This week we keep the introductory prattle to a bare minimum, except to say that Part Two is dedicated almost in its entirety to a discussion of Banville's Booker Prize nominated novel The Sea. (It's not available in the US until March but you can buy it now from Amazon UK - see the rare Amazon link under the recommended sidebar at right.)
TEV: Which seems like an ideal segue to talk a bit about The Sea. I remember an interview with you I'd heard as you'd just begun The Sea, or were contemplating it, and you anticipated the book would be a change of tone, a bit more idyllic, perhaps, in a gentler key with nostalgia for childhood but that it would invariably go all dark by the end. Which seems to have happened. I wonder how much of that might is self-fulfilling prophecy?
JB: (laughs) Well, I'll tell you the process by which it happened. I set out to write that kind of book – a very simple account of childhood by the seaside. I knew it wouldn't be that simple but that's what I hoped was going to be. There would be no narrator in the present. There would be an "I" saying "I did this" and "I did that" but the action would all be in the past. But it wouldn't work. It just would not work. I couldn't do it. I don't know why. It just would not … the chemistry was not … And then, suddenly, this narrator began to speak - in grief, as usual - and I suspect he's my link. I think this is a transition book. After Shroud, people used to ask me … I remember a question and answer session just after some reading, a woman in the front row – I'd seen her watching me through it darkly and I knew she was there to get me – said "When are you going to stop writing about these awful men killing women?" And I said, "Look, I'm like Bart Simpson, at the start of The Simpsons, writing on the blackboard – I must get this right, I must get this right. When I get it right, I'll stop doing it." And I felt that in Shroud – dark and terrible as that book is – I felt I had got it right. For myself, that is - I'm not making a judgment, it's not my place to make a judgment on the quality of the book. But for me, this was … I had finally fixed it. So I had to move on. But of course, as always in works of art – and it is a work of art, again whether it's a good or bad work of art, whether it's a successful or a failed work of art is not for me to say - but things happened that I didn't expect.
TEV: For example?
JB: Well, I didn't expect the narrator to come in. I didn't expect that he would have lost his wife. This was all new to me. In fact, when that happened, I saw the direction in which it should go. And so suddenly the thing began to move and after that it only took about a year to write.
TEV: Wow …
JB: But I mean, I'd been working on it for two years before that.
TEV: And you'd been thinking about it. I'd seen the interviews where you discussed it. I heard an interview that you did with Michael Silverblatt who does a KCRW radio program in Los Angeles called Bookworm –
JB: Oh yes.
TEV: He was in Dublin for the Bloomsday celebrations.
JB: Yes, that's right.
TEV: I get a sense from the interviews I've read that you're a bit wary of one reading too much into things in your fiction. He asked you about the broken vase and what that represented, and you sort of suggested that it represented a broken vase.
JB: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
TEV: And it's just a minor thing, but I do notice a recurrence of names in your books. The one that caught me in The Sea is Morden because that ties back to Athena.
JB: You see, I've got so old now that I'm probably forgetting that I used it before. (laughs) No, it wasn't conscious. I like the name Morden. There's something about it – it seems a perfect Banville name –
TEV: There's Mordred and death connotations –
JB: Yeah. Where "Max" came from, I don't know.
TEV: And obviously, he's not remotely the same character but your fiction is very allusive –
JB: Well, names are terribly important. They are talismans. They are emblems that you can build around. I don't know why. It's kind of magical.
TEV: I've always felt these names like Maskell and Querrell speak volumes before you even meet the character. And Rose, I noted, went back to Birchwood …
JB: My God, I'd forgotten.
TEV: The obsessive reader is coming out. I apologize for that …
JB: Don't apologize, I'm flattered.
TEV: I'd like to think I know enough not to place the author too much into his work, or to confuse the character with its creator, but this book has the strong … stirrings of direct experience.
JB: Yes, absolutely. The childhood scenes are obviously based on my own … we used to spend our summers in Rosslare Strand, which is about fourteen miles south of Wexford. We would spend pretty well the whole summer there. A bit wild, I mean, we were like wild animals … We never bathed, we just swam in the sea all day … I don't think I ever put shoes on until the time I would leave. This is one of the things I wanted to do in the book - I mean obviously, it's blindingly obvious that having done Shroud, I would say, "Right, let's go right back and find something pure and fresh and vivid. And what could be purer and fresher and more vivid than childhood? I mean, one fell in love, or started falling in love, at the age of nine. No sex. We wouldn't have known what to do. But it was so intense …
TEV: Overwhelming sometimes.
JB: Yeah. I mean, I had a girlfriend, she used to come and stay at Rosslare Strand from her home in Liverpool. She'd come with her family. In fact, she stayed in a house that was very near the house that The Cedars is modeled on in The Sea, which is a house I used to go to with a friend of mine. So I've kind of conflated the two. But she would come every summer and we were just crazy about each other from the age of nine or ten. But we agreed that we would have an open relationship. (laughs)
TEV: Very worldly of you.
JB: Because we only saw each other for about three or four weeks every year, and when we were separated we would write these long letters in pink envelopes with S.W.A.L.K - "sealed with a loving kiss" - written on the back of them. And we would see each other every summer … my goodness, up the age of seventeen. And, of course, around the fifteen/sixteen years, I would see her coming across the field, and my eyes would pop out on stalks … My God, this beautiful creature! And I often think that was one of the most formative relationships of my life. There was no … I don't know what to say, I suppose we … I mean, how would you describe what people have at that age? It's not love as we understand it but yet it's something …
TEV: Well, it's the first time you experience that sort of connection with another person.
JB: And then in The Sea I go and sully it all by looking up the leg of the mother … horrid minded creature that I am. But you know, that, very simply, is what I was setting out to do – to catch, to mine … that's the wrong word … to harness, in the way that Ben Franklin harnessed lighting, to catch that flash. But, of course, the reason it wouldn't work was that it wasn't enough. We don't live in the past.
TEV: Some years ago, you cited a passage in The Book of Evidence as being the closest one could come to actually finding your own voice in your fiction:
I have never really got used to being on this earth. Sometimes I think our presence here is due to a cosmic blunder, that we were meant for another planet altogether, with other arrangements, and other laws, and other, grimmer skies. I try to imagine it, our true place, off on the far side of the galaxy, whirling and whirling. And the ones who were meant for her, are they out there, baffled and homesick, like us? No, the would have become extinct long ago. How could they survive, these gentle earthlings, in a world that was made to contain us.
TEV: (cont'd) Has that changed at all now with The Sea?
JB: No, no. I mean, I stick to that. That is the only time I have said this what I think and this is what I feel. And I do. I think this is what drives people to make art or do whatever they do – a sense of not being at home in the world. You know, people accuse me of writing grotesque, gothic fiction … dark, unreal. About ten years ago I was driving through Dublin on the day after Christmas Day, which in Ireland is one huge hangover, you don't see anyone in the streets. And I was driving along Pearse Street, which is a long, long, long wide boulevard. I was the only car driving. Nobody on the street – except at the street corner … three albino men, deep in conversation. Now, if I put that in a book, they'd say, "Oh, there goes Banville again with his grotesque imagination." I slowed the car as I drove past, and thought what are they doing? Is it a convention? Is there an albino convention in town? No explanation whatsoever. I mean, that's the world. The court case, the actual murder that I based The Book of Evidence on, it actually happened, he was driving along, this poor woman in the back, bleeding, she wasn't dead, when an ambulance was overtaken and assumed he was a doctor taking this woman to a hospital and said, "Follow us." And he followed them. And he drove into the grounds of the hospital! But then obviously he said to himself, "What am I doing?" and did a U-turn and drove away with her.
TEV: When I was on the radio in L.A. a few months ago, I read that earlier excerpt from The Book of Evidence on the air but I'd originally thought of reading the murder of Josie Bell, which is one of the most disturbing and unsettling murders I've found in literature … but when I read it, I thought, I can't – this is too intense. Too emotional. I've had nightmares in which I've killed someone, accidentally usually, and it spins out of control with that same horrible inevitability of one thing leading to the next … just chilling.
JB: I had that dream last night. In it, I had killed someone very close to me. Jesus Christ! I woke up saying "John, what the hell is happening to you? Get a hold of yourself."
TEV: Wow. Well, it's a scene that has left it's mark on me.
JB: Well, it's a tough scene. Curiously easy to write.
TEV: Really? How surprising.
JB: (nods) How exquisite this food is … it's almost too good to eat …
TEV: And the presentation is just lovely … (TEV NOTE: In our pre-interview correspondence, we invited Banville out for a meal, assure him that since we were "foodies" he'd at minimum get a decent meal out of it. He responded at the time: "The fact that you're a foodie is music to my ears" and complained of eating on the road. Hence the inclusion of this culinary digression amid talk of murder.)
TEV:(cont'd) I While I was preparing for this interview, I came across an interview that contained a fact about you that I hadn't encountered elsewhere, which was that you wanted to be a painter first.
JB: Well, I started writing when I was about twelve. My brother, who is eight years older than I, was in Africa and he'd been sending me books every couple of weeks. And he sent me Dubliners. And I was bowled over by this because here was a book that wasn't about cowboys and Indians, or murder at the vicarage … It was about something else. So I started writing dreadful imitations of Dubliners. I threw them all away but I remember the opening sentence of one of them, which was something like: "The white May blossom swooned slowly into the open mouth of the grave." (laughs delightedly) I was a twelve year old. My God. Then, I kept at that for a few years, and then I decided I was going to be a painter. So I just decided I would be a painter, at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Bought some oil paints. Which are wonderful replacement toys … put aside the things of childhood for these new things of childhood. I had absolutely no gift whatsoever. Couldn't draw. No sense of color. These are distinct drawbacks of you want to be painter. And I plugged away at it for years, did these frightful daubs – I think my brother has some of them still. I have offered him good money for them so I could destroy them. But it did teach me about looking at things, looking at the world in a way that wasn't just linguistic.
TEV: Well, once I'd learned that about you, books like Athena and Ghosts – into which painting features so heavily – took on a considerably different cast for me. And now, in The Sea, you have the presence of Bonnard … and Poussin in The Untouchable … and I was fascinated by inclusion of painting and the return to the painter in The Sea.
JB: You see, in a way, all art is just evidence. It's what I see … it's surface. I can't know anything about anybody else. I can only know me. Not much of that either … I can't even write from inside. I mean, it's the surface of things that interests me. I don't like psychology. When I hear the word "psychology" in terms of a novel, I reach for my revolver. I was talking to a young novelist and she said, "Henry James, he's my favorite-est of all!" Me too - Henry James is (one of) my favorite-est of all but I regard James' books as great almost despite himself. Because I think that while he is fascinated by human emotions and human motivations, the books somehow drift free of all that. They become these glazed, transcendent objects … That sounds as if I've saying I like dead things, which I don't at all.
TEV: It does seem as there's almost something paradoxical at work, though? Your books take place in the interior landscapes of these men narrating these stories, even as you say you're not writing psychological fiction per se … but you're surely deep inside their thoughts. And beneath the surface.
JB: Well, what they're doing is they're talking about things. It isn’t that they talk about themselves. They're talking about things. And they're completely baffled. I realized the other day that I've been through the astonished/baffled/amazed/puzzled parts of the thesaurus so many times, and they're getting worn away. I'm going to have to invent some new words for it. But this is the main … my narrators just cannot understand. And they have this conviction that other people do. And that there's a huge secret that everyone else knows but they don't. And that must be something that I feel myself, as a human being, distinct from a writer. I must feel this bafflement. I sometimes wonder if the artist is slightly autistic. You know? A terrible, terrible thing from years ago … When my wife and I were married first, and we were having a dreadful row about something, as people do when they're first married, and my wife is quite brilliantly articulate, and she made this passionate statement about whatever it was we were fighting about. And I sat there watching her, and I made the mistake of saying "Do you mind if I use that?" And she said, "Oh you monster, you monster!" (laughs) There is something monstrous about being an artist. And I think it makes people careful. Sometimes, if I'm at a dinner party and someone's animatedly talking about something, and they catch my eye, I see them thinking, "He's going to use this." But I don't consciously do it.
TEV: An occupational hazard when a writer is in the room …
JB: Well, I'm sure you know this very well, but the trouble about interviews is that one talks and talks and talks, but the simple springs of art are very hard to identify. Because they are very simple. I mean, when I sit down to write a book, first of all I want to get rid of this problem in my head. I have a friend who is a composer who put it beautifully: "I have this scream in my head and I have to get it onto paper." But that's one of the mainsprings of art – getting rid of this problem. But getting rid of it in a completely burnished, transcendent form. People are shocked when they ask me about how do I regard an audience? And I will say, I don't ever think about an audience. I couldn't. No writer - no artist – thinks about an audience. They could not. And I say that I realize that when I've published a book, if it's bought by 10,000 people, there will be 10,000 versions of that book. It's no longer mine. It struck me recently – it's a perfectly self-evident thing but it had never struck me before – the only person in the world who cannot read The Sea is me. Everybody else in the world can read it. All, however many billions of people there are. I can't. My wife says, "Yes, include me as well. I read so many versions of the bloody thing." (laughs)
TEV: Well, it's funny, because I confess I had this moment preparing for this interview of feeling rather intimidated. I mean, I've read pretty much all of your fiction that I can get my hands on. I've also read the criticism written about your work. And I've read most of the criticism you've written. And I said to my mother last night that I feel utterly unqualified to conduct this interview. But I think part of it is due to my trying to understand my responses to your work, and wondering if they are, in effect, "the correct response" before realizing in essence that it's actually not your book any more. It's mine now. I bought it, fair and square.
JB: Well, the difficulty you're having is, it's like when you're very drunk and you see two of everything, and trying to get those two images lined up. There's the image that you had of me … it's a difficult thing to do. It's like that awful moment when you fall in love with somebody and you say, "Let's meet for dinner on Wednesday night." When you wait at the restaurant, and you think "I'm not going to recognize her." Of course, when she comes along, it's immediate. Strange thing.
TEV: Let me jump back to my notes, there are so many things I want to get to. Another thing that struck me about The Sea – and one always wonders how much one is bringing one's own reading to things - but it does seem like there is something … emotionally rawer … tougher … Max seems to be less gilded in his reflections than, say, an Alexander Cleave or any of his predecessors. There is a more brute –
JB: People tell me that. I don't see it. I'm not saying it's not there. I'm just saying I don't see it. It seems the same old stuff I've always written about … He is monstrous. I mean, he's monstrously awful to his daughter. But I suppose he is rawer because he's grieving. He doesn't know what to do with himself. He doesn't know how to grieve.
TEV: There's a rare explosion of rage in the last half of the book that I don't immediately have a memory of having seen anything similar in your work prior, something where that anger, that rage is expressed that –
(From The Sea: You cunt, you fucking cunt, how could you go and leave me like this, floundering in my own foulness, with no one to save me from myself. How could you.)
JB: The people that first read it, the people around me, that was one of the things that they said – this is such an angry book. (shrugs) All right. Again, you know, I literally can't comment because I wasn't aware of any personal anger.
TEV: I wouldn't say it's an angry book but Max expresses anger in way that –
JB: Yes, my first readers were agreeing with you that these outbursts of rage, these resentments … that the other narrators, I suppose, are more stoical. They say "Everything is dreadful but I'm way above it so it doesn't affect me."
TEV: And I'm above it was style.
JB: Yes. But Max is caught with these people whom the likes of Alex Cleave or Maskell or Axel Vander would never have dealt with for long. People like the Colonel and Miss Vavasour –
TEV: Which is a great name, by the way.
JB: That's another good one, isn't it? Common in Ireland, actually. But Max has to deal with them. I think my favorite moment in the book is when the colonel gives him the fountain pen at the end. A little present. And of course Max doesn't know what to do with this act of simple generosity and warmth. But you know Max is moved, despite the fact that he's trying not to be. So I suppose that's a new thing … kindness and decency are creeping in. This will never do. I'll have to work on this.