Sunday 26 October 2014

John Banville: Who cares whodunnit?

John Banville
Dark imaginings: Gabriel Byrne during filming of Quirke - 'When I created Quirke, he was 6ft 6in and blond; with each successive book, he gets a bit smaller and smaller'

Booker Prize-winner John Banville talks about his alter ego, the crime writer Benjamin Black, and why we are so receptive to the tales set in 1950s Dublin.

'I don't know anything about myself," says John Banville. Already I can feel my heart sinking. "Put it this way, there is no self. I believe that we're a compendium of personalities. We're whoever we meet. We go through the day being who we think we should be and who we think we'd like to be."

"I remember my father didn't say very much – he was a very laconic man. When he'd go to a party, he would become very animated. My mother would say – 'Look at him. He never says a word at home and look at him now.' This is how we all are."

The Wexford-born writer tells me that he will be a different person later on in the afternoon when his publicist drives him to Belfast and that I, too, will change when I meet the next person in my day.

This is not exactly music to my ears. It's all very well telling me this theory, but how do I get an idea of the man in front of me if he claims to be such a chameleon? He must notice my frown, as he tries to reassure me.

"If you think I'm being bleak, I'm not," he says. "It's wonderful to be making yourself up. That's what makes life so exciting. It's an unending adventure."

While he says this, he doesn't sound very buoyant. Nor does he look it.

On the day we meet, just after noon in The Morrison Hotel, yards away from his office on the quays, the Booker Prize-winning author appears in a well-cut grey suit with a cream Panama hat in his hand. His neat leather shoes are polished to perfection. It's a long time since I've met a man so pristine. Later on, when I admire his style and ask if he has dressed especially for our meeting, he tells me that this is his norm.

"This is how one dresses in one's late 60s," he says (he is 67). "I like to dress conservatively because then the outrageous things you say are even more outrageous."

But it takes a while before Banville talks with ease. In the beginning, his sentences are short and instead of saying what he thinks, he spends a lot of time quoting the thoughts of others, like Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. I am relieved when I hear him order a glass of white wine for himself. As time passes, maybe this will loosen him up.

John Banville as his alter ego Benjamin Black

I stand aside to let the photographer take some shots. The sun is shining gloriously but heaven forbid that Banville smiles even slightly for the photograph. He is stony-faced and becomes a little more severe looking when the photographer asks if he will put on the hat. (He declines.) Moments later we are talking about his new novel – Holy Orders – the sixth in the crime series that he has written under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black. They are set in Dublin in the 1950s and soon some of them will be turned into a BBC television drama series, with Gabriel Byrne playing the lead role of Quirke, a pathologist who is not a nice creature yet somehow manages to be strangely compelling.

"I didn't know who he was before I met him," says Banville of his character. "Of course he's me. All my characters are me. I'm the only material I have to work with. Quirke is human. He's as flawed as we all are. He has secrets in his past, which we all have. I mean, which of us reveals his or her real self?

"Look at what goes on in our heads when we think about our family or we think about sex. There are things in there that you'd never really say to anybody. You're even ashamed to think it yourself. But Quirke is mainly fearful. He's fearful of people, fearful of commitment – as they say nowadays – and he's fearful of love."

Setting these novels in the early 1950s, when Banville grew up, is perfect for a certain sort of style – all that Catholic guilt and sexual frustration leads to illicit meetings late at night. In that era, women's clothes covered their bodies, yet clung to their curves in a sensual way. Men lit lady's cigarettes, with all that sexual suggestion hanging in the air.

"Yeah," he says, sounding as if he relished what was considered sinful behaviour back then.

The Benjamin Black novels have proved hugely popular, particularly as they conjure up Dublin in another era which many people remember. The crimes are sort of incidental in the books and Banville tells me that his aim is to write one of these novels without any crime at all. He doesn't really care whodunit.

"When I created Quirke, he was 6ft 6in and blond. But then a woman reader wrote to me and said, 'Why do you keep saying his hair is blond? It's not. It's brown.' I wrote back to her and told her that, of course, she was right. So I darkened his hair and now that he's being played by Gabriel Byrne; with each successive book he gets a bit smaller and smaller."

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