Today's installment is slightly shorter than its predecessors, due to aforementioned food poisoning. In this section, we begin our book-by-book review of Banville's oeuvre. We'll probably wrap this all up with a big conclusion next week but it's possible we might stretch out to a fifth and final part.
TEV: I wanted to talk about all the books. In book after book, I've noticed this repetition of the term "the thing itself." It seems quite a core concern of yours and yet I'm surprised that I never see it taken up in reviews or discussions of your work. It's present in numerous books.
JB: Well, you're right. That's what all my narrators are trying to find – some authentic thing. They all know they're not going to.
TEV: Well, I know that when people come to me and ask me which of your books they should read and why they should read them, I tell them that about this thwarted quest for authenticity.
JB: If they asked you what book to start with, what would you say?
(TEV Note: Herein follows a brief shocked silence followed by much unseemly stammering in which we desperately try – and fail – to avoid the wrong answer.)
TEV: (fumbling) I'm usually useless in that I usually end up suggesting three or four …
JB: (vaguely disappointed) Oh.
TEV: (continuing) … in that one of the things I'll do is point to the one that I read first, which is Eclipse. I came to it on the strength of a very positive review in the New York Review of Books, which you may recall. I also tend to recommend based on what I know about the reader, which can bring me to The Book of Evidence or The Untouchable … Oddly – and it's hard for me to say I have a favorite because it shifts –
JB: Oh no, I don't mean your favorite. I mean which would you say to someone, This would be a good place to start?
TEV: The Book of Evidence, I would say, because it's quite self-contained or –
JB: I would say The Newton Letter.
TEV: (of course, we knew that all along) The Newton Letter.
JB: It's pretty well all there. And it's short.
(TEV Note: OK, there's no way in the world we could admit that "Yes, we knew that all along" but in fact, in our defense, we did – ages ago – recommend just that title over at Tingle Alley, saying: "However, there’s a small novella in this group — The Newton Letter - that’s wonderfully written, refined and polished, and does expose a reader to JB’s central preoccupations and high style in shorter form." So there. It's pretty well all there. And it's short. We said it first. End of aside.)
TEV: I actually read the books out of sequence, because I read Athena before The Book of Evidence -
JB: (darkly) Oh yes.
TEV: - and which possibly remains my favorite.
JB: I don't understand why that book didn't do better. I gave them sex. I gave them violence. What more do they want from me?
TEV: By the way, I have something to show you, I didn't want to bother you with things to sign last night [at Three Lives], and I don't know if you remember this, but I came across this and it's got a story of yours.
[TEV Note: The "this" in question is a copy of Argosy – The Short Story Magazine from February 1974, which contains a short story of Banville's entitled "Return Journey" and subtitled "A ghost story - with a difference … "]
JB: (puts on his glasses and studies it in intent silence for a few minutes) I have no memory of this. (studies longer) Is it any good? It doesn't look any good.
TEV: I thought so. I mean it's clearly an early work. But it seems of a piece with some of the Long Lankin stories. It's so rare for me to stumble across something I haven't seen or read. I think the only things I haven’t read are "Persona" and "The Possessed".
(TEV Note: Banville requested these stories removed from the reissued collection of stories Long Lankin, and they can only be obtained in editions priced beyond the range of this humble blogger.)
JB: Hmph. It must have been one of my attempts to write popular fiction. Isn't that extraordinary? I wonder if the bastards paid me for it … It's amazing. I remember Argosy. They were supposed to pay very well. I was always trying to get into it.
(TEV Note: Bits of business ensued around finding the right pen with which to sign the magazine, which never finally did get signed. We began running into a time crunch, so I returned to the subject of his oeuvre.)
TEV: So let's touch on each of the books, and perhaps you might share a memory, an impression, a sense of how the title sits in your esteem today.
JB: Well, I hate them all, you realize that? I loathe them.
TEV: All of them?
TEV: Because you did say –
JB: They're all a standing embarrassment.
TEV: - talking about Nightspawn, that you felt it was in some ways the most honest thing you'd written. I wondered if that still stood.
JB: It probably was. My memory of it is that it's a very dreadful book. It was written in some mad fever of … I don't know what. I think I hated the notion of writing fiction.
TEV: Well you've said that the book was an intentional cheating of the reader's expectations.
JB: Yes. It was. All that was very pretentious. As we all are when we're young. But I did dislike – I still dislike – the novel form. It annoys me. Its requirements are too … You know, in a poem you can do anything. You can make it any shape or length. Novels, for some reason, have to be about two hundred and twenty pages long – in America, three hundred and twenty pages long. I don't know where this convention came from.
(TEV Note: We paused here to consult the dessert menus – desserts we would be forced to abandon when we noticed we were running out of time.)
TEV: Well, let's start at the beginning, with Long Lankin.
JB: Well, you see, as everybody nowadays wants to make a movie, in those days our ambitions were very humble. We all wanted to get a short story published in a good magazine. So everybody started out by writing short stories. It wasn't a medium that I particularly liked, although I suppose I still hearken back to Dubliners. I put together this rather inept book. I think some of the stories are quite good. They have a studied, glassy-eyed narrative voice that I sometimes wish I could recapture. There's a very silly long short story/novella which is awful … awful … awful …
TEV: But [the novella] introduces us to the character of Ben White (protagonist of Nightspawn).
JB: Yes. But it's my attempt to be cosmopolitan. I didn't know anything about the world. But I had always felt that this advice about "write about what you know" was bad advice. I always felt that you should risk. I don't know how I feel about the book now. It seems to be so far away as to be almost written by somebody else.
TEV: I know there's a structural similarity to the stories. Did you conceive of them as a cycle?
JB: Oh yes.
TEV: You wrote them all together?
JB: Oh, no, no. I wrote them over … from the age of about sixteen, seventeen … up to early twenties. It was published, I think, when I was twenty-four. So I wrote them over about a six-year period. But I wrote them to have this coherence.
TEV: Which you did while working for Aer Lingus.
JB: Yes. Aer Lingus. Which was great. My mother wanted me to be an architect. I even went to do some interviews with the architecture college. Then I was going to go for the usual Bachelor of Arts degree. But I couldn't wait to get away. I really couldn't wait to get away. And I took a job with Aer Lingus. Which was great because there was unlimited travel at ridiculous prices. I remember flying first class on Lufthansa from London to San Francisco for two pounds. First class was something in those days. But you know, the real price was a grindingly boring job as a clerk. But they also had another great thing. In those days, they made their money from the transatlantic route, which meant there was no work during the winters. So they would give what they called "winter leave." We'd get four months off – unpaid. They would give you a free ticket to go wherever you wanted to go. But looking back now, I should have gone to college. Not for the college itself, but I should have had those three or four years as a student.
TEV: What about Nightspawn? It was reissued not too long ago.
JB: Yes. I suppressed it for a long time and then a friend of mine who runs a very good publishing house said that he could do it. It seems to sell. I get tiny royalty checks every now and then. It's very much a young man's book. It's completely undisciplined and crazed and full of bad influences. I remember one of the reviewers saying, "Mr. Banville has been reading the wrong books." (laughs)
TEV: And yet it does seem like many of our subsequent concerns are already in evidence, however nascent.
JB: Oh, yes. Yes. I mean, I always hated the constrictions of the novel and I was fascinated by the contract between the reader and the writer. You know that thing when you buy a novel and you know it's all made up and yet you sit there on the edge of your seat – what's going to happen? Who's Becky Sharp got married to? I mean, that's an amazingly tender relationship between the reader and the text. And I'm still fascinated by that. Pushing that, to see how elastic it is. But I feel an embarrassment about Nightspawn. I was so young and I thought I was middle-aged, cosmopolitan, and I was just a kid.
TEV: What about Birchwood?
JB: Birchwood. It's curious how many younger people now come to me and say that's the one they go back to or that they start with. I admire the creative … the exuberance of imagination … I wouldn't be able to allow myself to go that far now. I wouldn't know how to do it.
TEV: The gift of not knowing any better?
JB: Yes. And of course, when I think about it, I realize how much politics there is in it without my knowing it at the time. It was written at the start of the civil war in Northern Ireland. And obviously, there's a lot of that in it. So I have a vestigial fondness for it. And I regarded it as my Irish Book. And I was going to give up fiction after that. I didn't know what I would do. I just felt I didn't want to keep doing this thing over and over again. And then I went into what I call my "European novel of ideas" mode. In those days Fontana Books used to bring out a series of paperbacks called "Modern Masters" and would have George Steiner on Kafka and so on… and I could see my name on the spine of one of those. This seemed the direction to go in. Could one do a novel of ideas? I discovered that one couldn't but I spent a lot of years discovering that.
TEV: One couldn't?
JB: Not directly stated. Matters of astronomy just do not fit in fiction.
TEV: Which segues quite nicely to Doctor Copernicus and Kepler. You don't feel that –
JB: I think those books were a great waste of time. I spent a lot of time doing stuff that didn't need to be done. Research and suchlike. I was halfway through … well, not halfway through but the first thing I wrote for Copernicus was the first person narrative by Rheticus. And of course that was easy. Then I realized, "Christ, I'm going to have write this bloody book around this." And I'm going to have to look at pictures by Holbein and so on. And I'm going to have to read some of the biographies. Just tedious beyond compare. And I wasted a lot of time and energy. People used to say to me, look, don't be mesmerized by the facts. Facts are only facts. But of course, artists love facts. It makes it feel real, that this is the real world.
TEV: I remember attending an chat with Kazuo Ishiguro, who was discussing When We Were Orphans, and he said he basically didn’t bother to do any research at all on Shanghai, he just made it all up.
JB: I should have done that as well. But it's funny because when I was doing Kepler … well, when I finished Copernicus, I thought, never again. Never, ever, ever again. And then I began to think about Kepler, and Kepler is such a sympathetic character. Here you have a man running in circles, trying to keep hold of everything, trying to impose order on a chaotic world. And I – no actually, it was Copernicus: I was going to go to Poland, and I’d got a travel grant from the Arts Council, and I booked my flight and I applied for a visa to Poland. This was in the early 70s and the cold war was distinctly warm. And they wrote back and said yes, of course, I could have a visa to come to Poland, they would send it along. The visa came six weeks after the date I was supposed to go to Poland. So, luckily, I said to hell with that. I'll make it up. And I made it up. And then when I came to do Kepler, I couldn't resist Kepler, and I thought how am I going to recreate Prague? And it was uncanny – when I went to Prague … I went with a friend of mine to Weil der Stadt in Germany, where Kepler was born, about three years after the book was published and it looked exactly like Weil der Stadt as I'd imagined it. And then I went to Prague, many, many years later. And I said, "Jesus, I hope I got it right." Because you realize the world is a simple place. There aren't many – you go to Hindustan and at some point you realize these are people just like us. We're all just the same. (laughs) This is a great discovery .. naïve, poor bastard imagining he'll go to Prague and find himself on Mars but "Oh, no, it's human beings, all the way down."
TEV: You spoken at length about some of the intricate structuring of Kepler –
JB: Oh yes … It was a way of working. It was a good thing to do. I enjoyed doing it, I enjoyed the technical challenge of it. It tamed the sentiment of the book as well. Because Kepler is such a wonderfully sympathetic character. I remember hearing around that time that Bartok used to base all his music on the Golden Section. He used to practically count the notes. I thought, "That's a good idea. That's a way to do this.”
TEV: The books are decidedly different in tone but do seem deeply connected to one another.
JB: I suppose the main thing about the great astronomers is their strange detachment from physical reality. They really didn't care very much how things actually are. What they cared about was a theory to explain, to account for –
TEV: - to "save the phenomena."
JB: Yes. I mean, Copernicus only took six star sightings in his entire life. And Kepler had double vision. But you know, I had to suppress at least half the misfortunes that befell Kepler. His life was infinitely more complex, more horrendous, than the version of it that I wrote. His life simply wouldn't have been believable. I mean, he spent something like four years working up that defense of his mother against the witchcraft. He got her off. She didn't thank him, and died a couple of months later. But I was fascinated by the scientific mind. Plus it was a way of writing about creativity without writing about art.
TEV: Which brings us to The Newton Letter. Which you would tell people to start with.
JB: Again, I think it's all there. It's short. Easily swallowed whole.
TEV: Much is written about how intertextual and heavily allusive your fiction is. To what extent do you feel that for a reader to have a fully satisfying experience with your book it's necessary to know all the references? For example, I won't pretend for a moment that I would have known on my own about the Lord Chandos Letter if I hadn't read something that advised me about it. Whereas the Elective Affinities references I did recognize from reading Goethe in my childhood home.
JB: No, I don't expect the reader to recognize intertexual allusions. I think it simply gives a resonance to the page. Most of the books I read, I don't get the references. How would I? And when I do, I'm always disappointed.
TEV: You're disappointed when you get them?
JB: Yes, I think, is that all it is? No, I just think that things resonate. Rather in the way that I was saying about Walter Benjamin saying you don't have to have read all the books in the library, the fact that they're there sets up some kind of force … And a lot of it, again, is simply a way of working.
TEV: Something that engages you.
JB: Yeah. You sit there thinking, what the hell am I going to do now? And then you think, well, this particular work of art has relevance here, for me. I don't expect – I don't do that anymore, really. Although in Athena …
TEV: … paintings are all made up. And the painters' names are all anagrams of John Banville.
JB: And when the German edition was coming out, they contacted me to say "the last painting that you speak about – was it the Birth of Athena? – we think we've identified it but we want to make sure." And I said, "I'm terribly impressed that you did all this work but the painting doesn't exist."