Wednesday 23 August 2017

Banville Blacks out to relieve 'boredom'

John Banville is tired of himself, but not of his crime-writing persona Benjamin Black, finds Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

John Banville is bored with himself; "really bored". It's the hay fever that's doing it, the endless "snorting and sneezing" that's been going on for months now, not the writing. In fact, as far as writing is concerned, his emotions are far more extreme than boredom. "I hate all my books," he says, almost cheerily. "I just finished a John Banville book last Monday, and all I can think of are all the things that are wrong with it. That's one of the reasons doing readings is so difficult; you have to open this book ... and it's in print, it's not even in typescript, you can't change it ... "

He is camping up the agony, but only by a little, I suspect. And, of course, even though he might cringe, he knows very well where he stands within the panoply of writers. "I used to say I hated all my books, but now I make the distinction -- I say, 'They're better than everybody else's, they're just not good enough for me.'" After a slight pause, he adds: "People know I'm joking, of course. At least, I hope they do ... "

So painful, yes, but boring, no. And anyway, if there was ever a chance that writing John Banvilles might get dull, he has nixed it by switching to Benjamin Black, his crime-writing persona, under which he has now published his fifth book A Death in Summer, another Quirke mystery, set in Fifties Dublin. It seems a bit of a busman's holiday to me -- relaxing from the strain of writing but doing more writing -- but not to Banville. "I'd never thought of it like that," he muses. "And no, it's a bit more than that. But I do enjoy writing them, and I do enjoy having written them, which is a bit surprising to me."

I'm glad he likes them, because while I find Banville remarkable, I only find the Blacks enjoyable. He, however, regards them as "well- made pieces of craftwork, and I'm proud of them for that reason. I always wanted to be a carpenter or something like that, work with my hands, and this is as near as I will get to it."

In writing the Benjamin Blacks, Banville allows himself to be a little influenced by the mystery writers of his youth -- Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey; "all these women with flowered dresses and murder in their hearts" -- but deliberately steers clear of the lurid, psycho-sexual violence of more modern success stories such as Stieg Larsson.

It's the savagery towards women that turns him off, the "extreme violence done to young women" which in a big way contributes to the popularity of these books. "I can't understand why women are not complaining more about this," he says. "Every bus, every billboard, is full of half-naked women. They're beautiful to look at. I'm not going to be so hypocritical as to say I don't like looking at them, but it isn't right."

However, that said, there is a very dark heart to this latest Benjamin Black, in which much of the hidden action, off-screen as it were, takes place in one of the industrial schools so infamously associated with the era. He spares us any shocking descriptions, thank God, but the menace of the book lies in the fact that he doesn't need them -- we all now know what often happened in these schools. In fact, Banville insists it's something that was always known. "I grew up in the Fifties and Sixties; everybody knew. We pretended we didn't, but everybody knew. Mothers would say to their children, 'If you don't behave I'll send you to Letterfrack, or I'll send you to Artane.' We may not have known quite how hideously the children were being treated there, but we knew these were hard places.

"In school, difficult kids, or wayward girls, as they were called, would just disappear from society. We go on about the Gestapo or Stalinist Russia -- the church treated the people it didn't like in just the same way. It was disgraceful, and we let it happen."

And yes he's quick to point out that, "not all people in the church were wicked", but even so, it's a horror he can't assimilate. "One wants to weep," he says. "Even still. I never get used to this. I do not get hardened to the horror of this."

The last paragraphs of A Death in Summer have Inspector Hackett musing that "we haven't grown up yet, here on this tight little island", as he and Quirke contemplate the fact that the wrong-doers may well go free. So, does Banville think we have now, finally, grown up? "No. Although we may do over the next five to 10 years of grinding poverty."

Banville can be tricky to interview, but not today. Today he is charm itself, full of humour and graceful compliments -- "Writing is always difficult, you know that as well as I do," he says, and later, "what a privilege to make one's living from writing sentences. You know this as well as I do" -- but his remarkably relaxed demeanour masks an inner crisis of sorts. "I've just finished a John Banville," he tells me, sighing a little. "I feel like a hot air balloon. I might blow away at any moment. It's always a panicky moment when you finish a book. You go into the study the next day, you look at the study and the study looks at you ... what am I going to do now?" The answer is work; "start a new one. I always have one going before I finish. I'd fall off the edge of the world if I didn't."

We meet on a Thursday. By the following Monday, he will have started a new Benjamin Black, partly to mitigate the awfulness of having nothing to do, and partly to get through the summer months -- "I hate the summer, it's my least favourite season. It's boring."

Having lived in California, he is no fan of unbroken blue skies, quite the opposite. "If you think there's bad weather, you're tired of life. Weather is always beautiful. You couldn't have a better climate than this. I love the Irish climate, I adore it. I couldn't live anywhere else. We're blessed." A tide of enthusiasm for the Irish climate carries us up and out on to the street, where he moves to take my elbow with an old-fashioned sort of courtesy. The writer may be, as Banville insists, "a cannibal" who uses everything, but he is a very mannerly one.

A Death in Summer, by Benjamin Black, is published by Mantle and priced £12.99

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