Sunday 19 November 2017

'Men are just big babies at heart looking for the breast' - John Banville talks to Niamh Horan

As he approaches 70, Ireland's top writer John Banville says we never really do grow up, writes Niamh Horan

Banville credo: ‘We have to protect the status quo because we live by the status quo, but we mustn’t imagine that this is an eternal state and eternal rule. The rules change, laws change, people’s expectations change,’ says author John Banville
Banville credo: ‘We have to protect the status quo because we live by the status quo, but we mustn’t imagine that this is an eternal state and eternal rule. The rules change, laws change, people’s expectations change,’ says author John Banville
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

John Banville has mellowed. Perhaps you come to an age when you don't take it all so seriously.

But today it's all on the table: sex, pornography, infidelity, money woes and death.

Banville insists he leads a "boring" existence. Not for him the excesses of a Behan.

He let his hair down after winning the world's most prestigious literary award - The Man Booker prize for Fiction - by splashing out on 24 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Hardly the actions of an intemperate man.

But anyone who spends an hour in his company can mine a rich vein of good humour and mischievousness that bubbles just beneath the surface.

He sits across from me, unwinding, after a day's work, with a couple of glasses of wine. He says he does this each evening after putting the pen down "to make myself seem human again".

Writing sends him into 'a trance'. And once back in the real world, he dissects the people around him for a living.

Even when sitting on a train; the way a person across from him might move his thumb could be woven into a character in his novel.

It must make him unnerving to live with.

"I wouldn't want to live with me. I am an egomaniac. I am self-centred. I am a cannibal. I eat everything that is presented to me to use as material for books."

In his latest, The Blue Guitar, the main character, Oliver Otway Orme, an artist, has an affair which is ultimately exposed.

It has been described by critics as an "engrossing and often beautiful novel" as well as a "true work of art".

They say you 'write about what you know' so how much of Banville is in the book?

"Oh none. I invented everything ... I don't see myself as Olly Orme, God forbid. I may be awful. But he is really awful."

Orme is also a petty thief. Has Banville ever stolen anything?

Never, he assures me.

So back to infidelity. Why do men like Olly Orme cheat? "People never grow up. We are children, we are greedy. We are stupid. We are capable of blinding ourselves to the hurt that we are doing to other people. And we are, above all, selfish.

"Betrayal," he says, "is always a fascinating subject. Lies and betrayal. I suppose they seem more real to us than truthfulness and fidelity."

He himself married American textile artist Janet Dunham after meeting in San Francisco in 1968 when she was a student at the University of California at Berkeley. They have two adult sons.

Then he went on to have two daughters with Patricia Quinn, former head of the Arts Council of Ireland.

He has the good fortune to make a living from his passion - but, like most real artists while alive, cannot turn his gift into an abundance of riches.

It leaves him lying awake at night worrying about his bank balance.

Still, he doesn't let it guide his work: "if that influenced the way I write then I really would put the shotgun in my mouth and blow my head off."

The milestone of 70 looms in December, and though he has spent his years writing about life he says, "I still don't know the living of it."

One thing of which he is sure - and perhaps this is what colours his stories - is that "we love sin ... especially as a Catholic country - we are supposed to hate it. But actually we love it."

He takes a philosophical approach to what we would deem as good and evil.

"In another age, in another country, the things that we think are taboo will be perfectly normal."

But he explains: "We have to protect the status quo because we live by the status quo, but we mustn't imagine that this is an eternal state and eternal rule. The rules change, laws change, people's expectations change."

Perhaps then infidelity and monogamy are regarded as they are only because we are in a moment in time? This is where his liberal philosophising stops.

"We have to abide by conventions, otherwise there is chaos and anarchy … If another convention comes along in the next generation, then fine, but the main thing is to try your best not to hurt people. That is the only rule there is."

For a writer who has had two big loves, he can portray passion but is still unable to master writing about the mechanics of sex. But then he believes that no writer can. "As Martin Amis says, it is impossible, you can't do it."

He recalls a movie scene where Michael Caine's glasses steam up at the sight of a woman's bare ankle and laments the fact that - from books to porn - sex is so out in the open now.

He didn't bother with 50 Shades of Grey after hearing it was "a pale version" of the Story of O, which, he agrees, is "a work of art".

"Men think she is their slave but in fact they are her slaves. All women know this. Women have powers beyond anything men have. Men are big babies looking for the breast."

Still he wouldn't want his children to live through the "horrible adolescence" that he had "where sex was dirty and forbidden."

I ask him about the first time he lost his virginity but he won't budge.

"The first time?" he laughs, before teasing: "You can only lose it once darling."

So then I turn to his first childhood sexual experience and his eyes light up.

'I had a doll. I was about six," he says. "And I think I stole it from my sister.

"I used to perform operations on it and of course I didn't know anything about sex but that was very… very, very exciting. I remember sweating with passion over it."

Over the doll?

"Yes I was about five or six." He smiles.

Were you performing acts on it?

"Not at all I was doing an operation ... I did an .... appendectomy on it, pretending to do it... that got very close to the real thing. I mean you know… the incoherence of our sexual lives…," he trails off.

But isn't it funny you relate that to an early sexual experience?

"Because she was pink," he chirps.

"And she had no clothes on. I could take her clothes off."

So like Olly Orme he did steal something after all...

And to think a man who started out life so full of impish naughtiness could have gone on to get his kicks from the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Blue Guitar, Viking €17.99, is in all good bookshops.

Sunday Independent

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