'I can't read my books, they are an embarrassment to me' - John Banville
Reflecting on the novels that led to him being honoured with a lifetime achievement award, author John Banville opens up to Sophie Gorman
John Banville will be honoured this month with the 'Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award' at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards. Past recipients include Maeve Binchy, John McGahern, Edna O'Brien, William Trevor and Seamus Heaney.
"But I hope I haven't lived a lifetime yet," protests Banville, laughing. "Of course it is a great honour and I am very pleased. But this is as if the undertaker has cleared his throat and said 'this way, sir'. And I still feel like I am just starting all this."
Wearing a short grey kimono like a workman's apron over his clothes, he sits at one of the desks in his apartment near the Ha'penny Bridge, his working rather than living space. The main room is organised in a way that speaks of its occupant's fastidious nature. A desk with a computer faces a wall, at right angles is another desk with a window view and covered with pens and paper in neat lines, art covers the walls like a salon. Everything has its place and has possibly had that place for years. "Very little has changed here, I haven't cleaned the windows in 15 years, I probably should soon."
The Booker Prize-winning author is known for his candour and for the distance he maintains. He has been described as 'difficult', indeed he has described himself so, but today he is generous and tolerant; you could even call him open.
He has written 16 novels and one short story collection as John Banville, and seven noir thrillers as Benjamin Black. The book he has most recently finished is a new diversion as he was asked to write a new Philip Marlowe novel.
"Someone told me I was John Banville pretending to be Benjamin Black pretending to be Raymond Chandler. I wrote it last summer, but the strangest thing is I have absolutely no memory of writing it, the process of it entirely forgotten.
"I don't know who the person is who writes the books, it's not even the person speaking to you now, it's some other version of me. It sounds like pretension and wilful mythification, but it's simply true. Frequently, if I look back today at what I wrote yesterday I can hardly recognise it. I find that I am working purely by instinct, letting things happen."
Although his readers may adore his novels, Banville himself has a difficult relationship with them, admitting he "hates" all of his books. "I am the only person who can't read my books. This is the irony of writing. They are an embarrassment to me, an astounding affront because they are not right. Perfection is not possible, but yet I always strive for it. If I did get perfection, I would stop writing, and then what would I do? Go into politics and destroy the world?"
In some aspects, Banville is quite the traditionalist. All of his John Banville books are first written longhand into beautiful notebooks handmade for him and then transposed on to the computer. He writes Benjamin Black directly on to the computer.
"The computer is too fast for my own books and the notebook too slow for Black. But I am obsessed with email. It's as if the postman arrives every five minutes; a wonderful diversion.
"I do use the computer as a research tool but only when I am reviewing books and can't remember a line or quotation. I never use it for writing fiction. For my books about Kepler and Copernicus, I read a few books and then made the rest of it up, which is what a novelist should do. Fact is very dangerous for a fiction writer, it becomes mesmerising and you can think fact more important than fiction."
Banville was born on December 8, 1945, in Wexford, a landscape that regularly appears in his writing, though he left it at the age of 16. Does he ever return? "My sister lives there still, but the Wexford I knew only exists in my head. When I was there, I couldn't wait to get out of it, for my life to begin. I had a very happy childhood, but I was bored and I blamed Wexford. At the time, I didn't appreciate all the town had to offer, in terms of its handsome aspect, the richness of its history, the humour and resilience of the people, though I know better now, when it's too late."
With one eyebrow always cocked, he is one of the world's great observers. "You have to be if you are a novelist, you watch everything, the kind of person who misses nothing and I don't miss anything." Does he take notes? "Oh God, no. It's all bits and pieces, a ragbag of memories and imaginings. Art made out of grand thoughts and ideas would be very dull indeed, it is made out of bits of scraps, as life is itself. The world to me is an object of constant bafflement and mystification. I sit here looking up at the sky, at infinity, and then you get these amazing sailings of cloud, the wreckage of white and copper clouds. It's very strange. And I feel a stranger here, a happy stranger.
"I've come to realise that I am not interested in what people do but am only interested in what people are, and the same applies to myself. My own doings are not very interesting, but the phenomenon of being alive is fascinating in itself. I'm sure people wish I would write about the recession or one of these wars, but I am trying to get beyond all that doing to discover something essential. That is my only duty as a writer, to get to the essence of things. I won't, of course, but the effort of trying to is what I am all about."
He speaks of death, of mortality, of the world, of how small we are in it. But he speaks with an unexpected lightness, a lack of dour pessimism. He points at a shelf of beautiful handmade notebooks and tells me they are all blank "but I won't have time left to fill them all".
He is currently writing a new Banville book. "I always have one on the go, a bit like the stews my mother used to have on the back of the stove, always being added to. In March, I will have to do publicity for the Marlowe book, a small tour in America, which I am dreading already.
"I am terrified of air travel. I don't understand how everybody isn't terrified, 36,000 feet above the ground in a sardine tin. I always have to have seat 2D where I can watch the staff's reactions when they answer the phone to the cockpit."
What does he do to treat it? "Drink," he says. "Last time I went to Australia, I travelled by Singapore Airlines and they have these exquisite air hostesses who glide about the plane as if on wheels. One approached me and delicately asked if I would like a glass of champagne. I said yes. And then said that I would have another. 'Another drink?' she asked in an almost stage whisper. I said yes and then another drink and another drink and another until we get to Melbourne. When we arrived in Melbourne, I was almost composed of liquid but I still wasn't drunk, the power of fear.
"I think it's a form of vertigo. Just a thin layer of suitcases between me and miles of nothing. I was thinking of somehow working a parachute into my clothing. I did try to persuade a friend of mine, a doctor, to supply me with a cyanide capsule to take with me on planes, so that I could avoid the crash. But then the plane would start to plummet until the pilot was suddenly able to level it and the staff would wonder what had happened to Mr Banville in seat 2D, he doesn't look very well, with all that foam coming out of his mouth."