Well, there's nothing like being named to the shortlist for the Booker Prize to get our lazy duffs into gear, especially before everyone gets their John Banville profiles to press. So we've begun a methodical transcription of our interview with John Banville but due to the length we've decided to break it down into four parts. Each part will post on Mondays and should just about take us up to the Booker announcement.
What we're not going to do with this interview: Try to write an overview of Banville and his career. There are plenty of others who have done this much better than we can, and we urge you to check them out. A proper bibliography is planned to follow the last installment, but beyond that we intend to let the words speak for themselves.
What we will tell you is that Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland in 1945. He made his debut with the collection Long Lankin (1970). His latest novel, The Sea, marks his second visit to the Booker shortlist (and we were incorrect in our earlier assertion that Shroud make the 2001 longlist; it was, we now believe, the IMPAC longlist).
Contrary to popular rumor, "The Banville Variation" was never the working title of this blog.
Now, to set the scene. We travelled to New York back in May to hear Banville read at Three Lives Bookstore as part of the New York Review of Books reissue series. Careful TEV readers will recall that MOTEV's cell phone disturbed the proceedings not once but twice. Fast forward to the following afternoon, as we're waiting for Banville to arrive at Bouley Restaurant. Our 12:30 appointment came and went, and as 12:45 approached and the seat opposite us remained empty, we became convinced that this was retribution for MOTEV's cell mishaps. As we were mentally composing the "Banville stood us up" post, he arrived, apologetic and blaming the traffic - which was to afflict us again before the day was over.
Polite, ice-breaking small talk ensued, beginning with food and foodies, touching on Paris restaurants in general and Taillevent (where Banville spent his honorarium for an interview with Cartier-Bresson) in particular. Our scribbled notes from this point reveal "I am sitting at lunch with John Banville!!" A much needed bottle of Sancerre was ordered (to our question as to whether it was too early, Banville grinned and said, "Oh, it's never too early.") Banville seemed fascinated by what he called the "democratizing" aspect of blogs - to which he'd previously had no exposure whatsoever - and was full of questions, and this was where we turned on the tape recorder and got to business:
JB: I mean, as I say, I'm fascinated by the fact that obviously there was this great need there all along but people didn't really know about it. I mean, I suppose the nearest one would have gotten to it pre-computer was these reading clubs … the reading circles … book groups. But I'm amazed when you say that you get thousands of people a day.
TEV: And there are sites that have been around longer than mine and have considerably larger readerships.
JB: So the publishers must be thrilled with this.
TEV: There's a generational component. The younger, more computer savvy publicists and editors have embraced it in a way that the old guard hasn't quite managed.
JB: What about the newspapers? Is there any jealousy?
TEV: Oh no. I mean, they can be critical but blogs have been written up everywhere … in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph. The Scotsman was one of the earliest to take note. I know that my mention in the Guardian helped me when I contacted your UK publicists to get a copy of The Sea.
JB: And do you have advertising?
TEV: I don't. Some blogs do.
JB: So this is philanthropic?
TEV: Well, that sounds a bit grand, but it's a labor of love, certainly. Every blogger is different – I don't want the difficulty of managing that side of it. So, what I wanted to do with you and I hope you'll bear with me and not find it too tedious, is talk a little bit about the New York Review, because obviously, that's why you're here. And I'd like to talk about The Sea. And then, in as much as you're comfortable, I'd like to talk about your body in work. Years ago I read an interview with John Lennon, and one of the things they did was to ask him about every Beatles song he'd written. And he offered a sentence or two reflection on each, and I found that terribly interesting. So one of the things I'll do is put this entire interview on my site, and each of the titles will be linked to purchase point, so readers have a chance to get the know them all.
JB: Fire away.
TEV: Great. Let's start with the New York Review of Books series. How did you come to be associated with that? I know you've been a longtime reviewer for them.
JB: They wrote to ask me to do an introduction for the one I read from last night, J.G. Farrell's The Troubles. They knew of me because of the review and I was happy to do it. You see, you see very few of those [New York Review of Books reissues] in Europe because those books are still in print … The Troubles is still in print in Europe, so we wouldn't see the New York Review edition. But the few that I saw, I thought were wonderful. Very handsome books, very well done. So I was happy to do it. And then, Edwin Frank, who runs the thing, asked me if I would recommend some, and I was perfectly happy to recommend things to them, and it became a sort of game, thinking of obscure books that might be out of print. And then I made wonderful discoveries. I discovered Simenon through them. I had never read Simenon in my life.
TEV: You reviewed that for the New Republic.
JB: Yes. And I was just bowled over when I read these three books. I was fascinated to see what could be done with that form.
TEV: So you weren't recommending exclusively Irish books?
JB: No, no. And then I did an introduction to the book of von Hofmannstahl's, the Chandos Letter –
TEV: - which informs The Newton Letter –
JB: Yes. This is the complete text, very few people have read. (thinks for a moment) I don't know quite how to put it. When I was at the Irish Times as literary editor, I felt that I had only one duty, which was to get people to read good books. Nothing else. Nothing else mattered. Everybody assumed that I had all kinds of agendas, that I was trying to get people, that I was trying to promote my friends … It's all nonsense. You don't work that way. I used to say to people, "Do you really think I have time to worry about you, and whether I should be out to get you?" It's just nonsense. Because, in my rather quaint, old-fashioned way, I believe in books. I believe they are a good thing. They're civilizers.
TEV: You were obviously well acquainted with Farrell prior to this reissue?
JB: Yes, I met him once, just for lunch. The day before he won the Booker Prize.
TEV: And he didn't mention it to you?
JB: Well, I asked him, what did he think his chances were, and he said that it was pretty certain, but I found from his biography later that he'd known the month beforehand. But the Booker Prize was much more decorous in those days than it is now.
TEV: How so?
JB: Well every writer thinks very ambiguously about it. You know, it sells books. Whether it gets new readers is maybe another matter. I was talking to a writer friend and we agreed that one has a core readership of about 3,000. What the Booker Prize does is it makes people think they must have the book, so you get maybe 20,000 people buying it. But if you've even got 1,000 readers who stay with you, that's a wonderful thing.
TEV: But you're not convinced that readers come aboard and stay onboard?
JB: I suspect that an awful lot of Booker Prize books are bought simply as Christmas presents. The prize happens in October, the bookshelves fill up with Booker books and people desperate for Christmas presents see "Booker Prize" on the jacket and pounce. But again, you know, as Walter Benajmin said, you don't have to have read all the books in your library. The very fact that they're sitting there is a force in itself.
TEV: That's reassuring when I contemplate the size of my To Read pile.
JB: (sympathetically) Oh yes, yes. Well, you see one of the advantages of getting old is that you're able to say to yourself, "Well, now I know I'm never going to read The Faerie Queen. I know I should have but I'm not now ever going to read it.
TEV: Just let it go.
JB: But then I was saying that recently to someone, and she said, "I've read it. You should. It's great." And I thought, "Oh God" (laughs) …The whole social side of the Booker Prize thing is very vulgar but we're not angels - why shouldn't we allow ourselves to be pushed into a little bit of vulgarity every now and then? It's good for us. But I wish the prize-giving dinner wasn't quite so stupidly stuffy, with everyone in evening suits and gowns …
TEV: Oh, there's a whole ceremony to it?
JB: Oh yes. Absolutely. One has a sense that it's the bourgeoisie saying to writers, "Look, you're no better than we are. You're just as greedy … egregiously kowtowing as the rest of us. You'll put on your bow tie and come along." And it is a very bruising experience, there's no doubt about it. Because you don't know whether you've won or lost until the guy on the stage calls out a name.
JB: Yes. And you do discover things about yourself. You discover this childish side of you that wants to win. My wife said to me - in '89 when my book [The Book of Evidence] was shortlisted for the Booker – she said she hardly knew me for the period of four weeks or so coming up to it.
TEV: What about that period of waiting for the longlist to be culled to the shortlist?
JB: Yeah, it is a bit of an insult if it doesn't even get on the bloody shortlist. But I mean, John McGahern and I both had a couple of years ago, what was it … Shroud and That They May Face the Rising Sun. And neither got on the longlist. But even the shortlist has a huge effect.
TEV: Yes, Colm Toibin mentioned that when he was in town for the LA Times Festival of Books … that in this country, to be nominated for the National Book Award doesn’t have the same impact on sales as being on the Booker Shortlist.
JB: I used to sell maybe 2 to 3 or 4,000 copies in hardback. Ten to fifteen in paperback. Book of Evidence sold 40,000 in hardback and 100,000 in paperback. Just because of the Booker shortlist.
TEV: Somebody mentioned to me that they know people who, the day the Booker shortlist is announced, go into the bookstore and buy all the titles.
JB: Yeah. And it gives you a lot of clout with publishers. And that's very gratifying. Although I should state … people are constantly complaining about their publishers. I have never had anything but decent, honorable people that I've worked with, and I've been publishing since 1970. Maybe I've been phenomenally lucky. But I've had the best publishers I could possibly have. They've stuck with me through books that they thought were … The Untouchable was supposed to sweep all that had gone before and was completely rejected by the English prizes. But, you know, there's never a word of recrimination.
TEV: What do you attribute that loyalty to?
JB: Well, I think publishing is one of these strange little areas which are sort of the last redoubt of the gentleman. And I think people, enthusiasts like you, go into it out of love. They love books. Most of the publishers that I've dealt with actually love books, they love almost the physical object itself. It's a great thing in this day an age. As you know, it's diametrically opposed to the film industry – which is understandable, there's so much money involved. But in the film industry, you're never asked to be original. You're asked to repeat something somebody did last week.
TEV: Oh yeah - it worked once, so surely it must work again.
TEV: Stepping back for a moment to the New York Review, have you experienced any fallout from your review of Saturday?
JB: Well, I've been called out on a factual error.
TEV: Oh really?
JB: I said that he won the squash match. Apparently, he lost it. I don't know anything about squash.
TEV: Really? I thought he won it, too …
JB: No, he lost it on a technicality.
TEV: Oh yeah yeah yeah …
JB: The guy did some damn thing, I don't know what it was. But again … I mean, the review got about half a dozen letters protesting vociferously about this mistake I'd made. And it's touching to see how committed people are to this book that they love. I mean, I have no doubt that by writing this review, I have offended maybe hundreds of thousands of people – the book is selling off the shelves. And what I'm saying to them is "you're wrong and you're stupid" and one doesn't do that lightly. Normally I would have sent the book back and said I don't want to review this, but I felt that … I really felt the book was so bad … and I had to make sense of that.
TEV: I hope you won't think I'm parroting your stance but some weeks ago I made some comments on my site that expressed similar objections, although I think I liked it a bit more than you did, but I felt that the set pieces rested uneasily – and surprisingly ham-fistedly – with the political –
JB: It was astonishingly ham-fisted. And I was surprised by it. And that's one of the reasons I wrote about it because I was shocked by the notion that the more transparently silly … this is one of the more transparently silly of his books … and it's having huge success. People seem to want … I'll tell you a little anecdote. A couple of years ago … I guess it was a couple of years after 9/11 … there was a very good book by Louis Menand called The Metaphysical Club, which I admired enormously. I didn't get around to reviewing it until about three months after it was published. I reviewed it in the Irish Times. No one had taken any notice of it, and it pretty well wasn't available. I wrote a glowing review which was about a third of a page. And even though the book was written before 9/11, I started off by saying America is now in trouble, it's suffering a severe case of nerves and shock but this is one of the books people should read here, in America, to find out where we came from and how America is a different place … One mention of 9/11, in the first paragraph. The literary editor decided to run a full page, huge 9/11 photograph. And the book became a runaway bestseller. Within days there banks of them in the shops. Because I'm sure that every single person involved at this point thought it was a book about 9/11. I'm sure they thought "What the hell is this? This is about some bloody philosophers' club?" So this is one of the reasons that I decided to attack McEwan's book, and I feel bad about attacking a colleague's book. It's not a good thing to do, and I don't like doing it. But in truth I was not really attacking his book, and certainly not him. What I was tackling, I hoped, was the phenomenon of this strange – as I said, in the final paragraph, are we so shaken in our sense of ourselves that we go to books like this? Because that's no fault of McEwan's.
TEV: No, certainly not.
JB: But I saw some reviews … there was a review in the Nation which said he should be given the Nobel Prize … and maybe he should, he probably deserves it but –
TEV: There's a fair amount of hype around the book and I'm surprised at how uncritical many of the –
JB: Absolutely! You see, the book was delayed coming to me from the New York Review of Books, so I took the opportunity to read Atonement, which I hadn't read. And I was bowled over by the first half of it. I thought it was a superb piece of English pastoral. Now, a lot of people say it's derivative but I thought actually he had managed to name all the ancestors … I thought it was a masterpiece of writing, beautifully written. And then I got Saturday, and I thought, this man is having a bad, bad day off. But then I began to look around to see the response it was getting, and I thought I've got to write about this.
TEV: I wondered if some of the response it got wasn't just a continuation of the momentum begun by the popularity of Atonement, which was also a very successful book. And I couldn't help but wonder if people were coming back –
JB: A friend of mine was in a book shop when the book was first in, and people would say "I want – " and they'd take the book down and hand it to them. And they would be Atonement people. But again, I really don't want to be unkind to Ian McEwan. I'm sure he won't believe that but I really don't. I don't like to take flying kicks at my peers. I've sent back many books to the New York Review of Books that I just didn't want to review because I couldn't say anything positive about them. But I think that this, as I say, this extraordinary loss of nerve that we seem to be experiencing … but again, as we talked about with blogs, there is obviously a deep need for stories … for stories about ourselves, stories that will explain 9/11 … But no story is going to explain 9/11 … it's quite simple, nothing needs to be explained about it. But the reaction in America to 9/11 has almost been religious, kind of religious terror. And America is going to have to cure itself of that.
TEV: Well, a new president would be a good start.
JB: Well, one of the problems, of course, for America – you might not be old enough to know this – is that America never cured itself of Vietnam. Instead of setting out … And Hollywood didn't help. After the war, Hollywood was able to go in immediately get women out of trenches and back into dresses as Doris Day again. There was no process of healing. There were honorable exceptions … there was that movie, a bit sentimental and a bit silly, I suppose but Grand Canyon by Lawrence Kasdan. Which I thought was wonderful, y'know it ended up they were at the Grand Canyon and that's the kind of thing Hollywood should be doing because it is the great people's art form but it didn't do well.
JB: I haven't read them.
TEV: You haven't? Because it's interesting … McMinn does identify what he feels happens in your books, that at the climax there's a return to nature or finding a solace there, and it's interesting that you invoke Grand Canyon in that fashion.
JB: I should say that one time that I saw the Grand Canyon, my wife and I arrived there in the afternoon, went to the edge, looked down and said, "Hm. Ok. Let's go and have a drink." And hit the bar and spent the afternoon drinking gin and tonics and having a wild old time knowing the Grand Canyon was out there. But yes, there is a side of me that is an old-fashioned pastoralist … an Irish pastoralist. In a way, Irish fiction was always pastoral, even when it was set in the cities. … It's all pastoral, it's all nature, it's all to do with the countryside. We never really got in to do cities, apart from Joyce ...
That's all for part one ... tune in next week as we turn our attention in detail to The Sea. A sneak preview:
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 it 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 it would all be in the past. And 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, 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. And I thought that had better write a new book but The Sea I think is a transition.