Saturday 24 February 2018

With Banville, what you see is not always what you get

Interviewing John Banville about his new novel is akin to climbing Escher staircases -- but Bridget Hourican is not disappointed

Bridget Hourican

JOHN Banville turns up at the Morrison Hotel looking dapper and sounding fatalistic. "Whenever I leave the house without an umbrella, it rains," he tells me.

The foyer, though quiet, is not quiet enough for an interview, so the waiter lets us use an empty room which has been set for dining. Banville looks round in satisfaction: "This is suitably gloomy. Like a funeral parlour."

In retrospect, this was a fair warning -- which I failed to heed. I began brightly talking about his latest book, The Infinities, saying that it seemed his happiest work yet.

He recoils slightly: "Happy is a rather strong word -- since the central character is about to die."

I point out that the character is saved. He gives an indulgent laugh: "Do you believe that? The happy ending? That everything's going to be fine?"

Interviewing Banville is not like interviewing other authors. With most authors you drop your morsel of interpretation at their feet, and they pat you on the head. Banville recoils, shielding, not himself, but the book. But then he shields the book from his own interpretation: "Voices blend and merge in odd ways that I don't understand myself, and I don't particularly want to understand."

He speaks in perfectly formed sentences. When I say his words back at him, to get clarification, he pounces on the slightest modification. When I begin one line of questioning with the words: "When you say the book took over ... " he comes straight back.

"I didn't say the book took over," he shoots. "I said you have to allow the book a certain amount of freedom."

This is a salutary lesson: don't paraphrase writers.

His manner is polite, detached, slightly weary. There is an occasional hint of menace, as when I try to get his reaction to a Joyce quotation: "Joyce said a lot of things he shouldn't have said," is the murderous riposte. He seems to take satisfaction in what horrifies most of us: "We don't know anything about other people. We can only know them from the outside. This is one of the great joys of life."

Or pains? I interject, aghast at such isolation.

"But why do you want to know people? It's much better to constantly speculate and constantly invent."

Conversation with Banville is like going down rabbit holes, climbing Escher staircases, opening Chinese boxes. He rescues me from one dizzying exchange: "I'm teasing you," a suddenly seraphic smile wreathing his austere features. It's possible he is teasing me throughout and none of what I report him saying should be taken as sincere.

We get into a wonderfully knotted exchange over his two selves, the man and the writer.

"The person who writes the book ceases to exist every day when I stand up from the desk," he says, prompting me to ask what relationship he has to this person.

"None," he replies.

Is he in no way you? I mean he is you, obviously.

"He's not the me who walks round in the world being a citizen."

But he observes, in the same way you observe?

"Yes, but when the observation's being done, it's not me," insists Banville. "I sort of slump like a marionette and he does the observing and then I come back to life."

I feel like I'm in At Swim-Two-Birds. I try to turn the exchange to my advantage. Famously Banville doesn't talk about his private life. His list of occupations since school -- Aer Lingus clerk, Irish Press sub-editor, Irish Times literary editor -- is austerely deskbound, but he travelled extensively.

He still travels but can only live in Ireland. "Best climate in the world. You can get six seasons in one day."

Away from his desk, where he (or, rather, that other guy) wrote his 15 novels (and three crime novels as Benjamin Black), he has managed to have a private life -- two sons with his wife, the American artist, Janet Dunham, and two young daughters from a relationship with former Arts Council director Patricia Quinn.

So when he says: "Art is not part of my life; it's part of this other person's existence," I pounce: what does he do in his life? I'm not expecting confessional outpourings -- a list of hobbies would be nice -- but he neatly sidesteps my ambush.

"I don't have much life because this ... succubus takes up most of my energy and my time."

He looks mournful. I feel vaguely indignant on his behalf. Later, I sense a contradiction with something else he said: "Life is infinitely more important and more significant than art." Because if life is more important, why not strangle the succubus? (But then he'd die too, I guess.)

He grants me one marvellous insight into his work: "Characters are never real people. What you do is, you take tiny details -- somebody's eyes on a bus, the back of a child's head -- they all go into an amalgam. Most of the sources you forget, and this new thing, the character, is made. Just as you do in dreams. But they're all me. I'm the only material I have. Just as in dreams every person is you."

The books in all their dazzling strangeness are revealed to me. Those recurrent characters -- the dissembler, the mathematical genius, the lord of misrule, the damaged girl -- are all him! This makes sense.

At one point he says: "When I do readings, people come up to talk to me -- I can see the disappointment in their faces, because I'm not what they expected. I'm shorter, uglier, older. They expect the person who wrote the book."

I accept that this person, or persons, I'm talking to is not the person who wrote the books. On the other hand our conversation was like no other; I doubt fans are disappointed meeting him, really.

John Banville will read from 'The Infinities', his new novel, at Trinity College Dublin on Thursday, September 10. For tickets visit www.books2009.ie

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