few things wrong with The Portrait.
Isabel Archer is a fascinating character. My sense is that she gets her sense of freedom from being an affluent orphan, which comes through in Mrs Osmond. Did you worry that you would not be able to capture James’s characters in your novel?
Years ago, my wife urged me to write the continuation of Isabel Archer’s story. At the time, I felt it would be like feeding on the carcase of a dead lion — I still feel that, to an extent — but then I found myself, in the mysterious way of these things, at the point where I was ready to tackle the project. It was a strange and wonderful experience, one I really don’t fully understand, and probably never will. Isabel is a marvellous invention, subtle, contradictory, wilful, aspiring, foolish, frequently annoying and never less than admirable. Who wouldn’t want to write about her?
You have previously written in the style of another novelist – Raymond Chandler. What is it like to inhabit another writer’s style?
Very odd, very eerie, sometimes even a little frightening.
You wrote in Time Pieces that Dublin was ‘used-up’ by Joyce. Does Benjamin Black look at Dublin in a different way than John Banville, and is that why you can write about Dublin in your crime novels?
Yes, I do think Joyce devoured the city, and left his successors only a few dried bones and a scrap of two of bloodstained fur. For a novelist to mention anywhere in Dublin is to strike a Joycean echo, which is why in my Banville books I never specify particular places in the city, or if I do, I invent them. Black, on the other hand, not having read Joyce, is blithely free to make free with ‘dear old dirty Dumpling,’ as Finnegans Wake has it — by the way, I wonder if Joyce realized how irritating some of us would find that dropped apostrophe? — and dwell lovingly on the places that are dear to me, especially Upper Mount Street and environs, which are still surprisingly intact, and as lovely as they ever were.