One of the greatest Irish writers of our time, John Banville, talks to Niamh Horan about missing the eroticism of life in 'The Irish Times', the end of his marriage, his many failures and his most pressing question yet
I'VE never set eyes on him before, but I know it's him.
Dressed in a long dark overcoat, black fedora and soft maroon-coloured scarf blowing against the dull grey evening, he rushes up the street and ducks into the warmth of the Italian restaurant he's chosen for our first encounter.
I'm sitting at a table tucked away in the corner, my shaking hand hidden behind a glass of Frascati. I have to remind myself to breathe as he walks over.
Removing his hat and overcoat I'm taken by surprise as he slips into the chair directly beside me, rather than across the table. I already feel more at ease.
Here is John Banville: Man Booker prize-winner and one of the greatest living Irish writers of our time; Irish novelist, adapter of dramas and screenwriter. The Wexford man, who sometimes writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, has come to be recognised as a master stylist of the English language.
I decide to be honest and tell him how nervous I've been in the hours leading up to our meeting.
"Don't be," he says, simply.
He wears his prodigious talent lightly. Softly spoken, with an endearing lisp that appears when deep in conversation, I instantly warm to him.
Within minutes food has been suspended, he orders an Antinoo and we're sharing experiences from the romantic city of Venice. My favourite place on earth. He visits every winter.
A thick head of snow-white hair, a warm friendly face -- the man with the reputation as a literary curmudgeon is nowhere to be found. Instead I meet an unassuming, disarmingly charming and quick-witted character who draws you in.
A deep line runs vertically down the middle of his expressive forehead and he stares at the table as he talks. Until, every so often, he raises his gaze slightly to meet mine before stealing it away once more.
He delivers his words in short, crisp sentences. His seductive ability to tell a story, dotted with shrewd quotations from late great wordsmiths and humourous one-liners, draws me under his spell as the room slowly fades away.
He started writing when he was 12. On an old black Remington, which his Aunt Sadie lent to him. He has been chasing excellence ever since.
"I'm full of self-doubt. I doubt everything I do. Everything I do is a failure. It has to be. Because what I'm after is perfection. And you can't have perfection. As Beckett famously says, 'Fail again; fail better.' That's the best I can do."
His only mention of his most celebrated work, The Sea, during our entire meeting is to recall how he believed the now-celebrated masterpiece to be so bad he almost never gave it to his publishers. Months later he was strolling around London, in the hours leading to the dinner for the announcement of the Man Booker Prize, "eyes spinning in their sockets" and reminding himself "I must not get drunk".
The moment his name was called out to a room full of esteemed scribes, he wickedly pondered, "'How many people must hate me at this moment?'
"Everyone was astonished," he says. "I never thought for a second that I would win.
"I always say it's like being given the biggest toy fire engine at Christmas."
Did winning the Booker Prize make him more attractive to women?
"I wish I had won it earlier in life to find out," he muses.
The book went on to sell over half-a-million copies. And the former newspaper sub-editor became recognised as the most stylistically elaborate Irish writer of his generation.
But there were "very lean" years, too.
When his novel Kepler was published in the Eighties he recalls how "on the eve of publication I went around the Dublin bookshops, and we had a lot of the bookshops back then, and there wasn't a single one of any of my books anywhere. I was unknown".
Still, he says, "I didn't feel badly about it because I was writing the kind of books I wanted to write. And I had no one but myself to blame if I wasn't making money, that wasn't anybody's fault. Nobody was obliged to buy my books."
The work that originally put his name on the map, The Book Of Evidence, won Ireland's prestigious Guinness Peat Aviation Award in 1989.
Based on the events surrounding the 1982 case of Malcolm Edward Macarthur, who killed a young nurse and a farmer from Co Offaly and stunned a nation when he was discovered hiding out in the Attorney General's apartment -- a series of events that famously gave rise to the word 'Gubu' -- Banville is still slow to confirm the work's links to real-life events.
Does he have an opinion on what became of Macarthur? "I think it was pretty extraordinary that the man was kept in for so long when you consider that arch-murderers are now in highly respectable positions in government in Northern Ireland. People with the blood of hundreds -- if not thousands -- on their hands. Whereas he, certainly is a double murderer, deserved to be punished. But he didn't deserve to be kept in longer than anybody else."
He laments that his parents never witnessed his successful years.
"I wish they had lived to see some of the successes because largely what they saw were failures. But I think they took a certain pride when I first became published."
I point out that perhaps it means more in the grand scheme of life that they felt this way about their son while he was still a largely unsuccessful author.
We turn to the literary world's reputation for bitter spats among its members.
"I think it's because we spend too much time alone. We sit there in rooms, like moles under the ground, and then we're suddenly pulled up into the light when our book is published, blinking, squeaking" -- I chuckle as he yelps in a faint, shrill voice -- "'Oh, oh, stop!'
"Some people are terribly jealous. It's a very fraught, nervous world. It's hard work. And the rewards are very low."
His office is based in an apartment on Bachelors Walk. He spends his days writing in silence there, save for the voices of the immigrant children playing in the courtyard below, rising up to his desk like
"voices from the gods". It's accidentally softened his most recent works.
Still, he misses the office life which he shared with his colleagues when he was employed as Associate Literary Editor for The Irish Times.
"Office life is very, very strange. It's like no other way of living. You have an intimacy with people who you work with in the office, yet if you meet them on the streets, you both look the other way because you're embarrassed.
"There's a slight eroticism about the office, a slight flirtatiousness about it, and of course it's full of gossip, so, you know, one misses that. Because a writer's life is a solitary life."
He describes the writing process as "a dream-like state", which he descends into every time he crafts a book.
"You know when you said at the start of the interview that you wanted to talk about 'the man' rather than the work? Well there is no 'John Banville'," he declares.
"When I stand up from my desk, he ceases to exist. The person you see here is not the person who wrote the books. When I sit down I become John Banville, when I stand up . . . sometimes I don't understand what I've written, I don't remember what I've written the next day. It's a state like being asleep. You're not really yourself when you're dreaming."
Is he difficult to live with while in the throes of this creative process?
"Oh, terrible," he admits. We both smile at the thought.
"Well, it's a toss-up of which is worse -- when I'm writing, or when I'm not. And since I'm almost always writing, it's hard to know."
Why the dark moods?
"It's asking an awful lot of one's self. Every day you have to do your absolute best -- it's a bit like being a sportsman. You have to perform at the absolute top of your game, six, seven, eight hours a day -- that's very, very wearing."
When it's finished, he doesn't waste his time reading reviews. Their opinions, he says, are irrelevant.
"It's a difficult area, this, because it sounds terribly arrogant, but I've spent two, three, four, five years writing a book. And when I publish it, it's given to some over-worked hack or some would-be novelist and his or her judgement is neither here nor there.
"I know what the book is worth. I know its failings. I would be far more critical than any reviewer could be of my own work. So I simply don't read them."
Every year, his name surfaces as a potential nominee for the holy grail of literature: the Nobel Prize. Does he have such lofty dreams scribbled on his 'to do' list?
"I have no influence in that. There's nobody I can sleep with to get that, and I'm too old to sleep with anybody -- even if they were available.
"Of course, it would be lovely to have. It brings a lot of stuff with it. A lot of fuss. You're famous for a few weeks. And they are very crowded weeks -- but, again, you would be very foolish to let it affect you in any personal way, as far as the work is concerned. Because, again, it's a lottery. James Joyce didn't win it, Proust didn't win it, Nabokov -- the list of people who didn't win it are some of the greatest names of 20th-century literature, so not winning it -- you're still in exalted company."
One of the observations that is given to me numerous times before we meet is that he has a special flair for writing about women and delving into the female psyche.
"Well, I don't make a distinction between men and women. To me they are just people. I remember doing a reading at the Edinburgh Festival once," he chuckles to himself, "and I can see this woman in the front row who had been looking at me very beadily and she was the first questioner." His hand shoots up and he points straight forward, acting out the encounter. "'When are you going to stop writing books about men killing women?'" she demanded to him. "And I said, 'Well, when I get it right.' I had a bad reputation where women were concerned -- fictionally."
Writing about sex is something he's not at ease with.
"To write about sex is almost impossible because the physical act seems so disconnected to what the people engaged in the act feel. That transcending feeling that you have. Here are two heavenly angels grappling, but looked at -- it looks like two mad plumbers going at it."
His book, Ancient Light, which is due out this July, details a narrator in his 60s remembering an affair which he had when he was 15 with the 25-year-old mother of his best friend.
He himself has been married: to the American textile artist Janet Dunham. They met during his visit to San Francisco in 1968 where she was a student at the University of California at Berkeley. They have two adult sons. He then went on to have two daughters with Patricia Quinn, former head of the Arts Council of Ireland.
What are you like in love?
"I can't remember -- it was so long ago," he quips.
Can I ask about your first love?
"No. Go back through the files of the Sunday Independent and you'll find Terry Keane's written about me a couple of times."
We order two more glasses of the same.
"My marriage broke up and Terry wrote about it. As a friend of a friend of mine said, 'Why is Terry Keane writing about these people? They are nobodies.' It was a slow Sunday."
How did you feel when it happened?
His first thoughts are for his children. "It was hard on them."
"When one's life gets into difficulties like that -- whether you mean to or not -- it doesn't matter, the anguish itself is so intense.
"To hurt other people is the worst thing you can do. To be hurt oneself is bad enough, but hurting other people is unforgivable."
He seems lost in his mind's eye, mentally punishing himself over and over as he repeats the word.
"Unforgivable. Literally unforgivable."
So you've never made peace with yourself over it?
"No. I cannot be forgiven."
"You're only human", I reason.
I think I can faintly detect him saying the word "debatable" and we both laugh as the moment lightens.
"Life is never simple," I say.
But he stands firm: "No. I think that one has to take responsibility for one's life and one has to take responsibility for one's bad deeds as well as one's good deeds.
"One has to, as I say, be responsible. And finding excuses for myself is despicable.
"That's the biggest regret of one's life I think. Failure in art, or failure in making a living, or a success -- none of them compares, everything pales beside hurting other people, because, you know, we are here for such a short time and basic life itself is so hard one has a duty to try to be decent to other people.
"I've spent my life sitting in a room scribbling," he finally laments. "I can write about life. But I still don't really understand it."
As he rises to leave, placing the fedora on his head, I notice the pages of unanswered questions falling from my lap, unopened. Where did the time go? I say my goodbyes and tell him I will stay on, feeling a strong urge to finish my glass of wine and take it all in. To re-adjust to my surroundings and snap out of his spell.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the effect of Mr John Banville.
'Ancient Light' is in all good bookshops from July