Banville on Banville – A Great Contemporary Novelist Speaks Frankly

One of my favorite novelists interviewed by the PARIS REVIEW

John Banville, The Art of Fiction No. 200 Paris Review Interview with British novelist John Banville


Interviewed by Belinda McKeon

When I first arrived at his Dublin city-center apartment, John Banville was working at his writing desk. The apartment, with its neatly aligned furniture and its orderly piles of books, is not Banville’s home but his office, in which he works every day. Banville rarely gives interviews in his office, and after our first session he decided that meeting in local bars and cafés might be less “intense.” During the next three interview sessions he was more relaxed and more forthcoming. As he surveyed the surroundings, he gave vent to the dry wit that at all times underlies his dour bearing. This black humor threatened to overtake the conversation completely during a meeting held just before Christmas. Amid the bustle of shoppers, Banville’s brow stood acutely arched. He is a merciless observer and his narrators are the same way: cold-eyed, callous, caustic.

Banville is now sixty-three. He was born in Wexford, in southeast Ireland, to a father who worked as a garage clerk and a mother who worked in the home. He published his first book, the short-story collection Long Lankin, at the age of twenty-five and has since published a novel every three years or so: thirteen under his own name and, more recently, three under the pen name Benjamin Black. Following the early novels, he wrote two acclaimed trilogies: the first, consisting of Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981), and The Newton Letter (1982), focused on men of science; the second, with The Book of Evidence (1989), Ghosts (1993), and Athena (1995), took the world of art as its touchstone. Doctor Copernicus won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Kepler the Guardian Fiction Prize, and The Book of Evidence the Guinness Peat Aviation Award. The Book of Evidence was also short-listed for the Booker Prize, an award that Banville won in 2005 for his novel of childhood and memory, The Sea. Banville has worked as a journalist since the late 1960s, when he became a sub-editor at the Irish Press. He later worked as a sub-
editor and then as literary editor at The Irish Times. He remains a prolific book reviewer for publications including the Guardian and The New York Review of Books.

As a novelist, he is famous for his difficulty. In their architecture and in their style, his books are like baroque cathedrals, filled with elaborate passages and sometimes overwhelming to the casual tourist. For this, Banville makes no apologies—he says he is committed to language and to rhythm above plot, characterization, or pacing. . . . Although the company of Black diverted him awhile from the agony of producing what he calls “a Banville book,” a new novel under his own name, The Infinities, is forthcoming. ….

READ THE WHOLE INTERVIEW and if you read nothing else by Banville, read THE SEA (winner of the Booker Award). Stupendous.

Paris Review Interview with John Banville


When did you first know that you wanted to write?


It must have been in my early teens. My brother was living in Africa at the time, and although he has no memory of this he would occasionally send me books, one of which was James Joyce’s Dubliners. The book was a revelation to me—the idea that literature could be very elevated but still be about life as I knew it, about the rather grim, gray, mundane life I was living as a boy in Wexford in the fifties. When I finished Dubliners, I started writing terrible pastiches of Joyce on an enormous black Remington typewriter borrowed from my Aunt Sadie. I threw them all away many years later, of course, but I remember the opening of one of them: “The white May blossom swooned slowly into the open mouth of the grave.”

A boy in his teens! What did I know about death? This is a problem for Irish writers—our literary forebears are enormous. They stand behind us like Easter Island statues, and we keep trying to measure up to them, leaping towards heights we can’t possibly reach. I suppose that’s a good thing, but it makes for a painful early life for the writer. Anyway, hunched there over my Aunt Sadie’s Remington, I was starting to learn how to write. Now, fifty years later, I’m still learning.


Was Wexford a good place for a writer to grow up?


Auden said that children should be loaded with as much trauma as they can bear, because it’s good for them. I think that’s certainly true of children who are going to turn out to be artists. My traumas were Wexford, Ireland, the fifties, and especially the Catholic Church. The first thing the Catholic Church does to a child is instill guilt in his little soul, and guilt is a good thing for an artist. As for Wexford, I never even bothered to learn the street names, because I knew I was going to be out of there as soon as I possibly could. I hated it because it was boring and provincial. Of course now I feed on it—The Sea is a direct return to my childhood, to when I was ten or so. The book is set in a fictionalized Rosslare, the seaside village where we went every summer as children. Looking back now it seems idyllic, though I’m sure ninety-five percent of the experience was absolute, grinding boredom. I feel a kind of intellectual regret, not an emotional regret, at having left my parents and that world behind. But it’s not a great weight on my soul. In a way I wish it were. To leave one’s background without guilt is an indication of shallowness of character, I suspect.  …


About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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