interview by Chris Bigsby
CB: You were born and raised in Wexford, which is not a very big place.
JB: It is a small town in the southeast corner of Ireland which I hated. I loathed it. I was so bored I never even learned the names of the streets and I couldn’t wait to get out. I stayed there chafing for seventeen years and then I escaped. Now I see how beautiful the town was and how much I missed it and how foolish I was not to value what was there while it was there.
CB: Like all Irish places, it is heavy with history.
JB: When you are young you hate history. I was turned completely towards the future, towards what was going to happen, the history that I was going to make, so I wanted out. I was thinking recently that when I was about fourteen I had a friend who was about sixteen, or maybe seventeen, and he was very sophisticated. He used to wear a three-piece suit and a watch chain. He smoked cigarettes and had a tremor in his hand, which was terribly impressive, and he used to tell me about wife-swapping parties and I never believed this. I thought this was all fantasy. Now I look back on it and I think there probably were wife-swapping parties and I missed them. I left before I had time to get invited.
CB: Not long ago I was talking to Colm Toíbín. He went to a Christian Brothers school and then to St. Peter’s College and as a matter of fact you went to a Christian Brothers school and on to St. Peter’s College.
JB: Yes, and St. Peters is now famous. It was a real hot-bed, in all senses of the word, for paedophilia.
CB: Were you aware of that when you were there?
JB: Oh yes, of course. We all were. Everybody knew. We thought it was slightly funny but of course what we didn’t realise, what we didn’t acknowledge, was that it was always the weak kids, the boys at the back of the class who didn’t speak and who couldn’t do their sums, that were the ones who were picked on. That is a source of real sorrow now for people like me. We should have taken care of them, the little boys at the back of the class, but it was a great centre of homosexuality. It was also the Diocesan college so that students would go from here to there and it was always the gay students who went on to become priests. So as far as I can see the entire Catholic church is run by homosexual priests, which is not a bad thing. I don’t see why itshouldn’t be the case.
CB: I have a tendency, when I hear people went to a Christian Brothers school, to ask whether they have still got the bruises. Do you have any?
JB: Well, curiously I was beaten more at St. Peters than I was at Christian Brothers. I was lucky that I was top of the class. I was one of the bright boys. I was in a way untouchable. As I say, the people at the front of the class were not victimised so I did get beaten but we accepted it. That was what happened and one never spoke at home, one never told one’s parents, and one’s parents didn’t want to hear about this. If you were beaten you must have deserved it and probably did. We were little boys. We deserved it.
CB: You started writing very early.
JB: I think I started when I was about twelve. I may be romanticising, but certainly it was very early. It is a classic thing. Joyce’s Dubliners was a great revelation to me, that writing could be about life as I knew it, because the Dublin in Joyce’s writing, the Ireland in Joyce’s writing, was very like the Ireland that I grew up in. Nothing much had changed in fifty or sixty years and here was evidence that one could write about life itself, the thing itself. So I immediately started writing really bad pastiches of Joyce’s Dubliners. I threw them all away, to the great dismay of various librarians who keep these manuscripts, but I do remember the opening of one of the stories, and this was written when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen. The first sentence was “The white May blossomed, spiralled into the open mouth of the grave”. I knew nothing about life. I certainly knew nothing about death, but I knew that I wanted to deal with words and Joyce was the great leader there.
CB: But you were also interested in painting.
JB: Oh, yes. I tried for a couple of years, when I was about fifteen or sixteen, to paint. I couldn’t draw. I had no sense of draftsmanship. I had no colour sense. All of which are distinct disadvantages if you want to be a painter. I thought at the time that it was a useless and frustrating exercise but looking back on it I can see that it taught me to look at the world in a very particular way. I write in a very high style, as did Nabokov and Updike. Nabokov said he should have been a painter. Updike claimed that he studied drawing in London. It does teach you to look at the world in a very particular way, or maybe we are predisposed to look at the world in that way anyway and therefore the art of painting attracts us.
CB: Is that why art recurs in your novels?
JB: Partly, but I am not a psychologist. One of my favourite things from Kafka is a little line from his diaries that went, ‘Never again psychology.’ To me, art is evidence. It is a surface to the world, a surface to people. It is all we can see. I can’t know anything more than what I see from the outside, but the surface is where the real depth is. So my interest in painting, as in writing, has to do with the spectacular aspect of painting.
CB: I think anyone who reads your work would assume that you went to university and read a great deal in literature, classics, science, but you didn’t go to university. So where did this education come from?
JB: We all educate ourselves. I now deeply regret not going to university. It was very stupid. It was part of my strategy to get away from my family, be free. Now I am sorry that I didn’t indulge myself for those three or four years of drunkenness and carousing. I suppose it was the height of arrogance to think that I could do it myself and now I have to display my little bits of knowledge in the most pathetic way, trying to impress people. But I have a curiosity. I am interested in things, in painting and physics, and they feed into the work. I find it absolutely extraordinary that a writer or a painter or a musician will say blithely that he knows nothing about physics or astronomy or any of these things. If a scientist said he didn’t know anything about Shakespeare or Beethoven we would consider him to be a barbarian. I think that physics, for instance, is one of the most interesting disciplines of the twentieth century. I think that the ideas and even the images that physics threw up from Einstein onwards are absolutely fascinating and in many ways more interesting than twentieth century philosophy.
CB: Did you have a mentor or a guide at any stage or did you just go into libraries and follow your whim?
JB: No, as I said, arrogance was a great guide for me. I felt that I could do it all myself. There was nobody who could be a mentor to me because nobody was as clever as I was. I am being largely facetious but I think anybody who wants to be an artist needs a good, strong, healthy dose of arrogance.
CB: I noticed that when you won the Booker Prize you said, ‘Thank heavens a literary book has won it at last.’
JB: What I said was it is very good to see a work of art winning it. I was being largely mischievous, but again I was being partly serious. I think it is right that a prize like that should go to my kind of book, though not all the time because the poor prize would wither on the vine. You need strong middle brow books to win prizes, to sell lots of copies and keep people interested in fiction with these stories on the front pages of newspapers. Now and then it is good. I am not saying that mine is a successful work of art. It is, but I am not saying that. What I set out to do was what I have been trying to do since I started to write, that is to turn the novel towards a more poetic form. It is perfectly reasonable to argue against that, especially here in England where you have such an extraordinary tradition. Henry James spoke disparagingly of the 19th century novel as a loose baggy monster, but in many ways it is arguable that the novel should be a loose baggy monster and should not be this carefully fashioned closed object. It should be open.
CB: You have also said that you are not really content with the novel as a form and that in some sense a poem can do more.
JB: I don’t like fiction. I don’t like the novel. It is not a very interesting form.
CB: So why have you written fifteen of them?
JB: Well, what else can I do but what I am trying to do, to make the novel a poetic form, to give it the weight and the denseness of poetry and to be as demanding. Auden said that the poem is the only work of art that you either take or leave. You can listen to a piece of music and no matter how hard you concentrate you can, for a little while, think about what you are having for dinner. You can look at a painting and think about that very pretty girl walking past. You can’t do that with a poem. You read it or you don’t read it. I want my prose to be at that level, to be as demanding as that, so that you either read it or you don’t read it. Many people, when I offer them a take-it-or-leave-it choice, to my amazement decide to leave it.
CB: There is a sense in which you can taste some of the words in your work.
JB: For me there is no point in writing discursive fiction unless that is true. There are five senses. You should be able to smell, hear, taste the thing. I am particularly interested in smells. It fascinates me that the novelist almost never talks about smells. We are brought back to the past by smells. We are disgusted by smells, we fall in love because of smells, so all the senses have to be involved in this to give a feeling of that squashy sense of the world in all its awfulness, in all its beauty. I have a friend who said to me, look, I admire your books but I can’t read them because your prose does too much work. You don’t need me. You don’t need my imagination. I can understand that but I like to feel that if you do manage to get onto the wave-length of this prose the rewards will be high.
CB: You were suggesting just now that there is a playful arrogance in what you were saying but there is no fiercer critic of John Banville than John Banville. You have actually talked about abhorring some John Banville work. Is that because it will always fall short of what it is you want to do?
JB: Yes, all my books stand behind me like mortal sins. They are all wrong. They are all failures. There is a wonderful cartoon by Gary Larson and it is in two parts. The top half is a flowerbed and the flowers are all very pretty. In the bottom half the flowers all have crossed eyes and snaggled teeth and the caption is, ‘The top is how people see flowers and the bottom one is how flowers see themselves.’ That is how I feel about these books of mine. Of course I suppose on some level I am proud of them, don’t get me wrong. I think they are better than everybody else’s. It is just that they are not good enough for me, but that is the condition. As Beckett says, all you can do is fail again but fail better. I keep trying to fail better.
CB: That is very Beckett, and if you are an Irish writer you have these two huge figures looming above you. You have mentioned both – Joyce and Beckett. Has Joyce given way to Beckett as far as you are concerned?
JB: I don’t think so. Irish prose has a certain tone, a tone of high rhetoric and high comedy which, when successful, is a wonderful heady blend. If I were to pick a writer who has influenced me, certainly as I get older, it would be Yeats. The difference between Yeats and me is that he had absolutely no sense of humour, which allowed him to be great. He wouldn’t be great having a sense of humour and a sense of the ridiculous and a sense of one’s own absurdity. These are very grave misfortunes.
CB: You said just now that you wanted to get away from your parents. Specifically from your parents?
JB: No, everything that my parents represented, their world, though I look back on it now with a great deal of grief and regret.
CB: What did they represent?
JB: Oh, they represented narrowness. I speak of my parents, though my parents were splendid people. I loved them dearly.
CB: On the other hand, when they died, when you were in your thirties, you said that you felt released.
JB: Of course. I forget who it was that said it is the best gift a man can give to his son to die young. I think it is true. Don’t we all feel that? Along with the grief at loss of a parent there is a sense of suddenly becoming one’s own man or own woman. Some people’s parents live to be very old. I can only speak for myself but I didn’t feel that I became an individual until my parents had gone, taking with them all that world that I grew up in, because once they were gone I wasn’t tied to the place I had come from in any way.
CB: Your first novel wasn’t set in Ireland. Indeed was it set where it was in order not to be set in Ireland?
JB: Oh yes, of course. I was young and reading all the wrong books. I was reading people like Lawrence Durrell and I wanted to be a dashing cosmopolitan writer, so I set the book in Greece having been there for a few weeks. But I always feel that the Hemingway advice to write of what you know is not quite right. I would encourage writers to write about what they don’t know and then they might find out a lot of things both about the thing they don’t know anything about and also about themselves, about which they know less.
CB: But you struggled in the writing of that book. You had several cracks at it.
JB: Yes, of course. It was my first novel. It used to pile up in the corner, each of the drafts, each of them wrong. My poor wife. We were living together in London then and she was working while I was at home. She would come home in the evening and say, ‘How’s the novel?’ and I would say, ‘Oh, it’s alright,’ or if I had said it has collapsed she would say, ‘I think I’ll go out again and come back later.’ The people who sustain artists never get enough acknowledgment. How she put up with it, how my family and various people that I have lived with and am living with at the moment, how they put up with it I don’t know. I wouldn’t put up with it.
CB: One thing you did in writing that novel was to change it from third person to first person.
JB: Yes, I did. Really all my books, even third person books, are in the first person. If all my books were put together into one huge volume, hideous thought, it could be called The Book of Evidence because I think that is what art is. It is the record of one man. I was here. This is what I saw. This is what I record. That is what art is for me. I don’t think it is anything other than that. I think that is a great deal but I think claims to psychological insights are foolish.
CB: So, as a writer, you have a distrust of psychology.
JB: Yes. I think Freud was a great novelist in his way. He didn’t have a very good style but yes, he was. He and Conan Doyle were first cousins. We are such complex creatures that psychology really doesn’t go very deeply into us. One of the aims of the artist is to make the object blush, whether it is a human being or a tree or whatever is being described. You have to describe it in such a way, in such detail, with such concentration, that the thing which didn’t expect to be concentrated on at this level begins to blush. When we blush, or when the object blushes, it is at its most vulnerable but it is also at its most sensitive and it gives up something of itself that otherwise would be held inside. So I think that is the chief aim of the kind of art I do, to make the world blush.
CB: The first one of your books that won a prize was Birchwood in which you threw yourself into Ireland, its politics, its violence. But it is also a book with a sense of the carnivalesque. There is even an act of spontaneous combustion.
JB: Well, there was a case of it in Dublin. In fact I came across the cutting from the Irish Times the other day. An old lady was watching television when she blew up and all that was left were her boots, button boots. She was an old-fashioned lady and there was the armchair and this charred thing, the boots and also the screen. The television had melted but otherwise the room was unharmed, though with a certain amount of soot around.
CB: So not Dickens.
JB: I didn’t even know there was combustion in Dickens, not until afterwards when people started asking me about it.
CB: Is it right that after you had published that book you had a moment of pause as to whether to go on or not?
JB: Yes, I was going to give up fiction. I was going to do something else and I started to write a book about the Norman invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century but somehow that changed, by a process that I don’t understand and don’t remember, into a book about Copernicus. Fiction’s a very funny business, but I did the Copernicus book because I felt that Birchwood was my Irish book and I wanted to get away. I thought, what can I do? I can’t keep writing Irish books for the rest of my life and also I wanted to be a great European novelist who was up there with Thomas Mann and so on. I was very young.
CB: You wrote a novel about Copernicus and one about Kepler.
JB: When I finished Copernicus I thought, my God, I will never do this kind of thing again because I was half way through Copernicus before I realised it would be regarded as a historical novel. I didn’t want to do that at all. I had wasted so much time reading the background to it but then when I finished it I looked again at the life of Kepler and I couldn’t resist it because he is such an attractive character. So I was stuck with doing Kepler. Looking back now I suspect that it was probably a wrong direction but we take the directions we take. There is no point in saying this is right or this is wrong, but I think I wasted a certain number of years. I became fascinated by fact and all novelists want to be factual.
CB: Is there a sense in which you were interested in whether science can get closer to reality, to truth, than fiction?
JB: No, I know what you mean but I think it was the opposite. I think it was that I realised in the little bit of reading that I had done about the early astronomers, and then about modern physics, that science and art came from the same source, that it is the same creative spark for science and for art. Once it has been made it becomes entirely different. Science has a rigour, or it claims to have a rigour, that art has not, but I think it is the same process and the same desire. The desire of the scientist is to impose a system on the world and I think the same is true of art.
CB: You have said that it wasn’t the exotic you were after but the ordinary. That seems to me a key to your work, that interest that you referred to earlier in the surface of things as they present themselves to you.
JB: I think that would be true of all artists. We have nothing other than the ordinary. The transcendent we may aspire to but all we have is the rather confused and grubby world that we live in, which is also transcendently beautiful, of course, but I don’t know what else one could write about except the ordinary. Artists get carried away with themselves and think that they are part of a priesthood aiming for something beyond life, but we are not. I, at least, am trying to describe this world and what it is like to be here, the sense of being alive, this very, very strange phenomenon. I never ever get used to being alive. I never get used to being on this earth. I look at the sky and think, I am standing here on this ball rolling through space and I am looking up into space. I never ever get used to it. It just seems too baffling. I suppose that is the reason I keep plugging away trying to describe it as accurately as I can, the experience of being here.
CB: You have a fascination with words. Of course all writers do, but you have a special fascination with words. You like words which are not part of the common vocabulary but which have a kind of glow to them which people, when they read, do not necessarily understand.
JB: Well, I try to be accurate. I don’t use words like screwdriver and marmalade lightly. I try to be as accurate as I can. The English language is so rich, so phenomenally rich. There is a word for everything. I discovered one day in the dictionary that when you get up in the morning and stretch and yawn there is a word for that, though not a word that trips lightly off the pen. It is pandiculation, so when you get up tomorrow morning and you stretch and yawn you will be pandiculating. The ingenuity of human beings in inventing a word for stretching and yawning is what fascinates me about language.
CB: Can you recapture for us the moment when you decided to write under the name of Benjamin Black, because you write in a different way in the Benjamin Black books?
JB: I was driving from my home to the city and about half way in it suddenly struck me that I had a television script that wasn’t going to be filmed and I thought, I know what I will do. I will turn it into a novel. I had been reading George Simenon for the first time. I hadn’t read him before and I was absolutely bowled over by what he achieved in what he called his hard novels, not the Maigret books, which I have never succeeded in finishing. His hard novels are astonishing. At the time it seemed a little adventure, a little frolic that I was going off on, but, looking back, I think it was more than that. I think I needed to take a different direction and give myself a kick, and it has been a fascinating adventure. It may not succeed, I don’t know, and maybe I will make a fool of myself, but one does what one does.
CB: But you write them differently. You write more words a day as Benjamin Black than you ever would as John Banville.
JB: Oh yes. I write them very quickly indeed. I write a Benjamin Black novel in three or four months. A Banville novel would take three, four, five years. It is an entirely different process. I don’t know why crime writers get so annoyed with me when I say that because Simenon used to do his books in a couple of weeks. It is just a different way of doing things. It is analogous to writing film scripts. If I could type fast enough I could do a film script in real time. I could write a film script in an hour and a half because I would roll it in my head. It is somewhat the same with these books. I see it in my head and I write down what I see. I stop myself from getting interested in sentences and I say, keep on, keep on, keep on, because I am trying for spontaneity and fluency and fluidity. That is what Black does best.
CB: Why do you set those novels in the nineteen fifties?
JB: I had set the television script in the nineteen fifties and as I wrote that novel, and subsequent novels, I realised that the fifties were an absolutely perfect time for noire fiction, especially the fifties in Ireland. It was such a dark time. It was a stricken time, both financially and spiritually. It was stricken, rife with dark and dirty secrets. There was lots of fog, lots of cigarette smoke, gallons of drink.
CB: You have said that you find it difficult to read aloud from a Benjamin Black novel.
JB: I can’t find a voice for Black. I find it very hard to read these books in public. I don’t know why. It is like trying to find a place to stand on. I can’t find a solid place.
CB: But surely the voice is in the prose. It is on the page, isn’t it?
JB: Yes, it is, but whenever you read in public you have to perform. When someone asked Philip Larkin why he wouldn’t do poetry readings he said he wasn’t prepared to go around the country pretending to be himself. When you do a reading first of all you have to overcome the shyness. We are all afflicted by shyness to a greater or lesser degree. Yeats’s wife said about him that he was terribly shy but he developed a patter, and that is what one does. For reading in public one develops a voice and I haven’t developed a voice for Benjamin Black and I don’t think I will because I can’t think what it would be. Would I put on a different accent? I don’t know.
CB: When you are writing a John Banville novel do you know the whole thing before you start or does the writing generate the novel, as opposed to a Benjamin Black novel where presumably, as crime fiction, you almost have to write backwards, to know where you are going?
JB: Yes, that’s true. I would have to have the plot of a Benjamin Black novel much more clearly before I started. I would have a general outline of the plot I suppose for a Banville book but the thing about Banville books is that one has to let things happen, one has to allow instinct to have its way when it is very strong. One of the things I notice about writing crime fiction is that it is very difficult to be humorous. It is very difficult to be ironic. The form somehow won’t allow for that. The people who do try to be funny, Raymond Chandler and others, can be witty but they can’t be funny. I can’t imagine laughing out loud in a detective novel. As I say, I have no explanation for that. It is just entirely different. For me, there is good writing and bad writing, but it is certainly an entirely different way of working, an entirely different voice.
CB: Were you tempted to hide behind the pseudonym, and try to keep it secret?
JB: No, from the start I intended that it would be an open secret. I simply took a pseudonym to let my readers know that this was something different that I was doing, that I was going in a different direction. I didn’t want people to be cudgelling their brain and saying that this was obviously a postmodernist literary joke. I wanted people to realise that this was straightforward so, to be helpful, and to be playful I suppose, I chose a pseudonym. But no, I didn’t want to conceal myself. It would have come out. Nowadays with Google and the internet nobody has any secrets any more.
CB: What is the difference between allowing instinct to have its way as against a closely plotted book like a Benjamin Black novel?
JB: It is all very well for me to say I don’t believe in genre but these are entirely different kinds of books so if they are not genre, what are they? It is just that I think the reason I am against using the word genre, or the notion of genre, is that it somehow implies that these are lesser works than the Banville books. They may be lesser works, I don’t know, but they are different. There is a lovely marginal note in one of Darwin’s notebooks when he just says, never say higher or lower, and I like that. It is one of the things that endears Darwin to me and I try, with these, not to say higher or lower. They are different kinds of work. Benjamin Black is a craftsman. Banville is an artist. I like being Black much more than I like being Banville. It is much easier apart from anything else. I didn’t say that. Crime writers will be out to tear my heart out if I say things like that.
CB: You said of Banville’s novels that they fail and that the aim is to fail better next time. Do you feel the same way about a Benjamin Black book?
JB: No, I don’t. That is the odd thing. I don’t. When I have finished a Benjamin Black book I feel as I think a craftsman would feel when he has done a fine piece of work, a beautifully carpentered and polished table, a wonderfully comfortable elegant armchair. It is a pleasant sensation. I get satisfaction from that. Banville books seem to me such messes. By the time I have finished them they infuriate me, they niggle at me. That is why I have to immediately go on and write another one. Somebody once asked Iris Murdoch why did she write so many books and she said I keep thinking the new one will exonerate me for all the ones that have gone before. I know exactly what she meant.
CB: In The Infinities how do you persuade the readers to believe in what is a fantastical world?
JB: The world that is presented in the most straightforward and supposedly realistic novel is nothing like life. We all know that. Life is not as fiction is but the desire of the reader to suspend disbelief is very strong indeed. We all want to be told a story and we all want to believe in it. We most probably don’t grow up at all. We think we do but we just get older and we are still children wanting to be told a story so it is not difficult to foist an entirely invented world on an audience because the world that I present to them in my so-called straightforward novels is just as fantastical as the world in The Infinities. You can start speaking as a God in a novel and they would believe in it, and I supposed I believe in it too.
CB: And alternative universes.
JB: I have just been reading Stephen Hawking’s latest book where he is talking about manipulating the infinities, just as I did in my book, so I was there before Hawking. We live in a fantastical world. We see a very tiny spectrum of reality. Dogs and cats see far more than we do. We can’t see x-rays. We can’t see neutrinos. We express the thoughts we have with the words we have to express them and we see the world according to the rules that will fit the world we see. As we sit here neutrinos are shooting through us and going out the other side of the world in a nanosecond. This is happening to us as we sit here but we have no experience of them so it is a very narrow band.
CB: You have said that you don’t like the form of the novel. Why not be a poet?
JB: I couldn’t write poetry. The technique of poetry baffles me. It is almost as baffling to me as music. My old friend John McGahern used to say that there is verse and there is prose and then there is poetry, and poetry can happen in either though it happens far more often in prose than it does in verse. I think to some extent he is right. Poetry is something that is beyond the form. I think of myself really not so much as a novelist as some kind of poet. I don’t like to say that because it puts people off and of course I am a novelist. I am stuck with the novel form which, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful form as well. It can encompass all the mess and confusion and loveliness of life. It is an extraordinary form to work in so I have I suppose a love hate relationship with it. When I was an adolescent, of course, I wrote poems. We all did when we were adolescents. I destroyed those too I can tell you.
Extract from Writers in Conversation Volume 3, Published in 2011 by Unthank Books.