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Interviews

John Banville

No Critical Injury Done

John Banville When John Banville won the Booker Prize last month for The Sea, the occasion brought out the worst in his critics. In and of itself, the novel should hardly be controversial — it’s a 65,000-word meditation on aging and mortality, beautifully narrated by a man who reflects on his childhood and the recent death of his wife. But in a year when luminaries like Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, and Zadie Smith also published novels, an underrated and unfashionable Irish writer was bound to encounter invective.

Mean-spirited screeds such as those by Independent editor Boyd Tonkin (who declared that the jury “made possibly the worst, certainly the most perverse, and perhaps the most indefensible choice in the 36-year history of the contest”) and the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani (who called the book “a chilly, dessicated and pompously written book that stands in sharp contrast to the vibrancy of many of this year’s other Booker nominees”) were only inflamed by Banville’s own comment, “It’s nice to see a work of art winning the Booker Prize.”

At the time, however, Banville qualified his statement, saying of The Sea: “whether it’s a good work of art or a bad one, it’s what I intended it to be.” In conversation from a New York hotel room on a press tour hastily arranged by his surprised and delighted publishers, Banville reveals himself to be not only erudite and confident, but also self-deprecating.

Of his now-infamous statement at the awards ceremony, he offers, “I took a big risk, saying that, and I’ll probably be laughed at and reviled. I think it was a very interesting year. I happened to come out on top by a whisker, which was nice for me, but it was courageous, I think, of the judges, to give [me] the prize, in a year that was very strong in fiction that was very different from mine.”

Banville had been shortlisted before, for 1989’s The Book of Evidence; recalling the unpleasant experience of fearful anticipation, he had planned to be in New York State to accept an honorary doctorate on Booker night.

Picador, however, had other ideas: “My publisher said, ‘Look, old chap, you’ve got to be here. Whatever chance you might have might be completely ruined if you don’t come — the judges will feel completely insulted. We’ll fly you out the next morning to Skidmore [College].’ Everyone was assuming, of course, that this would work fine, because I wouldn’t win, but then I won the bloody thing, and my publisher said, ‘Look, your interviews start at 7:00 tomorrow morning.’ So I put it off.”

His celebration consisted of one glass of champagne at London’s Groucho Club, and since 6:30 the following morning, Banville has found himself caught up in a promotional whirlwind which has left his voice threadbare. His spirits, however, are about as high as a man who believes that “life is, for the most part, dreadful” can be.

Incredibly, Banville admits that he initially feared The Sea would be rejected. “I thought my publishers would say to me, ‘John, it’s not very good. I think we’ll wait for the next one.’ What do I know? The only person in the world who cannot read The Sea is me, ‘cause I wrote the damn thing. I can’t read it again. Lots of people tell me it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. I don’t see that, but they’re entitled to their opinion.”

Banville describes himself as a “Beckettian” writer in his particularly Irish attention to “the music of the line,” and his mellifluous prose is frequently shot through with irony and used to describe very dark events. All things considered, The Sea’s Max Morden is a more likeable narrator than most of Banville’s collection of aging murderers and roués. When compared to Axel Vander from 2002’s Shroud, whom Banville admits “might be the biggest bastard in contemporary fiction,” the cantankerous Morden is positively genial.

Perhaps this is one reason for The Sea’s success. According to Banville, “people will come to me in the streets, saying, ‘I’m Max Morden.’ And these can be 21-year-old blonde girls.” Morden’s evocation of childhood emotion, in all its awkward and even arbitrary convolutions, is particularly touching. “I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of falling in love helplessly at ten or eleven,” Banville offers. “The happy anguish of that is very potent, and very formative. I can remember little girls that I used to fall in love with in those days with as much vividness as people I fell in love with when I was grown up.”

Nowadays, he resides in Dublin with his wife, who apparently chides him for his perfectionism and his “impossibly high standards.” Indeed, despite the barbs of Tonkin, Kakutani, et al, Banville is his own most unforgiving critic. He describes himself as constantly trying, with his fiction, to solve the technical problem of how to express something he envisions but, he feels, he can never quite set down on paper. To him, his books are “all inevitably failures, judged against what I wanted them to be. And that’s an embarrassment.”

However, near the close of his 60th year, Banville is excited to be learning new tricks: his next novel, to be published in 2006, will be a thriller about a pathologist, set in 1950s Dublin and Boston and written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Quirke* is a reworked TV script influenced by Belgian master Georges Simenon. Expect a pared-down prose style and perhaps more plot than his recent books have offered. Also expect his critical foes to release the hounds.

“I’ll be eviscerated,” laughs Banville. “Absolutely no doubt about that, but it’ll amuse me as well. I can imagine the hacks rubbing their hands already, waiting for it to come out and tear it to pieces, but it’s fine by me.”

— Originally published in The National Post, Nov. 16, 2005

* Banville would later change the title to Christine Falls.

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