Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published by The Irish Examiner on 5th September 2009.
My interview with John Banville started with a spat. Batting away my praise for his new book, the Infinities, he insisted that, like all his work, the novel is flawed. That includes his Booker prize winner, The Sea. And no, he didn’t enjoy writing his latest; especially not the humour which had appeared by a happy accident.
“No it was not interesting to write,” he said, taking a sip of the port he’d ordered to ease the lingering symptoms of his flu- man variety- not swine. “To do it at all you have to crank yourself up every morning and think about the awful stuff you did yesterday, and how can you compensate for that by doing better today? You have to sink down into yourself, down and down into everything in order to get anything done.”
At a recent crime writer’s festival in Harrogate, Banville caused controversy by saying that as John Banville he writes 200 words a day; but as crime writer Benjamin Black he churns out 2,000.
“I don’t know why people got so fussed about that,” he mutters. “It is simply a different way of working.” Does he get irritated when his words are picked on? “Not really. I am too old to get irritated.”
Banville likes to write the kind of books that he wants to read. But there’s a problem.
“The only person who can’t read my books is me. That is the difficulty of doing interviews. The book is something I did last year, and all I am interested in is next year. That’s when I’ll write the great masterpiece which is going to wow the world; to make them stand back in total amazement.” He laughs. “I know in my heart that the next one will be another botched job, but you have to keep going.”
The Infinities was intended to be a novel based faithfully on Heinrich Von Kleist’s play Amphitrion.
“Kleist’s great ambition was to blend Shakespearean burlesque with Greek drama and in Amphitrion he certainly does that. It’s a painful play about a General whose identity is stolen by the God Zeus. That was my starting point. I kept the skeleton, but fiction always goes in its own direction.”
The Infinities shows Banville at his very best. His prose, as always, is impeccable. But it’s his playfulness, his weirdly compelling characters, and the way he conveys with such delicacy, the atmosphere in a house waiting for death that got me hooked. Who could not enjoy seeing God portrayed as a randy adulterer; or appreciate the hypothesis of humans being spared the tedium of eternal life.
“More and more writing feels like dreaming to me,” says Banville. “I can’t remember inventing those characters. I can’t remember how they came to me, or how they evolved. I don’t know why the daughter is called Petra. But it suits her. She could never have been called Mary, could she?”
Indeed not. Petra, the troubled daughter of the house, is far too exotic for any ordinary name.
“Petra is nice, isn’t she,” he muses, softening. “I think the saddest thing about Petra, is where the God says, ‘she will be with us soon because we love her.’ She can’t live, poor Petra, she is going to destroy herself. That is so sad.”
Born in 1945, in Wexford, a county that has produced such extraordinary writers that there, surely, must be something in the water, Banville worked for Aer Lingus instead of going to college.
“I think that was a great mistake,” he says. “I should have gone. I regret not taking that four years of getting drunk and falling in love. But I wanted to get away from my family. I wanted to be free.”
Banville has always written.
“I wrote poetry, of course. Everyone did,” he says. “And after I’d read The Dubliners, and was struck at the way Joyce wrote about real life, I immediately started writing bad imitations of The Dubliners. It seemed necessary, from early on, to sift experience through the mesh of words before it would become real to me.”
He worked as a journalist for years; starting as a sub-editor for the Irish Press, where he became Chief Sub Editor, and then, on the Press’s demise in 1995, moving to The Irish Times where he ended up as Literary Editor. As a writer, wouldn’t he have preferred reporting?
“I couldn’t have done reporting,” he says with alarm. “When reporters came back with 400 words on the burning down of an apartment I’d think, ‘how do they do it?’ I would have been stuck on the third sentence for hours.”
Does he miss journalism, now that Benjamin Black has replaced the Irish Times in subsidising his ‘real’ writing?
“I miss office life. I miss that strange erotic intimacy you have not just with women but with men. You tell your most intimate secrets to the person sitting at the desk next to you, and when you meet them in the street you avoid their eye. I miss that.”
Is he proud of Benjamin Black?
“Very proud. As proud as a craftsman would be of a beautifully made table. I see him as an Eileen Grey. He is driven by plot, character and dialogue. I’m an artist as John Banville. I’m trying to blend poetry and fiction to some new form and that is very difficult to do. I always try to write about the way life actually is and not the way we imagine it is. Life is awkward and messy and trivial. One has to try and portray that.”
Banville is relaxed now. He’s moving his head from side to side in happy contemplation. And when we get on to Rex, the dog who narrates a section of The Infinities, any residue reserve dissolves. Rex was based on Banville’s favourite Labrador. My favourite died suddenly, just weeks ago.
“You poor thing,” he says, putting his hand on my knee. “My best dog died in 1980. I still miss him. I still dream about him.”
The Infinities by john Banville is published by Pan Macmillan at 13.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2009.