Deeper water

by Anthony Byrt / 06 May, 2006
John Banville has "a grim gift for seeing people's souls", according to Don DeLillo, and this gift is displayed throughout his recent, Man Booker-winning novel The Sea. In an exclusive interview at home in Dublin, Banville talks about the "dreadfully inadequate little creatures" who populate his books, the problem with being Irish and why Ian McEwan's Saturday was "dismayingly bad".

At the news that John Banville's The Sea had won the Man Booker Prize, there were solemn nods all through the literary community, accompanied by a kind of collective, thoughtful sigh. For some, the gesture acknowledged a thing long overdue, while for many others it covered mute surprise. Banville is seen as a serious writer who splits opinion, and always there is this note of caution, as though readers must carry his books around like fragments of moon-rock that somehow weigh twice as much as they should, things worthy of quiet and confused wonderment. But all this seriousness has very little to do with Banville himself and much more to do with the curious reception he has had throughout his career. An afternoon with him in Dublin reveals an altogether more complex picture than general perceptions might suggest. Certainly he pulls no punches, is searingly honest about other writers and about the ways in which his own work has been interpreted. But he is also relaxed, acerbic and funny, an engaging storyteller, and a man confident of his place in world literature.

Banville's The Sea tells the story of Max Morden, an art historian whose wife has recently died of cancer. Morden returns to the seaside town in which he spent holidays as a child and rents a room in the house formerly occupied by the Graces, a family he attached himself to one summer. He is there to write a book about the painter Bonnard, but it becomes clear that it will never be finished and, instead, his knotted narrative untangles itself in a mixture of anxious recollection and confused grief. He recounts his time spent with the Graces, who are in his memory god-like halflings, creatures of myth: Mr Grace, big, hairy-chested and by turns benevolent and capricious towards his children; his wife, large, playful and sensual, and the subject of Max's earliest erotic thoughts; and the twins, Myles the mute and his tomboy sister Chloe. Young Max befriends the Grace children without much trouble, though he never quite has the measure of them or of their unusually candid parents. All of this is made more complicated by his attraction to Mrs Grace, of which Mr Grace seems aware, the older man blissfully dismissive of the young suitor's torment.

If the classical references in this condensed account seem a little forced, this is also true of the novel, which is not to say that Banville overdoes it, but rather that Morden, as narrator, is excessive in his telling. He is also, in general, pretty unlikeable. He is wordy and obfuscating, doesn't seem to like his adult daughter very much and admits to not being particularly close to his late wife, though he has momentary pangs of guilt about her death (he hints that they had sensed the tumour was a problem before it was terminal). He drinks too much, and is harshly judgmental of his seaside housemates, a retired colonel and their landlady spinster. Gradually, though, Morden's wordiness, snobbery and boozing are revealed for what they are: masks for grief, as much for himself as for his wife, and for his own minor role in an earlier double-tragedy.

Max Morden encapsulates perfectly the type of narrator Banville is known for. He has been writing in the first-person almost uninterruptedly since the early 80s, and at least since The Book of Evidence in 1989 his narrators have been male, unpleasant and have used elaborate language to hide rather than confess sins. In The Book of Evidence, the "hero", Freddie Montgomery, gives his version of the pointless murder he has committed. He borrows money from gangsters, leaves his wife and child as human collateral, begs, steals and kills, yet throughout his tale maintains a sense of superiority, seeing himself as a man of culture and intellect. The narrator of The Untouchable, Victor Maskell, was based on Anthony Blunt, the art historian and former art adviser to the Queen who was exposed as a Soviet double agent. Like Freddie, Maskell can't quite see what he has done and uses florid language to tell his story, which, when everything else is stripped away, is a mixture of lies, misplaced trust and hidden sexuality.

There's a black, interior clamminess to Banville's narratives, which Don DeLillo has described as "a grim gift for seeing people's souls", and language is crucial to the effect. "They're covering up for inadequacies," Banville says, "these self-aggrandising heroes with their little store of big words. I use language in a highly ironical, rhetorical way, and that's hard to grasp: in a novel you think you're going to be told a story, but in my works the characters perform elaborate pirouettes, saying, 'Look, admire my dance, admire the flow, the rhythm', and behind it all they are dreadfully inadequate little creatures." This dance is something reviewers have often been ambivalent about, many admiring Banville's poetry while in the next step criticising his characters and plots. "I use 'big' words," he continues, "in an ironical fashion. People miss the irony, the humour in my work. For instance, I think of The Book of Evidence as a comic novel. Here is this man who is a crook and a murderer fooling himself into thinking that he's at heart a gentleman. That is essentially comic."

Much of this dark humour comes from the way his narrators invent histories for themselves, revealing cracks as their personal fictions peel away, and these slippages of memory, these anxieties about the past catching up with them, drive them towards inevitably unpleasant conclusions. This often takes on a pathetic, vain note; in Victor Maskell's case, his personal crash is due not only to his public exposure, but also to his most precious possession, a Poussin painting, which he prizes more highly than anything or anyone else, only to realise 50 years too late the role it plays in his downfall. In Shroud, the complex farce of hiding one's history is even more pronounced, as withered and ancient academic Axel Vander is forced to confront the terrible lie on which his career is based. "Part of the inspiration for Shroud is Louis Althusser's autobiography The Future Lasts a Long Time," Banville says. "He wrote it after he had strangled his wife. Here was the leading Marxist philosopher in France, probably in Europe in the 20th century, and in his book he confesses he hadn't read the main texts, hadn't read all of Marx! And this is how human beings are. We pretend. Our pretensions are so much larger than we are."

The Sea takes Banville's use of memory in new structural directions. He describes it as a transitional novel, the end of a long process of refining a first-person voice that began with The Book of Evidence and ended with Shroud. Despite its brevity, it is a complex piece of storytelling, with two distinctive voices emerging. "I'm quite proud of its complicated structure. Morden is applying the past as a bandage to his wounds, trying to escape the present and the recent past by going to the far past, trying to obliterate his sense of anguish by going back. There's a kind of scramble to retrieve, which is, I think, how we use memory." Although Banville is clear that his novels are not autobiographical, there is personal reflection of a kind here: "I'm on the threshold of old age now and I'm fascinated by the role that the past plays. I don't think about the past as I used to, but yet, in a curious way, it has become more potent as a presence in my life. It's become more vivid for me. And that's what I wanted to do in The Sea. What is more relevant from the past than our memories of the seaside?"

Banville lives near the water in a fishing village just outside Dublin. His house looks from a raised point across the Irish Sea, and the smell of salt is sharp and thick as we step out of his car. It would be easy to suggest that this location slipped into the novel, affected its shape in some way, but with him the question of "place" is difficult, because so few of his novels deal with explicitly Irish locations, characters or themes. So it's a little surprising when he says, unprompted, that "my work is absolutely steeped in Irishness, because I write in the Irish version of the English language", but he goes on to explain: "For us, language is always a lens, a distorting lens, and we glory in that, we love its ambiguity. English writers strive to be as clear as possible, but we strive to be as ambiguous as possible." For him, this isn't just a literary position, but something ingrained in Irish culture: "If you look at Ireland and the way in which in recent years we've had so many frightful scandals - churchmen, politicians, so many so-called great figures have been found out - what's always important is not so much the sins they've committed as the accounts they give of themselves. If you tell us a good enough story, we'll let you off."

He also admits to being something of an outsider in the Irish literary scene, but if he is a peripheral figure in his home country, the situation is much more extreme in Britain. When the Booker shortlist was announced last year, English critics tended to ignore The Sea, and for Banville this was the product of a much larger issue: "The problem for us in Ireland is that we must publish in London. It's as if French writers had to publish in Geneva, or Quebec. We seem to speak the same language on both sides of the Irish Sea, but we don't. Irish-English is entirely different to English-English, as different as American-English, but English reviewers see Irish novels as failed attempts to write English novels." It was no small pleasure for Banville, then, when his book won, and it was also a good sign for the Prize's continued relevance for non-English writers given that the two favourites, Julian Barnes and Kazuo Ishiguro, were nominated for novels heavy with English manners.

Banville recently caused his relationship with the English literary establishment to become more fractious. Over the years, he has been a prolific reviewer and he currently contributes to the New York Review of Books, which is where his review of Ian McEwan's Saturday appeared. McEwan, in England, is these days an almost untouchable figure, a writer who has managed to find both critical acclaim and a popular audience for his brand of literary fiction. Banville composed a careful 4000-word critique of McEwan's latest and widely lauded novel, arriving at the conclusion that it was a "dismayingly bad book". One of his concerns was with its politics, which he suggested was the bland stuff of middle-class dinner-party conversation, but this wasn't the main issue: "Attacking the banality of the politics was incidental. What I was attacking was what I considered to be a bad work of art. I was mainly concerned with the reception the book had been given as 'the 9/11 novel'. As I said in my review, if this is the 9/11 novel then we're in worse trouble than we thought. I think that nobody should be allowed to write about 9/11 for at least 25 years, because that's not what art is for - if it takes itself seriously like that, ponderously, solemnly, then it won't work. Art is play - exalted play, but it is play."

Banville knew the review would be controversial, but he was offended by the suggestion in some British newspapers that it was a case of a novelist giving a kicking to one of his contemporaries. "I'm completely divided," he says. "The person who reviews is not the person who writes the novels. I review completely as a literary journalist. There is no rivalry. If I'd felt rivalry I couldn't have written that review of Saturday, it would have been completely unethical." His approach to reviewing reveals much about his attitude towards the role of the novelist; it's interesting, for instance, to look at his response to Don DeLillo's book Cosmopolis, which is comparable to Saturday in its structure and aims: "I didn't like Cosmopolis, but I admired it. I thought it was a fragment of a book, probably an unfinished thing, but that, since he is a good writer, he was doing his best, and that's the difference. A wonderful artist can make bad art. We all do, we all make mistakes, but an honest mistake is different. When I'm reviewing a book, my first question always is, did this book have to be written? Not do we need it, but is there enough passion in it to show that this writer could do nothing other than write this book? If you're making a work of art, you have to make it to the absolute best of your abilities. You cannot have any moments of laziness or patching over."

Throughout our conversation, there are constant reminders of his unswerving commitment to his art. "I was brought up a Catholic," he says, "and that early indoctrination, that brainwashing, you don't get over. For me, art is a secular religion." The Sea bears all the marks of this passion; every sentence is laden with poetic devices, and the whole thing moves forward in a measured way, as though Max Morden is breathing just beside, or inside, your ear. But it requires, as do all his books, an equal commitment from its reader: "I'm always surprised by the indignation with which people say, 'I had to go to the dictionary when I was reading your book'. The dictionary is one of the greatest achievements of civilisation. If you're a reader, you must care about words at some level, so why baulk at consulting the dictionary? Apart from anything else, it's wonderfully entertaining. I write my books to be entertaining. I'm entertained by great art, for at a certain, fundamental level, art is pure entertainment. It doesn't get rid of our angst and our anguish, that's not what it's for."

His views on the role of art will seem refreshing to some and reactionary to others and it's not surprising that of his contemporaries, he feels an affinity with certain American writers - Ford, Updike, McCarthy - who prize the craft as highly as he does. In general, The Sea also received more positive reviews in the US than in Britain. "They haven't become as jaded as we have. The novel still means something there. The Americans still have that great subject, which is the making of a nation. The modernist wave never reached the shores of America. The Victorian novel is still being written there. If you look at Ford, or Bellow, or Roth, or DeLillo, theirs are big novels about society, about politics, about the way we live. I couldn't do that, and I have no real interest in doing it, but I admire it immensely. I envy them their subject." He and Richard Ford hold each other in particularly high regard: "I couldn't write like Ford, and Ford couldn't write like me. That's one of the reasons we like each other, there's no rivalry there," he says, grinning. "Ford, I think, is in that great American tradition of novelists who've forged a language for themselves. I like it enormously."

Returning the conversation to his own work ("Do we have to?" he asks, dryly), I suggest to him that running through his novels there is a sense of an overall project: all this emphasis on craft, on the first-person voice, on a certain type of male character. Names appear again and again, as do damaged figures, spinster women, unloved offspring. Descriptions of light drift through his books like a constant hum. His early historical novels used scientists as their main characters, while in recent years he has turned to the world of visual art. He laughs. "I'm getting old, I'm repeating myself. What you're saying is quite flattering, but I'm afraid the reality is simply that I feel like Bart Simpson writing on the blackboard at the beginning of each episode - I will get this bloody thing right, I will get this bloody thing right - I keep doing the same thing over and over again. I have no interest in diversity or finding new things. I keep trying to get a few small things right. Of course, every artist is an obsessive. Beckett is the quintessential example of that; the same tiny series of props - the bicycle, the bowler hat - over and over again."

There is no doubt, then, that Banville strains for perfection, which is why so many critics have labelled him a "writer's writer". But his work is much more than its craft; his narratives are knotty, human things that try to make sense of the world, try to bring some shape or order to it. "I'd love to be able to accept the world, but I can't," he says. "It all seems so strange, it really does. The only piece of writing that I ever wrote straight out of myself into fiction is a paragraph in The Book of Evidence in which Freddie says, 'I have never really got used to being on this earth.' I always think, with Freddie, that our presence here is a cosmic blunder. That's my world-view: incomprehension." And as with his books, the more time spent with Banville the more this sense of bafflement unravels itself with a subtle playfulness. As the day draws to a close, there is one final, revealing tale: "I always tell this story. Some years ago, on Boxing Day, I was driving through the completely empty city, driving along a wide boule-vard. There was absolutely nobody about. Nobody driving, nobody walking. Just me in the car, and, on the corner of the street, three albino men deep in conversation. Three albinos! What were they talking about? Was there a convention on? That, to me, is the world. People talk about the ordinary, but in my life I've never met an ordinary person or an ordinary situation."

JOHN BANVILLE appears in Witsunday, a day-long international writers' festival that also features Edmund White, Hari Kunzru, Alain de Botton and others. Aotea Centre, Auckland, May 21.

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