Banville is Black

  • 4 October 2006
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Labelled by journalists as arrogant, Booker prize-winning Irish author John Banville believes in his own opinions and writes for himself. He talks to Colin Murphy about his fascination with other people's lives and his new crime novel, written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black


'I find myself extremely boring and obvious. By now, I know where my traumas and neuroses come from, and they're not terribly interesting.

"But trying to conjure other people's lives, no matter how banal – that's fascinating.

"That's more interesting than telling a story, or commenting on the problems and mores of your time. Other people's live are the great enigma for me."

John Banville's eyes widen. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes with his fists.

"The thought of people living their lives is very very strange to me. And the more ordinary, the stranger."

When Banville won the Booker prize last year, he said in his acceptance speech: "It is nice to see a work of art win the Booker prize." Later that week he wrote an article for the Guardian in which he mentioned one of the favourites for the award, Zadie Smith, solely by reference to her "little black number" dress. In a controversial book review early last year he described Ian McEwan's Saturday as "a dismayingly bad book". His favourite philosopher is Nietzsche. He is arrogant, aloof, difficult. At least, so say the journalists.

"It's very handy for journalists to have a label. Arrogant? I believe in my own opinions, I hold to them – if that's arrogance..."

It could be, but for the grin with which he says it.

He is loquacious and earnest. Slightly old-worldly. Intense and earnest one moment, and then mildly bored or distracted the next.

Often described by reference to his clothes (black, and expensive), he is dressed in a fairly ordinary shirt and jacket. He chats. He does a good impression. He is a gossip.

On the Booker prize speech: "It amused me to be quite mischievous afterwards. When they announced my name, one of the first thoughts I had was, 'Imagine how many people hate me right now.'" He says it with glee – relish at being the Irish usurper.

The Sea is coming out in various translations now, and he has a new novel to promote, written under the pseudonym "Benjamin Black". Writing a book under a pseudonym gives him licence to talk about "John Banville".

The Sea was a "John Banville book". The new book, Christine Falls, isn't – it's a "Benjamin Black book".

John Banville writes 200 words a day. Benjamin Black writes 2,000 words a day.

John Banville writes books of "art". Benjamin Black writes books of "craft".

A John Banville book takes years. The first Benjamin Black book took less than six months.

"My John Banville books think," he says, while the Benjamin Black books are "books that feel".

It is a little dizzying.

"I'm getting to the stage where I'm losing track of which book I'm talking about. Or who I am."

The press release for the new book, Christine Falls, reads: "Introducing an exceptional and exciting new name in crime fiction". Isn't this all a little barmy?

"It's just to let people know that this is a different kind of book, a different venture."

A branding exercise, so?

"Yes, I suppose it is."

Christine Falls is very different to anything else by John Banville. It doesn't have any words that require a dictionary. It is loaded with clichés. It has a page-turning plot. There is a drunken pathologist hero. The femme fatale he is chasing. (She happens to be already dead). A rich baddy in Boston who's almost dead, on a ventilator. His sultry young wife.

He is already halfway through a sequel to Christine Falls. He wrote the first so quickly that he thought it couldn't be any good.

"But when I looked back over it, I said, 'This is alright.'"

How good is "alright"?

"Well I don't like any of my work, it embarrasses me."

(Ah ha, "John Banville" John Banville is back.)

"Don't get me wrong, I think it's better than everybody else. It's just not up to my standards."

A waiter arrives at our table, and describes the soup of the day. "That sounds disgusting," Banville says, with just the faintest touch of a wry smile.

He talks about the process of writing. "It is a savage business. It's obsessive. It's demanding. When you're writing, you're not quite human – or maybe you could say you're more than human, you're human in a way that ordinary non-writing humans can't allow themselves to be.

"I've been obsessed with words ever since [the age of 12] – all my life. Reality has to be sifted through the net of language for me. It's a kind of sickness. The old romantic notion of the artist is pretty accurate: an artist is a man with a wound."

This vocation is selfish: "We do this thing for ourselves." He has received a lot of letters from people who have been bereaved and say The Sea helped them. He replies to them politely, but thinks: "It's incidental that you get comfort from my book – I wrote it for myself."

He is uninterested in issues, in politics, in research. "Research kills fiction. The imagination is capable of anything – as we see in our dreams.

"I've never been bereaved, but I know what it feels like, because I've imagined it."

How does this work, in practice?

"You sink down into yourself. You start to work and nothing's happening. You're making a cup of tea, looking out the window, sharpening a pencil. And then suddenly you're gone, you're gone into a place where you're not yourself any more.

"This is why writers have to be on their own in a room. They can't cope with time as it's measured in other people's lives."

John Banville was born in Wexford in 1945. He was educated at the Christian Brothers and, for his last three years' schooling in the early 1960s, at St Peter's College, Wexford. In 1966, according to allegations documented in the Ferns report, Fr Donal Collins went into the attic dorm at St Peter's and measured the penises of 20 boys. Collins was also accused of serial abuse of a number of boys during the 1960s and 1970s. Other priests, and seminarians who went on to be priests, from St Peter's were found guilty of sexual abuse.

"We knew it was a homosexual school – any seminary is."

He says they knew of sexual abuse, although not the extent. And the victims didn't talk about it: "They always [choose] the weakest ones, and the weakest ones don't tell.

"It was just accepted. This was the way things were. It was this purist, puritanical thing: if this was happening to kids, they must deserve it. The times were so different, we didn't think in these terms [of 'abuse']."

He remembers also "decent, hard-working men, who did their best in a hard time".

"Every now and then we have to counter the prevailing demonisation of the whole clergy, which is simply not true."

The "different times" he recalls are the setting for Christine Falls. The plot deals with the children's institutions of the 1950s (mother-and-baby homes, orphanages) and conflict around how vulnerable, unmarried mothers and their babies were dealt with by society and the church.

There is plenty of action in the novel, and a twist of sorts, but no dramatic denouement, no act of redemption.

"In this country, nothing ever gets done," says Banville.

"That was a time when you did not rock the boat. The reins of power were held by church and state, and between them they had us where they wanted us.

"I'm not saying there's a vast conspiracy. It's not done like that – reputations can be damaged by a raising of an eyebrow, by two guys chatting in a boardroom."

"People like you and I are outside the power structure. The power that's being wielded doesn't really affect us. This is a good country to live in for people like us. But if you're poor, if you're an unmarried mother, then power does affect you."

He pauses. Looks towards the window. "You walk on the [Liffey] boardwalk out there and you look at all those drugged kids with their buggies with two or three kids in them and you think, what kind of a life is this? And you think, maybe, bring back the church, bring back hellfire. Frighten the life out of them. Nothing else seems to work.

"One of the things that's happened in this country is that people haven't taken responsibility for power."

Talk of power leads him to Charles Haughey.

"I wanted to do an interview with him – the big interview that wouldn't be published until after he'd died. I sent a couple of messages along the line, and a 'no' came back.

"I heard that it was because he felt I was attacking him in The Book of Evidence. There is a politician in it, but he's based on Brian Lenihan.

"But I think he [Haughey] would have got around me. He was a great seducer. He would have flattered me. Even on his deathbed he would have manipulated me. I don't know enough about power, or the wielding of power, to be able to resist power.

"It's all very well to talk in theory about power, but when you're actually dealing with someone who's powerful, they're very wily characters.

"Will we have another glass of wine before we go?"p