'You get to a point where you say if I do any more I’ll cut my throat'
Author John Banville speaks with extraordinary candour about his almost disabling self-loathing, writes Niamh Horan
Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30
He has been awarded the most important and influential award for literary fiction in the English- speaking world, but John Banville remains haunted by an overwhelming self-loathing that leads him to dismiss some of his most acclaimed novels as "slop."
In the small library of Howth Castle last week, the 69-year-old Man Booker winner spoke with remarkable candour about how his 'Banville' books imbue him with a "deep sense of embarrassment and shame".
The room descended into a hushed silence as Mr Banville let loose on himself, painting a vivid portrait of a working life filled with doubt and dissatisfaction towards his books.
"My fantasy is walking past a book store and clicking my fingers and all my books go blank and I can start again. But of course I still wouldn't get them right. Because we can't. That's the point about art. It's one of the strange areas in life, I suppose sport is the same, where you are seeking perfection and you know you can't have it."
The author, who has also won the Franz Kafka Prize, said his hope that the next book will be "the masterpiece, which will stun the world into silence and live through the ages" is the only thing that keeps him going.
"Then you are half way through and you know 'ugh it's just another bloody book," he said.
The talk, part of the Howth Midsummer Literary Arts Festival, was filled with an equal amount of wit and self-deprecation, as the author looked back on the highs and lows of his career, which produced such works as The Book of Evidence, The Sea and The Infinities.
There was laughter, too. When asked if he feels any relief upon finishing a book, he said: "There's about six or seven hours. Remember that movie Alien where the guy had the thing stuck to his face? It feels like that when I finish a book. But you know there's a different one growing inside you, ready to burst out. But for that time I feel relieved… then the gloom sets in and you immediately think 'I have got to write another one'."
Banville drew an analogy with a cartoon strip by The Far Side creator Gary Larson, which features an image of beautiful flowers with the tag line 'How we see flowers', and underneath, an image of twisted flowers with ugly faces, alongside the line: "How flowers see themselves" and said: "That's how I see my books. All I see are the flaws and the failings... and [I think] that's when... at three o'clock on that Tuesday afternoon when I said 'oh bugger, I'll just let it stand' and I shouldn't have. That's when the failure overwhelms me."
But he says his obsessive nature means that sooner or later he has to let what is on the page, stand. "You get to the point where you say 'I can't do any more with this. If I do any more with this, I'll cut my throat," he said, "that's why it is so difficult to do readings and I'm so glad people don't do readings anymore because you would have to revisit that slop that you did a year ago."
Asked how he feels when he comes through a period of self-disgust, he said: "I don't.
"I was once asked the question: 'are there any lighter moments?' and there are in the first year or so of a book, when you start you just think, 'I could do anything with this' and you have total freedom and you're totally in control and then after a year and a half - as you wade through with mud up to your armpits - you realise in horror that 'I am going to have to finish this'. And the last year and a half is like constantly taking a corpse out of bed and dressing it and painting lipstick on it and propping it up and having to talk to it," he said.
The author also said he believed The Sea, for which he won the Man Booker prize, wouldn't be published, nor should it in the end.
The prize is so highly contested that, during its 45 years, one judge threatened to throw himself off a balcony, while another provoked a punch-up during the decision process.
In 2005, the year Banville won, some critics were in turmoil in the press over the decision the next day, leading one of the judges, John Sutherland, to remark that the decision would have drawn criticism even "if Jesus Christ had written the winning novel".
It is perhaps a good thing then that Banville said he never reads reviews because, he says, "I have lived with this book for three years. What can you, the reviewer, tell me about it that I don't know? And nobody can be a harsher critic about it then I am myself. And I don't want people agreeing with my harsh judgments."
Still he isn't as critical of other books he reads because, he says, he knows that "even a very bad book was very difficult to write".
Describing his lowest point, he says it came after writing Mefisto in 1986, a tale about a man who must choose between life and work. "It absolutely sank without a trace. It got one mocking review and I had spent three very difficult years doing it. But what I did was this. I made a little garden, I took Voltaire's advice - I tended my garden - and it cured me. I grew wonderful things. I used to go out and talk to the lettuces in the morning and I pulled myself out of that because that's what you have to do. I mean if you are going to be a writer, then you have to have tenacity, you have to be strong."
Banville admits that the same level of self-loathing does not cripple him in the same way when it comes to his 'Benjamin Black' books because, he says, "they don't pretend to be anything other than what they are".
In one of the lighter moments he described how, after publishing The Sea to great acclaim, he was approached by a fan. "I had just won the Booker prize and I had three and a half minutes of fame and I was going to the DART one morning and a workman, who was passing on a bike, recognised me and veered and came towards me at great speed, and I thought he was going to hurt me, but as he cycled by he said 'great fuckin' book' and I just thought 'well that was the best review I have ever gotten'."