'Books: fine vintage failure. It has to be... I aim for perfection'
Ahead of the release of his highly anticipated new novel, John Banville tells our reporter he likes the idea that he's Ireland's most erotic writer
John Banville has just published his 16th literary novel, The Blue Guitar. As with the 15 acclaimed works preceding it, it's a complete artistic failure - at least as far as the man himself is concerned.
"Oh, it's fine," he says, shrugging indifferently. "Another fine vintage failure. It has to be a failure because I aim for perfection. Everybody does." He takes a sip of white wine and sighs wearily. "But all works of art are failures."
Over the course of his lengthy and distinguished career, the Wexford-born author has won the Man Booker Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize, the Irish PEN Award and the Prince of Asturias Award, amongst countless other prestigious accolades. Yet, despite all the fame, acclaim and occasional cash, the 69-year-old still hasn't met his own exacting literary standards.
"No, I just couldn't," he declares. "You can't achieve perfection. But I suppose I am too critical. All I ever see are the flaws."
It's a wet Tuesday afternoon in Dublin, and Ireland's most eminent prose stylist is sitting with Review in a quiet alcove off the lobby of the Fitzwilliam Hotel. Banville is clad entirely in black, a blood-red handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit jacket providing the only splash of colour. It's not just his prose that's eminently stylish.
The last time we met, around 18 months ago, he was dressed exactly the same way. On that occasion we were meeting to discuss his latest detective novel, written under the nom de plume Benjamin Black. He's published nine of those - including the recently released, Even the Dead, the seventh in his hugely popular Quirke series.
While they're generally a lot more commercially successful than his literary endeavours, he doesn't take them particularly seriously. "Oh, I do those very quickly," he says, waving his hand dismissively. "I do those in a matter of months."
Far more deep, considered and artistic, his "John Banville novels" (as he calls them) take a lot longer to produce. He bashes out the Blacks on a battered laptop. For the JBs, he uses his antique fountain pen.
Some days - good ones - he'll craft a paragraph or two. "The Blue Guitar took three years," he explains. "That would be the average, although some of them took five. It's just difficult assembling the sentences, you know? So time-consuming."
Such slavish dedication to his art is difficult to maintain. He worries that he's starting to slow down. "I'm actually going to be 70 this year, which I find quite hard to believe," he confides. "I'm getting a little less committed. Maybe I'm just getting tired or lazy, but I find I'll stop off at a coffee shop and sit there with a coffee or book for half-an-hour. I'd never have dreamt of doing that in the old days."
He claims that he used to work ceaselessly: "Twenty-four hours a day. I worked even when I was asleep. It doesn't seem as important or as time-consuming as it used to be, but that leaves me in a very odd position because I don't know what to think about at night. I suffer from insomnia these days. I'm just lying there.
"Someone asked Beckett why did he call that book Company, and he said, 'Because a book is company', and it is. You can either think about the characters or the plot…you're always devising stratagems."
Right now, there isn't a new JB novel on his creative hob. Instead, amongst other potentially lucrative projects, he's developing a TV series called Riviera with his old pals Neil Jordan and Paul McGuinness.
"Well, it's a crime series, maybe more of a drama. You can't write anything on the Riviera that doesn't involve a crime. Neil came up with the story. The thing I like about it is that it's nearly all women. The central character is a woman. She's married to a very rich man who is blown up on a yacht just off Monaco, and she sets out to find out what happened."
The collaboration with Jordan is something of a surprise. He obviously knows a lot of writers nowadays, but, at the beginning of his career, he very much kept himself to himself. He's amazed at the camaraderie amongst the current crop of contemporary Irish writers. "Why aren't they all stabbing each other in the back?" he laughs. "That's what they're supposed to be doing!"
It wasn't like that in his day…
"Well, I mean, we mostly stayed away from each other. I knew Seamus Heaney quite well, from early on, then we sort of drifted apart as people do, not for any one reason. I began to see him again towards the end of his life, which I was very glad of.
"Everybody thought I was jealous of him when he won the Nobel Prize because I wrote some stuff in the Irish Times saying, 'In a way I think this is a bit of a disaster', but I think it was because Seamus always did too much. And Seamus died very young. He wore himself out."
In recent years, Banville has deservedly been touted as a potential Nobel-winner himself. Was he jealous of Heaney?
"I suppose I was jealous of him," he muses, after a pause. "I mean, we were all jealous of each other. It's like Gore Vidal said: 'It's not enough that I succeed - someone else must fail'."
The Blue Guitar steals its title from the 1937 Wallace Stevens poem, 'The Man With the Blue Guitar'. The narrator is a renowned painter named Oliver Orme, whose muse has deserted him. Portly, self-obsessed and light-fingered, Orme is also a petty thief, whose worst theft is the wife of his friend, with whom he has an ill-fated affair.
Dripping with black humour, patrician irony and subtle solipsism, it's classically Banvillian. Amongst various underlying themes, there's definitely a suggestion that all art is theft. "Well, certainly all fiction is theft," he observes. "You steal from other people. Somebody said to me recently: 'You're always watching. You pretend that you're not, but you're always watching. You don't even know that you're watching, but you are'. That doesn't mean that I'm observant. I'm the least observant person in the world. You know, you look in a certain way.
"There's a nice little story about WH Auden; he was on a train going through the Alps with his friends, and he was reading. They were like, 'Look at the view! Look at the view!' and he said (looks up briefly and says dismissively), 'Yeah, seen it'. You only need one glimpse."
As with most of his literary works, The Blue Guitar is relatively light on plot, but devilish in its delicious detail. It's beautifully written and, at times, highly sexually charged. George Hook be damned! What does Banville think of the suggestion that he's Ireland's most erotic writer?
"I would like to think I am," he says, smiling. "Funny, I was having dinner with a friend of mine recently who said, 'You should write an erotic book, a pornographic book'."
He guffaws delightedly when it's pointed out that many people would say that he already has.
"It's odd to me, the sensual process. It's kind of devouring the world in order to represent it. I think the female side of my characters is probably very highly developed. I can't think of a more heterosexual person than I am, but there's something in me where I prefer women, to men, to talk to. My nightmare dinner party is a table full of men. Jesus, the testosterone!"
Banville takes another sip of vino and slyly smiles. "Whereas women…"