John Banville Takes on Benjamin Black

(Illustration by Mr. Fish)

{mosimage}“A strange phenomenon. Philip Larkin wouldn’t do public poetry readings because he said he wasn’t prepared to go about the country pretending to be himself. Well now that I’m writing under a pseudonym I have to pretend to be two people.”

I’m talking to John Banville, the Irish novelist and critic, who, after winning the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, has adopted the pen name Benjamin Black and released the crime novel Christine Falls. The tightly plotted tale, a romantic tragedy at heart, is about a morose pathologist named Quirke who, while investigating the death of a mysterious young woman who has shown up in his morgue, stumbles on a corrupt Catholic society called the Knights of St. Patrick, an organization with shadowy ties to his own adoptive family. Set in a deliciously atmospheric 1950s Dublin, Christine Falls is written in a stark third-person prose, a polar shift in style from Banville’s previous novels, which are marked by mordantly verbose first-person narrators, philosophical perambulations, and a brooding exquisiteness of description. Despite the obvious differences between Banville and Black in style, however, many elements remain familiar: the bleakly sardonic characters, the sense of longing and futility, the caustic humor, the pervasive sense that people live, think and act in a perpetual state of self-deception under the aegis of defective ideologies. It’s a strikingly new direction for Banville, but you can still spot the wolf in his new clothes.

I’ve met up with Banville/Black at his garish Manhattan boutique hotel, and we’ve found a pillar in the lobby to hide behind. He’s smaller than I expected and somehow softer. Dressed in a dark gray suit, he speaks with a low brogue that borders on purr. Banville is notorious for his arrogance (on accepting the Booker: “It’s nice to see a work of art has finally won the Booker”), prickliness (in The New York Review of Books he called Ian McEwan’s Saturday a “dismayingly bad book”) and a bit merciless (he once said that the “best gift a father can give his son is to die young”). In person, however, he’s surprisingly serene and warm. He reminds me of a slightly malevolent Buddha, at peace with the treachery and bitterness of the universe, and even a bit amused.

L.A. WEEKLY: You seem different from what I expected.

JOHN BANVILLE: When fans of mine meet me I can see the disappointment in their eyes. Every artist knows of this phenomenon. What I want to say to them is: Look, the person you’re meeting is not the person who wrote the book. The person who wrote the book is somebody who I don’t really know all that much about. I go into my room and I concentrate to such a level that I’m almost in a trance. And I constantly surprise myself by what I write. Half the time I have to check the next day to see what I’ve said. So there is a ghost in the particular machine that’s me. I suppose that’s true, that’s true of all of us.

It certainly seems true for many of your protagonists, who are all masters of not knowing themselves. Sometimes I think that you’re not creating characters, but showing the aporia of character, the emptiness at the center of the vortex. Characters like Victor Maskell, the art historian and Soviet spy in The Untouchable, or Axel Vander, the counterfeit scholar of Shroud, are such a swirl of psychology, philosophy, fiction and reality that these terms begin to break down, and you enter this kind of blissfully bifurcated state.

Well that seems to be the state of our everyday lives. You fall in love, pledging your life to this girl and there’s another part of you that’s saying, “Oh yeah?” Wait until six months from now when some other girl passes your path. But the two versions of you are absolutely you and are absolutely real and are being absolutely honest. The person who is pledging eternal allegiance to the loved one is just as real as the other person, the skeptic. This is not an original observation, but we’re all just congeries of different versions of ourselves. In order to function in the world we have to maintain the fiction that we are a unified object, a unified being. But of course we know that we’re not.

I remember talking to a very well-known journalist in Ireland. She had very fierce, very forceful opinions. And I said to her, “You know I so much admire and envy you for your passionate commitment to things.” And she said, “I haven’t got any passionate commitments to things. I’m a journalist! I think up a subject and I write about it as if I’m passionate.” I said, “Of course. How naive of me...” I think many people who write actually do believe they’re passionately committed to things. They’re the dangerous ones.

I thought perhaps some of this distrust fueled your, well, quite savage review of Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

Oh, I wish I had never written that. It caused too much of a fuss.

No, no. Everyone is secretly thanking you. We all love a good literary tussle.

I just found the whole [book] cloyingly ludicrous and implausible. I mean: The parents love the children, the parents love each other, he had never been unfaithful to his wife? He was like Jimmy Carter, except he didn’t even have lust in his heart. And I was furious to the reaction to it, which was people throwing their hats in the air. So I thought: Just for once I’m going to have to put my climbing boots on and take a really good old swinging kick at this! If you set out to write a realistic, naturalistic novel then you have to be realistic and naturalistic. You can’t bend the rules. You’d have to be Dickens to get away with that, and he didn’t get away with it most of the time anyway. But I didn’t get any pleasure out of attacking McEwan and I tried to separate McEwan from this particular book. Because I think it was an aberration.

In your own work you create these seductive characters who forcefully propose theories about art and life, but you always provide the loose thread needed to unravel them. You’re never willing to let something stand.

The people who become famous are the people who are slightly fraudulent. There are great scholars who have read everything... but in a way those are the people you never hear about. I always think that if you know somebody’s name then there’s something slightly fraudulent about that person. Otherwise we wouldn’t have heard of him or her.

When I was doing the book Shroud I had based the character to some extent on Paul de Man and then I read [Louis Pierre] Althusser’s The Future Lasts a Long Time, which he wrote after he killed his wife and came out of the loony bin. And it’s an extraordinary book. It reads like an existential novel. Here’s Althusser, the greatest Marxist critic, Marxist philosopher, Marxist thinker in the 20th century, and he admits he hasn’t read the main texts!

{mosimage}When I was researching Althusser for this interview, a friend of mine asked for a neck massage! [Althusser “accidentally” strangled his wife while giving her a neck massage.]

I remember doing a reading in Edinburgh once and I could see a woman sitting in the front row with a very black look on her face, and I knew that when the Q&A session came she would be the first to ask. And yes: “When are you going to stop writing these books about dreadful men killing women?!”

That lady will be quite disappointed. There’s a fair number of murdered women in Christine Falls.

She will be, yes. She’ll say, “Oh, argggh. Even as somebody else he’s still killing them. Still killing women.” Of course this is what men do, isn’t it? You get so few women murderers and no women serial killers.

Yes, I felt like the theme of Christine Falls was bad fathers and dead mothers.

That about sums it up.

But let’s talk about the book — what led you to write in such a drastically different style?

At the time I thought it was an exercise because I had finished the John Banville novel The Sea and I started to read Georges Simenon. I was having lunch with the political philosopher John [N.] Gray, and he put me on to him. So I started to read and I was really blown away by this extraordinary writer. I had never known this kind of thing was possible, to create such work in that kind of simple — well, apparently simple — direct style. So it wasn’t any more serious than that. But looking back I think it was very much a transition. It was a way of breaking free from the books I had been writing for the last 20 years, these first-person narratives of obsessed half-demented men going on and on and on and on. I had to break out of that. And I see now in retrospect that Christine Falls was part of that process. Because it’s a completely different process than writing as John Banville. It’s completely action driven, and it’s dialogue driven, and it’s character driven. Which none of my Banville books are — I’m not sure what drives them.

Was it difficult, after all these years, to write in such a different manner?

It turned out to be extraordinarily easy. I went to a place in Tuscany that a friend of mine runs. A writers’ place. I don’t like writers’ places because there are lots of writers there: the most boring people in the world. But this was a very small place and there was nobody there — it was out of season. And I just got up one Monday morning and sat down at a desk and began to write Christine Falls, and by lunchtime I had 2,000 words written. I couldn’t believe it. If I had got 200 words written in a John Banville book in a day I’d think I’d done a good day’s work.

It’s somewhere between my literary journalism and my fiction. When I write reviews, I do them in one go. I sit down and then do them. Essentially it’s like a Japanese master, a painter, just doing it. But when I write fiction as John Banville it’s a snail’s pace. I crawl. I consider every word. I polish every sentence before I move on to the next sentence.

Every now and then, I’d forget I was Benjamin Black and I’d start to worry about every sentence and worry about an idea or image and I’d say, “Stop, stop, stop. This’ll do. Move on. Move on.” And I got the knack of it pretty quickly. Obviously Benjamin Black was waiting inside me for a long time just waiting to get out.

It’s interesting that after writing The Sea, which was your most lauded novel, you felt the need to change gears. My theory is that you’re the type of person who becomes suspicious of accolades and laurels, and that after winning the prize you felt like you had to —

Well, no. Because I had done Christine Falls before the Booker Prize. And you would be very foolish indeed to confuse winning a Booker Prize with some real judgment of your work. I don’t think The Sea is the best work I’ve done, and I certainly hope it’s not the best work I will do. It’s very easy to lose sight of how good or how bad a thing is. When I sent The Sea in to my publishers, I thought it wouldn’t be published. I thought they would say we really don’t like this.

I’ve been writing these first-person narrative books since the early 1980s. I’m like Bart Simpson at the start of The Simpsons. I’m up there writing on the blackboard. I must get this right. I must get this right. And when I get it right I’ll stop. And I felt that in Shroud, I thought I had got it as near to right as I was ever going to get it. So when I started to write The Sea I intended to write a very short book of 60 or 70 pages, a novella about childhood and the seaside that would be very simple, very straightforward. And then I couldn’t do it. I worked on it for about a year and a half. It would not hang together. I don’t know why. I wasn’t ready. I thought I was ready to break from the first-person narrative voice, but I wasn’t. Then Max Morden started to speak in my head. So I thought, “Oh, Christ, here I am again stuck with this first-person narrative.” So obviously Christine Falls was the spur that kicked me out of that rut that I was in. Because it was a rut.

Some people are comparing Christine Falls to Graham Greene’s “entertainments,” his nonserious novels. And I know you have an interesting history with Graham Greene ...

Yes. He was on a panel of a prize given in Ireland [in the 1980s]. And he wanted to give it to somebody else and he behaved very dishonorably. But you know [laughs] he was that kind of man. And I had amusement parodying him, pillorying him, in The Untouchable [Querell, the character based on Greene, is quite fond of child prostitutes]. But I think he would have been amused by my revenge on him. I don’t think Graham Greene is a very good writer. People felt in the postwar period that they were getting this high moral and intellectual questioning when they’re reading Graham Greene but they’re really actually just sentimental fluff. Evelyn Waugh said a wonderful thing to Graham Greene once. He said, “You know, it’s a good thing that God exists because otherwise you’d be like Laurel without Hardy.”

In my Quirke book, there isn’t any moralizing at all. I mean everyone is bad. The only person who is maybe halfway decent is Sarah, and she’s obviously doomed. And Quirke as we discover at the end has been carrying his own dirty little secret for a very long time indeed.

He’s quite the hypocrite.

An absolute hypocrite!

In a book where everyone is villainous in their way, I felt the villains were very sympathetic. They’re very wry and wistful and well meaning in their way, even though they’re corrupt and deluded.

Well I think that’s the case. Again, in order to live in the world we have to cover up so much of what we know, so much of what we’re aware of. Again, the analogy with the loved one. You fall in love with a girl and then you catch a glimpse of her in the mirror intently picking her nose. You’ve got to block that out. Because the loved one has to be immediately put back on the pedestal or she won’t be this divine object, and this marvelous mirror in which we can watch ourselves pirouetting and striking attitudes. Because that’s mainly what love is for, to admire ourselves in this beloved mirror.

There’s the old fact that life is only tolerable because of the failure of imagination. If by some divine intervention you or I were allowed even for a split second to have a full realization of the horror of the totality of human experience at this moment at this particular instance, it would be intolerable, it would probably kill us.

I wrote a little radio play a couple years ago about Paul Celan going to see Martin Heidegger in his hut in the mountains. They had a famous meeting. No one knows what they talked about. They probably talked about the weather. But in my version, Celan asks Heidegger why he backed the Nazis, and Heidegger says because of their acknowledgment of the greatness of death, because death is the giver of life. Death stands beside the midwife saying, “Give me the child, I will give the child life.” Because all our lives are informed by the fact of death. By some extraordinary genetic accident we developed consciousness, and that became our tragic predicament because we’re the only creatures that know we’re going to die. And from this consciousness flowed all our achievements and all our crimes.

But I still see mankind as merely a phenomenon among phenomena. People are often puzzled by my books. They say, “Why are you always talking about the weather and the sky? Why can’t you just tell us a story?” And I say because to me, I’m like a landscape painter. The old masters would paint this enormous landscape and down in the corner something is happening, somebody is being crucified or flayed. Well I’m like that. I’m just as much interested in the landscape and the colors and the actual phenomena as I am in actual human behavior. Terrible of me, isn’t it? [Laughs.] I like ideas. I find them more exciting than human behavior for the most part. As Beckett said, “Human souls, you should see how alike they are.”

I’ve just read Martin Amis’ House of Meetings, and your review of it in The New York Review of Books, and I love the final paragraph where you compare Amis’ vision of the world with Joseph de Maistre’s: “[The world is] nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be immolated without end, without restraint, without respite, until the consummation of the world, until the extinction of evil, until the death of death.” And then a few sentences later you conclude that the novel is “invigorating.”

But it is! Just as De Maistre is. It’s invigorating to read those marvelous quotes.

It’s a strange, almost immoral sensation, when one can find such humor and even joy in the nastiness of the world.

I think that people like Martin Amis and myself, I think we’re sorted of ruined romantics. Embittered romantics. The world is just not ever going to be in any way like what we started out imagining it to be. As we grew in our awareness of the world around us, our bitterness grew in proportion to the amount of knowledge we took on. But deep inside us there’s this little candle flame of romanticism still burning away there. I certainly see that in Martin’s work. Here’s this book that’s supposedly about the horrors of Stalin and the gulag and it’s actually a triangular love story! [Laughs.] Only Martin could get away with that.

You both do seem drawn to dark subjects.

You know, I looked at my notebook for The Book of Evidence a long time afterward, and one of the first lines in the notebook was, “Is it wrong to kill people?” And it’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. You say, “Yes it’s wrong to kill people!” But then you say, “Why?”

I sometimes ask my artist friends if they would rather kill a person or destroy their favorite work of art.

You know someone asked Cocteau that. They said, “If your apartment was on fire, and you could save your manuscript or your cat, what would you take?” And Cocteau said, “I’ll take the flame.” Isn’t that a wonderful way of sliding out from under that? [Laughs.]

But no. I know I would save the human being because I’m as sentimental as the next person. We artists love to talk tough, but we’re just as sentimental as everyone else when it comes down to it.

What a surprise. Banville’s confession of sentimentality has shaken me out of the reverie of the conversation. I realize that he has just performed the same trick that his novels execute so marvelously: He has let the air out of the balloon. He played the wicked-writer role to perfection, but now he seems to be waving it all away, saying, “Oh, you don’t really believe all that now, do you?” But I had, I did.

“I must run,” he says. “I have to get picked up and taken to a train. I’m here doing this tour which is keeping me from finishing the new Benjamin Black book, and I’ve got another John Banville book going, and I’m still agreeing to review books: I got one yesterday from the London Review of Books, one is coming from The New York Times, and I have one from the Irish Times. I’m the girl who can’t say no. I can’t resist. Who can resist new books?”

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