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An Interview with John Banville

There is a long-dead painter who pops up in more than a few of John Banville’s thirteen books, a Nabokovian wink of a character whose name, Jean Vaublin, is roughly anagrammatic with the author’s own, and whose work inspires Banville’s cast of unfortunates to frequent reverie and occasional murder. “He is the master of darkness, as others are of light,” Banville wrote of Vaublin in 1993’s Ghosts. “Even his brightest sunlight seems shadowed, tinged with umber from these thick trees, this ochred ground, these unfathomable spaces leading into night.” It’s hard not to read this as jokey self-portraiture, so apt a description is it of the gloomful world of Banville’s novels, with their less-than-heroically doomed protagonists wriggling desperately about for a glimpse at something that might resemble rest. They sometimes catch it for a moment or two, but more usually the only light to be found is the stuff gleaming through the wit and polish of Banville’s nearly perfect prose. That’s plenty light enough.

In a body of work stretching over thirty years, Banville has taken readers from his early Birchwood, in which a boy runs off with a tattered circus in famine-plagued Ireland; through a trio of historical novels about Copernicus, Kepler, and (sort of) Newton, in which the famed cosmologists do their best to eke a little harmonic order out of a world where it is far from immediately evident; through another triad of books chronicling the repentant flailings of a maid-murderer named Freddie Montgomery; to 2000’s Eclipse, about a defeated actor returned to his childhood home in search for self among “the jumble of discarded masks”; and at last to Shroud, his most recent, about a vicious drunk of an academic superstar with his share of nasty secrets. Banville’s themes are the big ones—the shifting grounds of truth, time, and the ever-shaky self—and he digs at them with doggedness, ambition, and a vocabulary that will bring even the most casual logophiles to their knees in bliss.

This interview took place over two months and two continents (Banville lives in Dublin), and employed two technologies of communication (email and phone).

—Ben Ehrenreich

THE BELIEVER: Do you find that you’re able to like any of your books?

JOHN BANVILLE: No. I hate them all. With a deep, abiding hatred. And embarrassment. I have this fantasy that I’m walking past Brentano’s or wherever and I click my fingers and all my books on the shelves go blank. The covers are still there but all the pages are blank. And then I can start again and get it right. I hate them all. They’re all so far below what I had hoped they would be. And yet one goes on. Here I am starting a new book. This is the absolute best stage of it, because when you’re writing the opening pages of the book, anything is possible, you might actually get it right this time. In my heart, of course I know that I won’t. In a couple of years’ time when I finish the book, I’ll hate it just as much as the others. I won’t deny that every now and then I write a sentence and I can hear a chime, I can hear that ping that you get when you hit your fingernail on the side of a glass, and I think, “Yeah, that’s right.” Why would I sit here day after day doing this stuff? I certainly don’t get any money for it.

BLVR: Your protagonists are generally a pretty wretched lot—broken by time, by the lies they’ve told themselves, by their weaknesses and fears, but struggling desperately, even when they know better, for some form of redemption. And they do find it, not any lasting sort with harps and hymns, but shards of transcendence, brief salvations. And these transitory redemptions seem to come almost exclusively from art or from sex.

JB: I have an elderly friend who holds that he is like the census form—broken down by age, sex, and religion (he’s the same corpulent friend who adapted Connolly’s famous dictum to “Outside every thin girl there’s a fat man trying to get in”). I suppose one might say the same of my sorry lot of marionettes. They do seek some form of redemption for themselves, although I’m surprised you see so much sex in my work (not half enough, my publishers feel). Art offers them brief moments of transcendence, but they always come crashing back to earth, usually making a messy landing in something soft. I’m acutely aware that “redemption” and “transcendence” are more of those big words that so troubled Stephen Dedalus, and as such one must beware them. Art, in one formulation, is transcendental play— with an equal emphasis on adjective and noun—and play should always involve earthy things, such as clay, flesh, human beings, as well as dice, of course. I like your “not any lasting sort with harps and hymns, but shards of transcendence, brief salvations.” Brief salvations is nice, implying as it does that there is more than one way of being saved.

BLVR: Why “dice, of course”?

JB: Well, play involves chance, of course, hence the dice.

BLVR: Your characters are very conscious of the role chance plays in their lives, of the degree to which they are marionettes to what Freddie Montgomery (in The Book of Evidence) calls “the ceaseless, slow, demented drift of things.” They are often quite stubbornly dismissive of any notion of responsibility or volition, of any substantial self capable of making choices. But their narratives are largely confessional—stabs at selfhood, blunderings towards forgiveness for crimes they recognize as theirs. Would you allow that in this sense, your novels are highly moral creatures?

JB: I don’t think—in fact I’m sure, in my case, at least— that artists ever set out to make art with a moral purpose in mind. It simply would not work. One can only make art for its own sake, otherwise there is adulteration. This is what makes Orwell, for instance, such a good political satirist and such a dreadful novelist. However, the artist’s intentions are not everything—in fact, they may be negligible, once the work is finished—and it’s perfectly possible for a work of art to have a moral force, even a moral direction, of its own devising, as it were, even of its own volition. My characters twist and turn, reel and writhe, not out of moral anguish, but in the awful, salt-on-the-snail’s-back agony of trying to be authentic. It is this—vain—quest for authenticity that drives them all, I think. But this is the artist taking on the role of critic in regard to his own work, which is always dangerous. I look on my books with a mixture of bafflement and shame; half the time I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m doing it, and the other half I am in doubt that I should be doing what I’m doing. What is it Kafka says?—I do not speak as I think, I do not think as I should, and so it all goes on in helpless darkness (in German he would not have set two “ess” endings in sequence).

BLVR: Yes, I don’t mean moralistic or moralizing at all, just that their concerns are moral ones, are the most basic moral ones—the possibility of choice, of becoming, to paraphrase Nietzsche (and I won’t dare to speculate on his German), an animal capable of making promises. I suppose I want to push you to unravel for me the notion of “art’s own sake,” because it seems that you do have your purposes, conscious or not, which are not adulterating but actually fundamental, that you grapple with the same problems in different ways in different books, and do so with such precision and grace that I can’t believe it’s entirely unconscious.

JB: Well, I read a lot of philosophy, for the beauty of the thought if not for the rigor, and I suppose some philosophical concerns must seep into my literary thinking. I do like fiction to have a “mind,” I mean, to have a sense that it originated in thought as well as in feeling. Kundera is disparagingly good on the present-day hegemony of feeling over thought, emotion over reason; he remarks somewhere that far more and far greater crimes have been committed for heartfelt than for rational reasons. Probably it is not possible to be a thinking being without a concern for the moral. But any question of the moral inevitably raises, for the artist, at least, the question of the beautiful. I am old-fashioned enough to use the word “beauty” without blushing, or giggling. Yet one has to be suspicious of what one might term “unattached” beauty. Hermann Broch held that to say “art for art’s sake” is not much different from saying “business is business” or “war is war.” I’m not sure I agree with him—in fact, I’m not sure I understand him—but the remark has been lodged in my mind for many years. Certainly one has to beware the overly burnished surface. Recently I came across again a wonderful observation by Proust, I don’t know from where, in which he contrasted Flaubert with Balzac. Flaubert’s style, he said, replaces the object, the “mere” object, with a highly polished metaphor, so that his work is everywhere uniform, seamless, gleaming; Balzac, on the other hand, leaves all kinds of bits and pieces of things lying around, and consequently his work has the rawness and roughness of real life. I hasten to add that of course I greatly prize Flaubert over Balzac; but one knows what Proust means (indeed, Proust would most likely have detested Scott Moncrieff’s daintified translation of À la recherche…). As to Nietzsche (“Nietzsche I loved, and after Nietzsche, art…” Sorry.), I wonder if you know this wonderful aphorism from The Gay Science: “I fear that the animals regard man as a creature of their own kind which has in a highly dangerous fashion lost its healthy animal reason—as the mad animal, as the laughing animal, as the weeping animal, as the unhappy animal.” What were we saying…?

BLVR: I’m not sure exactly, but Nietzsche and other unhappy animals provide a convenient transition—in Shroud, your latest novel, philosophy is more in the forefront than ever. It’s set in Turin against the backdrop of Nietzsche’s famous breakdown, and its protagonist, Axel Vander, has a little Althusser in him and more than a little Paul de Man. What about those men grabbed your interest, and what brought them together for you?

JB: All my books since The Book of Evidence have been more or less concerned with the quest for authenticity. I wrote about a murderer, an actor, a spy. De Man had been in my mind for a long time, ever since I became friendly with the Belgian scholar who unearthed de Man’s wartime journalism, Ortwin de Graef. Then I read Althusser’s marvelous, frightening memoir, The Future Lasts a Long Time (I recommend it to you, if you don’t know it already), which begins with his account of murdering his wife. (Recently I met an old friend of the Althussers, who gave it as his opinion that the only moment of true sanity in Althusser’s life was when he killed “that woman.”) So I blended de Man/Althusser into a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, and Axel Vander, a man who has lived a lie for decades, who has stolen another man’s identity, who denies even his Jewishness, for no good reason that he can think of. The quintessential Banville protagonist, no? In Vander I think I at last expressed all my thinking about the problem of authenticity—now I can move on.

BLVR: There were a few moments in Shroud in which you seemed to be—and this may be a simplistic way of putting it—explaining Vander’s theoretical work, which in some ways echoes Paul de Man’s, through his life. So of course he felt that “every text conceals a shameful secret” as he put it, because he saw his own shameful secret everywhere he looked. Is it right to read into the book an implicit criticism of the sort of literary criticism that de Man engaged in?

JB: No. I mean, it’s a travesty of de Man. I’m surprised I haven’t had hate letters from de Man scholars. Fiction is absolutely conscienceless and cannibalistic. It gobbles up material wherever it can find it. I suppose I wanted to find an emblematic figure from that period. I have no interest in commenting on the great issues of our time. I just wanted to find a public figure, so I blended these two together, shamelessly, and made a fictional character.

BLVR: So you weren’t interested in engaging with de Man’s work?

JB: I find de Man’s work very interesting. I think it is very… Shrouded. It’s written in an extraordinarily guarded, obtuse style. Frequently it is extremely difficult to find out what he’s talking about and I’m not sure whether that’s intentional or not. Certainly after Ortwin de Graef discovered these anti-Semitic pieces, people leapt on de Man’s work and said, “Oh, the whole thing is an elaborate smokescreen.” I find that extremely hard to believe. These were pieces that he wrote at an extraordinary time in twentieth-century history, an extraordinarily dangerous time. Everybody’s loyalties and politics were obscure, and I can’t imagine that a man of his intellect would lead his life and erect critical systems on a peccadillo from during the war. Certainly one of the pieces he wrote is pretty disgracefully anti-Semitic. He famously said that if the Jewish element was removed from Europe, European culture would lose nothing, which is disgraceful, no doubt about that. But so many people did so many appalling things—look at the early books of Graham Greene, which are dripping with anti-Semitism. And one only has to mention Eliot. Most of the modernists with the great and notable exception of James Joyce were fascistic in tendency and most of them anti-Semitic.

So I don’t see that de Man would have felt all that guilty. He did have something to hide, but who hasn’t? Certainly if you lived through the period that he lived through in Europe and then went to America, it would be extremely difficult not to have something to hide. And I don’t like to think what I would have done if I had been invited to write for a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium in the early forties, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t reprehend the stuff that he wrote. Anti-Semitism always seems to me an extraordinarily stupid attitude, and extraordinarily dim. I’m always amazed that people with such delicate and finely honed sensitivities, an Eliot or even a Graham Greene, would be anti-Semitic. I just don’t know how they could do that. But I didn’t live through the period that they lived through. Everybody in the thirties seem to have been casually anti-Semitic.

But this is going wildly off the subject, because I had no intention of writing about these subjects in Shroud. From my point of view, a book manifests itself and then the only task I have is to get rid of the damned thing, throw it away. Someone once asked Joyce why did he use Homeric parallels in Ulysses and he looked at him as if he were mad and said, “Well, it was a way of working.” In other words, it didn’t mean any more than that it was a method of working. I think that’s true of practically all art that’s real. I don’t think art has a conscience of any kind.

BLVR: Let me ask you a hopelessly nineteenth-century High Romantic question of the sort that you’re not supposed to ask (or, God forbid, try to answer) with a straight face these days. What do you believe is the task of literature? The word “task” is perhaps a bit didactic. Maybe mission would be better, or end, but among the many things that literature does and can do, is there any one thing that you can pinpoint that it must do to be worthy of the name?

JB: As usual, it’s easier to say what literature is not than what it is or should be. Certainly it’s not self-expression, as so many imagine, including some writers, who should know better. I’m rather inclined to agree with Auden, that poetry—all art—makes nothing happen. Real art is perfectly useless, if by useful we are thinking of politics, morals, social issues, etc. Cyril Connolly put it well and simply when he declared that the only business of an artist is to make masterpieces. And yet, the work of art is always moral, even though the artist harbored no moral intentions in making the work. The moral quality arises from the fact that the work of art represents the absolute best that a particular human being could do— perhaps even a little more than he could do. I realize, of course, that the same can be said of science, which is all right by me—but what about sport? Does the ephemerality of the sporting moment somehow make it less significant than the work of art?

You ask me what a work of literature must do in order to be worthy of the name. I suppose I would say it must have a quality of the transcendent. I do not mean metaphysical transcendence, but a kind of heightening. In the work of art, the world is made for a moment radiant, more than itself while at the same time remaining absolutely, fundamentally, mundanely, utterly itself. So the artistic act is almost like the sexual act: In the glare of its attention, the Other, in a sudden access of self-awareness, takes on a transcendent glow. High talk, this, I know, but we are, I take it, talking of high art.

BLVR: You said earlier that several of your novels addressed what you called “the problem of authenticity,” which in a way surprised me, because so many of your characters seem to reject the whole notion of authenticity. Freddie Montgomery at one point in The Book of Evidence says, “To place all faith in the mask, that seems to me the true shape of refined humanity.”Do you agree with him?

JB: I don’t know. I don’t know that I have any opinion. And I don’t know that my opinion counts very much. I don’t either agree or disagree with the feelings and the thoughts of the characters that I invent. I don’t think fiction works that way. I don’t think art works that way. Again I would with Joyce say that that was a way of working. I spent I suppose ten years, damned near twenty years, following that vein of writing. I’ve now finished it. Shroud is the last book I’m going to write like that. (I’m now writing a book about childhood and the seaside!) I felt that in Shroud I had gone as far as I could go in that direction. Many people would say I’ve gone at least one book too far. But I had to try to get it right, and I didn’t get it right. I think that the problem of authenticity for characters like Freddie Montgomery and Axel Vander is in a way precisely what you say, that they don’t believe in authenticity. And yet, if one doesn’t believe in the possibility of authenticity, then how is one to live, literally—how is one to find a solid piece of ground to put one’s foot on? This is the question that they all are following, all those characters from Freddie Montgomery right through to Axel Vander. How does one find a solid place to stand?

BLVR: About the new book, I was about to ask,“What could be more quintessentially un-Banvillean than childhood and the seashore?” but then the protagonist of Birchwood was a young boy, wasn’t he?

JB: He was, but this is a much simpler book. I’ve only started it, so God knows what it will become. It may turn into some horrible, dark, monstrous thing, as they usually do. I hope not. Again I suppose I will be writing about an essential inability to absorb reality. I think this is the predicament of all artists, that they stand outside the world looking on in amazement. The only passage in fiction that I’ve ever written that I thought came close to a direct statement was in The Book of Evidence where he says, “I’ve never felt at home on this earth. I feel that our whole presence here is a sort of cosmic blunder, and the people who were meant for here are out at some other planet on the other side of the universe, and,” he says, “they’d be extinct by now in the world that was made to contain us.”1 I suppose if you wanted to extract a testament from the books, that would be it. I’m constantly astonished by the world. I have been since childhood and I’ve never got used to it have been since childhood and I’ve never got used to it. I’m sitting here looking at clouds going across the sky. Clouds have always fascinated me. They seem the most unreal things. Skies always look to me like things out of a science fiction movie. And yet I’ve been looking at skies for the past fifty seven years. I should’ve got used to them by now, but I’m not. I look at people in the same way. People do the most extraordinary, outlandish, bizarre things quite ordinarily. I’ve always felt that if you were a Martian and you came to earth, and you’d coped with everything—half the population scraping its face with a blade every morning and things like that—and thought you had it all down pat, and then somebody sneezes, or somebody yawns and stretches their arms in that sort of silent howl.You’d say,“Oh no, I’ve got to go back and rethink this whole thing. Obviously these human beings are far stranger than I thought they were.” I find the world constantly an astonishing place. Not because of the mysterious things, but because of the quite ordinary things. I think Oscar Wilde is right when he says, “The mystery of the world is not the extraordinary, but the ordinary.”

BLVR: I suppose there’s a real Martian quality to childhood.

JB: Yes, I think that’s why I’m going back now to do this book, which is probably the one I’ve been practicing to do for the last forty years.

BLVR: In what sense do you mean that?

JB: I’m pushing sixty now. I find it hard to believe, but I am. One starts to look backwards and try to see clearly one’s beginnings, and I feel that I was formed very much by, for instance, those prepubertal loves. To fall in love at the age of eleven is one of the most extraordinary, tender, and anguishing experiences that one can have. One never forgets them. There are girls that I fell in love with seaside summers when I was a child whom I still remember as vividly as people that I was in love with last year, perhaps even more brilliantly. Of course the danger is that our friend Proust has been there already, and it’s going to be very hard to do it, not to mention Nabokov in Lolita, which has the quintessential seaside adolescent love affair in the opening pages. I don’t know if there’s much to do after Nabokov and Proust, but one does one’s little bit. One scribbles one’s little sentences and hopes for the best.

BLVR: Many of your novels are interconnected. The story of Freddie Montgomery was told in three volumes published over six years, and Cass and Alexander Cleave reappear in Eclipse and in Shroud. Do you conceive of your novels as complete works in themselves or do you look at the broader picture?

JB: I think in general there is A Book and all of the books that one writes are volumes in it.When I finally drop off the twig, what will be left will be a work. Each one grows out of the previous one. I planned to write a quartet of books when I did Copernicus and then Kepler and then The Newton Letter. I never got around to writing the fourth novel, about a twentieth-century physicist, which is what I wanted to do in the first place.

BLVR: Who would that have been?

JB: It would have been an amalgam of Heisenberg and Einstein and Niels Bohr and people like that. In the seventies I read a lot of science. I have no training in it whatsoever, I was purely fumbling my way in the dark, but I was fascinated by the ideas that science was throwing up then. I haven’t kept up with it. It’s practically impossible now—things change so quickly. I still feel a quickening of the pulse when I hear talk of superstrings and things like that. I planned to write those four “science” books and I set out intentionally to do that, but I didn’t intend there to be any more books about Freddie Montgomery than The Book of Evidence. The next one, Ghosts, started off and suddenly, there was Freddie speaking again. I hadn’t got his voice out of my head, and I don’t think I got the voice out of my head until I had written Shroud. It’s the same tone throughout. I’m surprised that people hadn’t thrown up their hands in despair and said, “Is he ever going to speak in any other kind of voice than this one? We’re getting sick of it.” And maybe they do. Since I don’t read reviews anymore, it may well be that they’re all saying that.2 But I do think that each book grows out of the previous one. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so interested in this little book that I’m starting now, because I can’t quite see where it came from. It may be a transition book, it may be a radical shift, I don’t know.

BLVR: It’s a very different voice?

JB: It is. It’s a much simpler voice. It’s a much less malign voice. It’s a much more forgiving voice, I think. But, let’s face it, every writer has only one voice. Even Joyce, somewhere behind all those styles there is a style, there is a voice. Because we can’t be more than ourselves. We can’t be more than one, no matter how hard we try.

BLVR: How fully do you plot out a novel when you start?

JB: I used to plan books. Kepler is the most extraordinarily planned book. I based the whole thing on Kepler’s notion of the five perfect solids in geometry. Each section has the same number of sides as a cube or a dodecahedron or whatever, and I planned it practically to the number of words in each chapter and each section. I knew when I wrote the first line what the last line was going to be and how far away it was going to be. I don’t do that anymore. I think Mefisto was a transition book for me. It was an extremely difficult book. It took me five years. It almost killed me. My wife insists I had a nervous breakdown when I was doing it. I didn’t know where to go with it, I didn’t know what do with it and I think it was a kind of breakthrough. I don’t think that the book was successful in formal terms but I think it has a kind of peculiar coherence that I didn’t intend. I wrote about a lot of things and I didn’t know why I was doing them. I still don’t know why I did them. So now I don’t really plan at all.

Eclipse and Shroud started as one book. I spent a year or two writing it and Axel Vander was in that book, in Eclipse. I just couldn’t get anywhere and it was getting worse and worse and I was thinking of abandoning the whole thing and I suddenly realized there were two books in it and I went ahead and wrote Eclipse and then Shroud. They were each written quite quickly, in the space of about two years. So there was an instance of something that certainly wasn’t planned. It was a bore to be stuck with Cass Cleave in Shroud and try to accommodate her fate in that book, but I quite liked writing about poor Cass. It was a relief from writing about these filthy old monstrous woman-killers that I’ve been writing about since the eighties. So maybe Cass is the one that sent me—this thought has suddenly occurred to me—maybe Cass is the one that sent me back to childhood. That may well be. Maybe this next book is Cass’s book.

BLVR: Are you still editing?

JB: No. I was the literary editor of The Irish Times for about ten years but I gave it up about two years ago.

BLVR: So now you’re freelancing?

JB: Yes. I still review for The Irish Times and I review for The New York Review and The New York Times and various places.

BLVR: It seems like I see your name at least once a week.

JB: [Laughs] It’s terrible. I remember there was a used-book dealer in London many years ago. He said he was going to open up a special section of his bookshop devoted to books recommended as Anthony Burgess. When people ask me for blurbs now, prepublication, I say, “My name is such a debased coin, you’re better off without it.”

But I like the discipline. It’s so different from writing fiction. You sit there and you do it, like a piece of Zen archery or something. You do it and if you get it right it can be quite satisfying and it’s not as shaming as fiction.

BLVR: Shaming?

JB: I can write a review in a day. It would take me a day to write a couple of lines of fiction and even then they wouldn’t be right. It’s an entirely different discipline. And I suppose I feel that if I have any public duty it’s to keep people reading, keep people interested. I had an extraordinary experience a couple years ago when Louis Menand’s book The Metaphysical Club came out. It had been published for about six months and I read it and I said to The Irish Times, “Look, I want to review this.” We gave it a full page. The book became a bestseller here, just on the strength of that review. I was astonished. I always assume, and I suspect that most reviewers assume, that nobody ever reads reviews.

BLVR: Or maybe the first and last paragraphs.

JB: Exactly. Before I gave up reading reviews that’s what I used to read, the first and the last, because you knew that in the middle it was just the plot summary.

BLVR: Do you find it difficult to balance writing novels and writing as a critic?

JB: No, in the matter of fiction and criticism I have a split personality, although no doubt each pursuit informs the other, in superficial ways. I was a newspaper copy editor for nearly twenty years; it must have taught me something about precision, clarity, punctuation, etc. Reviewing—and I consider myself a reviewer, not a critic—is a kind of knack that one develops. When one is young one expects to be able to say everything in a review that one feels and thinks about the work under consideration, but rapidly one comes to realize that the demands imposed by word-length and deadline and so on mean that one must choose a couple of ideas and reactions and concentrate on them. Fiction—making art—is an altogether more mysterious business, which involves and invokes everything one has to give. I might put it this way: For me, reviewing is done while I’m awake, and thinking as far as possible in a straight line; art is done while I’m in a form of hypnagogic state that is not quite dreaming and not quite waking. I know all this sounds hopelessly nineteenth-century-High-Romantic, but there you are.

BLVR: What is the distinction for you between a reviewer and a critic?

JB: It’s quite simple. A book reviewer reviews new books that the public has not seen yet. My job is to introduce people to the book and say, “Look, this is worth your attention.” I’m in the happy position now that I can choose what I want to review, so I don’t review books that I don’t like. My wife always says to me, “You’re giving an entirely false image of yourself, because you seem like the nicest person in the world. You like everything you read. It’s only because you only review books that you like.” She says, “You should take a book now and then that you don’t like and take a flying kick at it.” I say, “What’s the point of that?” There are enough critics around, enough book reviewers around who are tearing the guts out of books. What I try to do is get people enthusiastic about books.

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