Arts & Culture

John Banville: ‘The sentence is what makes us human’

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, January 24, 2014

John Banville, the author of 16 novels and recipient of many literary accolades — including the 2005 Man Booker Prize for “The Sea” — arrived on campus Wednesday evening on a delayed Amtrak. Despite the inhumane weather conditions, he managed to deliver a reading from “The Blue Guitar,” a novel in progress. His visit was sponsored by the Department of Literary Arts and the Creative Arts Council. The Irish writer sat down with The Herald to speak about his literary double-life and to consider a prophetic duck he once saw in a London park.


The Herald: Your lyrical writing style has often been compared to great Irish writers such as Joyce and Beckett, and you set “The Sea” against the Irish backdrop of your childhood. To what extent has heritage influenced you as a writer?


John Banville: Well, that’s very difficult to say. I mean, we have an extraordinary tradition of great literary figures in Ireland. For such a tiny country, we’ve produced some giants, and that tradition is both a burden and an encouragement. It’s very difficult to have the great ones behind us looking over our shoulders, and we have to try to match up to them, but it’s also a deep pleasure to be part of this marvelous tradition.


Herald: Much of your work is speculative or philosophical — for example, in “The Infinities,” you explore some of the ontological and theological implications of the multiverse theory. Was this an exploration of questions that had already been preoccupying you, or did these metaphysical themes develop along with the story?


JB: Every book is just a volume, a singular volume in the one big book. One is constantly writing the same book over and over again in different ways. “The Infinities” was not different than anything I’d been doing before — it’s all a continuation. Each book makes the next book. The dissatisfaction with the book drives one on to do better, to explore further, to explore wider.


Herald: Speaking of this dissatisfaction, you’re famously critical of your own work and have disowned many of your earlier publications. I won’t argue with you, because I’m sure you wouldn’t listen, but Anne Lamott wrote in “Bird by Bird” that writers “need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.” 


JB: Oh look, I don’t wish I’d written them differently. I wish I’d written them better. Page by page, they’re full of mistakes. A friend of mine put it well. He said that every page of prose is an echo of about 2,000 mistakes and miscalculations, and I told him it was more like 20,000. Prose is so difficult to write, as everybody knows. Anyone who’s written a letter in their life knows how difficult language is, how slippery a medium it is. It tries to speak things that we don’t particularly want to say or didn’t mean to say. Language has a power all its own. So that constant struggle, I mean, it’s endlessly fascinating, endlessly fascinating. And I’ve said many times in public that I regard the sentence as the greatest invention of humankind. It’s the greatest thing we’ve done. There have been civilizations — the Aztecs and the Incas, so many who didn’t have the wheel, but they did have the sentence. Because the sentence is what makes us human. We think in sentences, we speak in sentences, we devise ideas in sentences, we declare love, we declare war in sentences. This is a basic unit of our humanness, and here I am spending my days working with this basic unit of humanness. It’s a great privilege and a great pleasure, but of course it’s very hard work and very frustrating. But I wouldn’t exchange it for anything else.


Herald: You have said, however, that it’s easier to write as the Irish noir mystery writer Benjamin Black. Many of the narrators in Banville books are shifty characters, often frauds or criminals of some sort. I was wondering whether there’s any connection between these characters and … Benjamin Black. … A fiction within a fiction, so to speak.


JB: Unfortunately, I think it’s much less complicated than that, not even a literary thing. I just sort of needed a day job. I have a surplus. I like to work. I hate being idle. I hate holidays. I hate weekends. So this was an ideal way of using up my surplus energy, and it even makes a little bit of money now and then. Not as much as Black would like, but a little. And it’s an enjoyable thing to do. But it’s not complicated. At least, I don’t think it is. They are very different books. And you’re right — I’ve always been fascinated by doubles, by twins, by the doubling of the self.


Herald: When you received the 2005 Man Booker Prize for “The Sea,” you made a tongue-in-cheek comment about a work of art finally receiving the Booker Prize, which you said was usually awarded to “good, middlebrow fiction.” When does a book become literature? 


JB: I was being most mischievous. I wanted to annoy all the people who thought I didn’t deserve the prize. But I also meant it. Yes, these prizes do go to whopping great middlebrow books, which is quite alright. I’ve nothing against whopping great middlebrow books. Benjamin Black writes them all the time. But now and then it’s good to see a book like “The Sea” getting a prize like that because, you know, nobody thought it had a hope of winning. I didn’t think it had a hope of winning. Mind you, on the day I flew to London for the prize-giving, it was a very beautiful October day, and I was walking through St. James’ Park in London — and you know there are six shortlisted books for the prize — I saw five snow-white seabirds fighting over a crust of bread with a duck. And the duck won. So I thought, “Maybe this is an omen.”

But as to what makes fiction a work of art. It has to do with concentration, I think, that you let nothing go. A novel is a work of art when it’s not about something, but when it is the thing itself. Most novels are about things. Most novels — and quite rightly — deal with the surface of life, with people’s doings, with their love affairs, their hatreds, their jobs, their this, their that. I’m not interested in what people do, I’m interested in what people are. So I try to go beyond the mere doing to get to something essential, some essential quality of being human. That to me is the quality that makes a work of art. Now, whether it’s a successful work of art, I mean a good work of art, I can’t be the judge of that. But at least it attempts to be a work of art rather than — well, rather than something else.


Herald: Thank you, John Banville.


JB: You’re very welcome.


A previous version of this article misstated the book from which author John Banville read. It was “The Blue Guitar,” a novel in progress, not his upcoming “The Black-Eyed Blonde.” The Herald regrets the error.