John Banville: Who cares whodunnit?
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.
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.
"It was a very demure time and a beautiful time for that," says John. "I often think that there was nothing more exciting and erotic than getting a glimpse of a woman's leg at the top of her stockings. There's something about that white bulge and for anybody who grew up in my time, nothing replaces that, nothing. I remember I had a girlfriend when I was 16 and she had this bra – it used to open down the front – which I thought was absolutely wonderful. It was like opening a tabernacle."
I can almost envisage her pert breasts from the look in his eyes. He laughs when I tell him that he will burn in hell for his tabernacle line.
"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."
Banville is on a bit of a roll at the moment. His 2005 Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea has been turned into a film starring Sinead Cusack, Charlotte Rampling and Ciaran Hinds. (He wrote the screenplay, too.). It will hit our cinema screens in the autumn.
He has seen it and tells me that it is "very beautiful. It's not a blockbuster and it's not going to earn half a billion in the first weekend, but it's a work of art and I'm very pleased with it.
"They filmed it down in Wexford and I visited the set for about half an hour. I don't usually go near the set, because there's nothing for a writer to do there and you're constantly getting in the way. If I give a book to the movies, it's theirs. Writers often whinge about being betrayed by the movies – I have no sympathy for that. If you don't want a movie to be made, then don't sell your book to the movies."
When he begins talking about his books – the ones under the name of Black and his own name – he refers to both authors in the third person. It sounds strange and slightly pompous, yet at readings he often explains to his audience that the book they are reading is not him and that he is incidental to the whole thing.
As readers approach him at signings, he often hears them comment that he's a lot older than they thought and shorter, and that he's not good-looking at all. But even though he hates writers' festivals, he appears at them because he understands that nowadays a writer's personality has to be sold. He'd rather talk about his books than himself – for example, he won't mention his two marriages and four children – two sons and two daughters. The most he will tell me is that he loves watching their lives.
"I always thought when I got older that I'd be jealous of my children but I'm not. It's the opposite. I love seeing their possibilities. Nothing makes me as happy as sitting at dinner with loved ones, having a glass of wine with a meal that I've cooked. What could be better?"
But it's back to the writing life. He is thankful to his readers, as he always learns something from them, especially about his work.
"Benjamin Black is a craftsman and these are crafted works," he says. "I'm very proud of them. I think they're well made, but Banville is doing something else – he's trying to make a kind of poetry, I suppose. I'm a perfectionist. It's an illness but a good illness. It's a completely different method of writing.
"Banville writes with a fountain pen on paper in a manuscript book and Black works straight on to the screen. It could take me a whole morning to write a few sentences as Banville, but as Black I'd be very annoyed if I didn't have at least two or three pages done. This drives crime-writers crackers because they think I'm saying that their craft is not worth it. I'm simply saying it's a different thing. I don't know why they worry when I talk about speed; after all, Georges Simenon wrote his books in about 10 days."
People often assume that John Banville is an arrogant man. At first I thought the same, but the more he talks, the more I dispel that notion.
"When I won the Booker Prize, I said that it was nice to see a work of art winning this prize and I've never been forgiven for that. When you get a prize, you're suppose to be humble. Somebody was interviewing me and said, 'This is a great day for Ireland'. I said, 'Why? Ireland didn't do it, I did it.' I wasn't forgiven for that either. I don't wear the green jersey and I don't hobnob with Michael D in the Park, although I quite like Michael D."
As he looks back on his life, particularly his early years growing up in Wexford, John is delightfully honest about it all and in particular, he has no problem explaining what a snob he could be.
"As a boy I was very solitary but blissfully happy. We lived on the edge of town in Wexford and I wandered the fields with my dog, declaiming Keats to the trees."
But as he grew older, he became more restless.
"I never learned the names of the streets because I couldn't wait to get out. It was too small and I was bored. I was a pretentious little twerp and I had ideas above my station, which everyone should have. I was deeply ambitious but I was deeply dismissive of what was there and that was a mistake. Wexford was a fascinating town and so was the society. I remember a friend of mine telling me about wife-swapping parties that went on there and how people would throw their keys into the middle of a bowl. This was the late 1950s. I didn't believe a word of it. If I believed him and looked about, I would have found another version of Wexford. I'm not saying that I wanted to be at wife-swapping parties, but the Wexford I imagined wasn't necessarily the Wexford that was real. So I blinded myself and I was just as narrow-minded and blinkered as the people whom I despised there. That was a mistake."
And with that, Banville, Benjamin Black and the man in the Panama hat head off to Belfast. Who will he become?
'Holy Orders', by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, is published by Mantle Books, €15.99
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