John Banville on the age of ideas at an end

John Banville tells Alan O’Riordan he tried to write the great European novel because he was ‘damned’ if he was going to write an Irish one

ON the way up to the apartment where he writes, John Banville complains of the building’s Celtic Tiger shoddiness — his block on Bachelors Walk is an example of the great, architect-free glut of apartment buildings that was allowed to be thrown up in our capital city. Inside, however, are redemptively elegant pieces of furniture, a small writing desk, and books. Books no reader of Banville would be surprised to find: Dictionaries, art books, indexes of classical literature and mythology, works of philosophy and criticism.

In conversation, this one at a table you could, fittingly, imagine in a Parisian cafe, Banville is quick to pull a reference or an anecdote. Discussing his work regime, he recalls a holiday postcard he received from Brian Friel. It read: “I’m here for two weeks, one with good behaviour.” That, says Banville, is his attitude, and six days a week he can be found in his scriptorium high above the Liffey.

That work ethic has given Banville a steady output: A new novel every three years, and, for the past decade, an annual Benjamin Black, the pseudonym under which he writes his Quirke series, set in 1950s Dublin.

Banville’s books deal with the unreliability of memory and the strange business of being in the world. In recent books, the vehicle Banville has settled on for the exploration of such things is a male narrator of a certain age and disposition — often a cad, self-obsessed, and self-doubting, removing himself from the world, his art having failed him. The latest is Oliver Orme in The Blue Guitar.

Banville allows that there might be an element of autobiography, but only in the sense that all fiction is autobiography (typically, he’s also noted that, in another sense, no fiction is autobiography). “It’s all one book. It’s trying to get nearer and nearer to some kind of perfection, One can never get to it, but one can get nearer. It’s become a cliché now, Beckett’s thing about failing better, but it’s true. That’s all you can do.”

That perfection, he says, always rests in the next book. “One starts writing in a state of euphoria. This is going to be it! Then, halfway through, you’re wading in a quagmire up to your armpits. Then you get to the end, shaking the mud off yourself saying never again.”

Against that process, Benjamin Black is something of a release for Banville, allowing him to sustain the illusions of dialogue, plot, motive, and so on without undercutting them from within. ‘I quite like that one,” he’ll say of a Benjamin Black book.

Contrarily, he says, he’s “sickened by the Banville ones”. Black’s works, he says, “are craft. They don’t pretend. When I was a kid, I loved to do woodwork. I always wanted to make something really well made, and Benjamin Black is a kind of carpenter. I’m quite proud of those. Banville is trying to turn the novel into some kind of poetic form.”

It didn’t always used to be so. But Banville’s ambition for the novel has changed. Once upon a time, he wrote, in his science trilogy, what could be described as novels of ideas — reimagining the lives of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton in metafictional ways that managed to transcend the scientific subject matter and approach philosophical questions about language and the representation of the world. “That was my attempt to be a great European novelist of ideas,” he says.

“We all had the difficulty of what are we going to do. Joyce put everything in. Beckett took everything out. Yeats was the rhetorical, heroic figure. Wilde was the court jester. Shaw was the preacher. What was left for us? We had to find some way to do it. I tried to do the European novel of ideas because I was damned if I was going to be an Irish novelist.” Those novels now seem hubristic, Banville says. They share with his later work an obsession with the challenge for the writer: Representing the world despite the inadequate means we have to do so.

“Ideas don’t really fit in the kind of novels I write,” he says. “You have to try to strike past the day’s obsessions to essentials, and that’s difficult to do… If all my books were gathered in one volume it would be called The Book of Evidence because this is all I can ever present. This is what I have seen. This is what I have speculated about: One man’s little moment here on earth. Some sort of record of it. That’s all I can do. I can’t know what’s going on in your mind.”

Banville can sometimes come across as a writer of austere, prescriptive ideas of what the novel as a work of art should be doing, But it’s important to remember he only applies these categories to his own work. What may seem to be a circumscribing, opens, he says, “a big space”. We discuss how TV is doing a lot of the work of the old Victorian novel, dealing with society, morality, capitalism, politics. “That’s done,” he says. “I’m glad of that. That frees the novel to do other things, to be more concentrated, to be more poetic, but that’s only me. The Victorian novel is still being written, in America for instance; the wave of modernism never struck the shores of America.”

Americans, says Banville, still have that great subject for the novel: The making of a nation. For a European, it’s different. “I see myself like somebody wandering in Rome among magnificent wreckage. I can pick up pieces and make something out of it, but it is wreckage. I think the great European adventure is at an end. It’s a source of sorrow to me, but I think it is.”

  • An Evening with John Banville is at the Maritime Hotel, Bantry on July 18. See www.westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival  

Highlights of West Cork Literary Festival

  • An Evening with Nick Laird and Zadie Smith (below). One of the UK’s leading literary couples, Laird is a Tyrone-born poet and Smith is one of the leading novelists of her generation, were reported to have bought a disused farmhouse on the Sheep’s Head peninsula last year.
  • Louis de Bernières reads from new novel The Dust That Falls From Dreams and collection of love poetry, Of Love and Desire.
  • Tribute to Aidan Higgins. Higgins died late in 2015, in Kinsale. He is best known for the brilliant Langrishe, Go Down and will be celebrated by Prof Neil Murphy, a professor of contemporary literature who has edited Higgins’s work.
  • An Evening with Kevin Barry and Carys Davies. The pair will read from their latest books, Beatlebone and The Redemption of Galen Pike, respectively.
  • From the Well. Revolution was the theme of this year’s annual Cork County Library and Arts Service From the Well Short Story competition. The writer Claire Kilroy hosts a reading by winner Patrick Doyle, and Catherine Kirwan. West Cork Literary Festival runs across various venues in Bantry, Co Cork, from July 17-23

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