John Banville is one of the finest prose stylists alive and at work in the English language. Born in Wexford in 1945, his novels include The Newton Letter, The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable. In 2005, he won the Booker Prize for The Sea. His fifteenth novel, Ancient Light, is as arch as anything he’s ever written. And although there are only so many winks a writer can throw his readers before he is actually just closing his eyes, this would not seem to be a problem for Banville, since he describes the act of writing as ‘a process of dreaming’.
In interview, Banville is prone to return to many of the well-turned answers he has offered elsewhere, as is to be expected of somebody who has been asked to speak profoundly at all times since the 1970s. When asked a question he has not answered before, he employs a technique known to all successful Leaving Certificate oral examination candidates and steers you back to his comfort zone of stock, memorised answers. But memory changes, thankfully; and many of the responses below are new or almost new. The inaccuracy of memory is itself a major theme in much of Banville’s work, including Ancient Light, whose aging protagonist, Alexander Cleave, attempts to come to terms with the affair he embarked upon at the age of 15 with his best friend’s mother. Sons, lock up your mothers.
Ancient Light is the third book in a trilogy. Did you have to go back and read Eclipse and Shroud before you began writing?
It’s not really a trilogy. I mean it could be considered that way, but I didn’t intend it that way. In fact, it’s funny because now that you’ve said it it’s the first time I’ve thought of it as part of a trilogy I’ve built in the references to previous books as a kind of game with myself, but it’s certainly not necessary to have read the previous two books. Of course, it would be nice if people did go back and read them, but this is a stand-alone book. Myself, no – I couldn’t read my past work anyway. That’s why I keep making mistakes, forgetting things and getting the colours of people’s eyes wrong. No, I couldn’t go back and reread. Fiction is fiction anyway – it’s not like writing history. I’m not that interested in accuracy.
That’s appropriate, given that the unreliability of memory is one of Ancient Light’s central themes.
Well, yes – I’ve become more and more convinced that we don’t actually remember things as they actually happened. We make models of things which we carry into the future and which account for the fact that, when we return to a place or meet a person we once knew, the place or the person is different – not entirely different, of course, but in strange ways. Rooms have moved around, the colour of their eyes has changed. It’s because we don’t actually remember these things. The brain is constantly modeling what it scans. That’s what memory is – a series of models.
The ineluctable modality of the past?
Is it the most Banvillian novel you’ve ever written?
Ha, ha. All my novels are Banvillian novels. They have to be. I can’t write them in anybody else’s voice. They all seem of a piece, part of one large volume somebody will perhaps bind into an enormous doorstopper after I’ve gone. There is continuity between them all, even though some of them are very different. That’s inevitable, since when I finish one book I’m starting another. I couldn’t have a gap.
There are so many figures in Ancient Light, and still more names than that. When it comes down to it, though, there seems to me to be no more than two or three essential identities at play. Do you have to map something like that out before you start writing?
No. I used to do a lot of planning when I was a young man. When I wrote the first line, I would know what my last line was going to be. But it’s much looser now. I trust my instincts. I let the thing drift. In my early days, writing was a process of thinking; now it’s a process of dreaming. And I think it’s good to follow one’s instincts, to let unexpected things happen. It gives spontaneity and lightness to the page.
Your characters spend a lot of time in the half-space of guesthouses. What is role does the guesthouse play in your fiction?
I hadn’t been conscious of that, to be honest. This is the great thing about doing interviews; you always learn something new. I was certainly conscious of the fact that all my novels seem to be set in particular houses. The house seems to be a very important symbol for me – I use the word ‘symbol’ with caution. I don’t pretend to understand it. This is another thing about getting old: one imagines that one would become wiser, but one actually becomes more confused. That’s okay, though. Confusion is a good thing for a writer.
On the subject of the guesthouse –
You’re not going to let this thing go, are you?
Not yet, no. Can I ask when you began writing The Sea?
I suppose it was around 2001.
It’s just that Vertigo by W.G. Sebald, a novel about memory by a writer you admire, was translated in 2002. The protagonist of that book, clearly based on the author, stays in a guesthouse, which decades before had his family home and where many of the significant events in his childhood occurred. Meanwhile, The Sea’s protagonist stays in a guesthouse, which decades before had been the summer-home of childhood friends and where many of the significant events of the protagonist’s childhood occurred. W.G. Sebald did not like his first name, Winfriend. Instead, his asked that his friends call him Max. And, of course, the protagonist of The Sea is called Max. Is there any connection?
Ha. You should be a detective. I can’t remember when I read Vertigo. It would have been after The Sea, I think. There’s a very curious thing about one of Sebald’s books. The narrator is in Ireland, where he stays in a guesthouse, a rather ghostly place run by an Anglo-Irish woman. There are a couple of lines in it that quoted directly from The Book of Evidence. It’s very odd. I had a very strange sensation when I came across that. But with writers, you know, we – there’s stuff in the atmosphere that we don’t know about. It drifts in and out of our minds. I certainly wasn’t making any reference to Vertigo, but things imprint themselves in the mind. One keeps things that one doesn’t realise one is remembering. I’m not even sure ‘remembering’ is the right word for it. But if I had taken stuff from Vertigo, I would be perfectly willing to admit it.
‘How fragile is this absurd trade,’ your narrator writes, ‘in which I have spent my life pretending to be other people, and above all pretending not to be myself.’ Have you considered doing any further not-pretending to be yourself, doing memoir or perhaps more travel writing?
In that sort of book, I think one is pretending even more than in fiction. In fiction one is presenting one’s naked self. I remember meeting a friend of mine on the publication day of one of my previous novels. ‘You’re looking a bit grey in the face’, she said. ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘It’s publication day,’ I said. ‘I feel as though I’m walking down the street naked.’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘and carrying your X-ray plates under your arm.’ Fiction is an X-ray of the self, whereas travel writing and memoir are both marvelous masks. I do have a plan to write an autobiography, though – of course I shouldn’t be telling you this, because it’s no good if it’s known – but to write an autobiography in which everything would be slightly false. Instead of a brother and a sister, I would have two brothers. Instead of being born in Wexford I’d be born in New Ross. Upon publication, I would insist that it was all true.
On the subject of non-fiction, is there any chance you could be convinced to put out a selection of your essays?
No. Because I don’t write essays; I write book reviews. If I were an essayist or a critic, then I would publish books of essays and criticism. But I’m a book reviewer, and book reviews are not meant to be preserved. They’re meant for the day.
You’ve spoken of having changed your mind about books you’ve reviewed in the past.
Well, I don’t often do it. But, yes – sometimes. The thing about reviewing is that you’re reading a book that nobody else has read, so you can’t talk about it to other people because they haven’t read it. It’s a purely subjective, individual judgment you’re making about a book. Afterwards, when you look back on it, when you talk to other people and read other reviews, you think, ‘oh God I didn’t see this’, or ‘I was wrong about that’. I’m quite willing to admit I’ve made mistakes – in a positive way and in a negative way. I’ve written bad reviews of books, which I discovered later to have much more in them than I saw – and vice versa. One has to be open. It would be very foolish to be a book reviewer and have a closed mind.
Do any of these mistakes of yours appear now as blurbs other people’s books?
Probably. You have to keep in mind, though, that blurbs are favours one does for friends or praise for books one admires; they’re a way of encouraging people to read, a way of bringing a book to the attention of people. They don’t necessarily have to be an absolutely final decision on a book. I could give a blurb to a book and then think a year later that that I shouldn’t have. Or again, vice versa: I could end up thinking that I should have given a blurb when I was asked, but refused. One changes as life goes on; one changes one’s opinions. The worst thing to have would be a closed-mind. There are no books that I’ve given books to that I feel embarrassed about or ashamed about. And of course blurbs are always overstated. Wasn’t it Dave Eggers who called one of his own books A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or something like that? I thought was a very clever idea.
Do you still read newspaper reviews?
Not my own work, but of other people’s I do. I don’t keep up as I used to, mind you. I worked as books editor in the Irish Times for ten or eleven years; you get a bit jaded after that. I suppose I don’t take the newspapers as seriously as I used to either, which is sad. I don’t have as much time. Time’s winged chariot is behind me, flapping its wings faster and faster. But I do think reviews are important. I still do a lot of them myself and will continue to do so. Reviewing serves a public function. It brings good new work to the attention of people who might not have noticed it otherwise. It is a very worthwhile trade and I take great satisfaction from my reviewing – far more than I do from writing my books.
Do you actually read fewer novels these days?
Again, that is the effect of age. As one ages, one reads fewer novels. It’s a well known phenomenon. I don’t know why it is. Nobody quite understands it. But what fiction offers is something I don’t seem to need as much as I used to. I’m fascinated to read history now. For instance, I’ve just discovered recently the essays of the great historian, Hugh-Trevor Roper. Those are beautifully written. I’d give three bad novels for one of his essays. There is a lot to be read besides fiction – psychology, poetry, philosophy, letters. On the other hand, I just finished reading Richard Ford’s latest book Canada, which was absolutely masterly. I would be very sorry not have read that.
You mention philosophy. Of course, Axel Vander is based on a number of theorists. Do you – or have you ever – had much time for critical theory?
No. Of course, I was mesmerized when I was young – as we all were – by structuralism, by this-ism and that-ism. Now I’m not. I mean, I think literary theory is useful for literary critics. It’s a useful tool for approaching imaginative work, but I think it’s very dangerous for a writer to dabble too much in theory.
There’s a note in the second volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries in which she writes about having to reduce her reading in order to write more. Do you find it difficult to strike a balance between reading and writing?
Oh, yes. There were writers I couldn’t read when I was writing. I couldn’t red Henry James. I couldn’t read Yeats. I couldn’t read Nabokov. I couldn’t read Beckett. I couldn’t read them because their voices would have gotten into my head, slid down my arm and come out the end of the pen. One has to beware very much of influences. One has to beware of the people one admires. I started rereading Nabokov recently. Of course, he’s not as good as I thought he was (that always happens), but I can see how one could end up taking over that tone very easily. The greater the stylist, the easier it is to parrot his style.
But what about in terms of time?
No. Reading is always secondary to writing. I keep office hours, I work from nine to six. I take a very short break in the middle of the day. I do that five days a week. I read on trains. I read sitting on the lavatory. And I read at night after I’ve had two or three glasses of wine – one eye open, one eye shut. I read when I can. And it’s amazing how much reading you can get done. John McGahern used to always say it’s really not asking too much of oneself to read for three hours a day. I think that’s true, but life has distractions – and more and more distractions accumulate. I still love reading, though. It’s still one of the greatest pleasures in life.
Illustration by Fuchsia Macaree.