John Banville

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The world is a dark place, and I find it endlessly funny.

John Banville (born 8 December 1945) is an Irish novelist and journalist. He is recognised for his precise, cold, forensic prose style, Nabokovian inventiveness, and for the dark humour of his generally arch narrators. His stated ambition is to give his prose "the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has".

Quotes[edit]

  • Ian McEwan is a very good writer; the first half of Atonement alone would ensure him a lasting place in English letters.
  • Saturday is a dismayingly bad book. The numerous set pieces—brain operations, squash game, the encounters with Baxter, etc. — are hinged together with the subtlety of a child's Erector Set. The characters too, for all the nuzzling and cuddling and punching and manhandling in which they are made to indulge, drift in their separate spheres, together but never touching, like the dim stars of a lost galaxy. The politics of the book is banal, of the sort that is to be heard at any middle-class Saturday-night dinner party, before the talk moves on to property prices and recipes for fish stew. There are good things here, for instance the scene when Perowne visits his senile mother in an old-folks' home, in which the writing is genuinely affecting in its simplicity and empathetic force. Overall, however, Saturday has the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair — who makes a fleeting personal appearance in the book, oozing insincerity — were to appoint a committee to produce a "novel for our time," the result would surely be something like this.
  • Saramago is … interesting, but I don't think I would put it higher than that … [he] ventures too far into the realm of 'magic realism' for my taste. Reality itself is magical enough without inventing whimsicalities.
  • If they give me the bloody prize, why can't they say nice things about me?
  • The white May blossom swooned slowly into the open mouth of the grave.
  • I would have failed, of course, but failure is the condition of the artist's life. What kind of failure would I have enjoyed, suffered? I know it was not all waste. My hopeless daubings taught me to look at the world with a painter's eye, despite the poor connection between eye and hand. And the smells of turpentine and linseed oil and paint-soaked rags still make my blood tingle. But words were my calling, and called to me, and I let fall the brush.
  • [Julian Gough's] notion that shouting the word 'feck' – Father Ted has a lot to answer for – and being grossly scatological will make him seem echt Irish only harms his argument. We who were born and continue to live in Ireland are always distressed by the stage-Irish antics so often to be encountered among the sons and daughters of the diaspora. But it is true, as the critic Declan Kiberd remarks, that no contemporary Irish writer has yet attempted the Great Irish Novel on social and political themes. Where is our Middlemarch, our Doctor Zhivago, our Rabbit trilogy? The fact is Irish fiction tends to be poetic rather than prosaic, which is something that non-Irish reviewers find hard to grasp. John McGahern used to say that there is verse and there is prose, and then there is poetry, and poetry can occur in either form, and that in Ireland it occurs more often in prose than in verse. There may be a grittily realistic novelist even now writing a masterpiece such as Mr Gough says he longs for, and, if so, I applaud her/him.

Once More Admired Than Bought, A Writer Finally Basks in Success (1990)[edit]

Richard Bernstein. Once More Admired Than Bought, A Writer Finally Basks in Success, The New York Times (15 May 1990)
  • I'm a little surprised that commercial success has arrived. I used to think that it was hopeless, that it would never happen.
  • It's amazing what success will do. I've just started a new book after taking a break of a year and a half since finishing 'The Book of Evidence,' and I'm fascinated to see if I can detect in myself a voice saying, 'Tone that bit down; make that bit easier; give them a few laughs,' which would be absolutely fatal. I don't think it's happening, but you can't tell what's happening beneath the surface.
  • I could have kept [writing "Irish" novels such as Birchwood] and probably had a good deal more success than I did, especially on this side of the Atlantic. But you have to try to do many things. You have to try to do things that you actually think you're incapable of.

Oblique dreamer (2000)[edit]

Oblique dreamer, The Observer (17 September 2000)
  • Let's not despise story-telling. Like all novelists, I have this low desire to tell people stories.
  • If you look at practically anyone - I mean, I find this more and more - the more you look at people the more you find that they've actually manufactured themselves. People whose names that you know. I meet lots of people in my ordinary life, away from writing, who seem to be authentic, who seem to know where they've come from and who they are, but anyone that I deal with in, if you like, my profession, we all seem to have made ourselves. I think artists are all self-made.
  • Ambiguity is the essence of Irish writing, I think.
  • The older I get, the more confused I get. I used to think that age would bring wisdom. It doesn't, it just brings confusion. But I find that this confusion is artistically useful. It's a kind of progression, a negative progression. It's moving into areas that you didn't know were there. It becomes more dreamlike all the time. When I was starting out as a novelist, I would have been furious if anyone said to me that novels are dream-like or that they're doing things the novelist didn't know he was doing. Now, I find that it's absolutely true.
  • Wodehouse is very interesting. There must be all kinds of darknesses in that man's life.

14th time lucky (2005)[edit]

Emma Brockes. 14th time lucky, The Guardian (12 October 2005)
  • We writers are shy, nocturnal creatures. Push us into the light and the light blinds us.
  • I feel that over the past 15 years, there has been a steady move toward more populist work. I do feel - and of course I'm completely biased - that this year was a return to the better days of the 80s and early 90s. It was a very good short list and a decent jury; it didn't have any stand-up comedians or media celebs on it, and I think that's what the Man Booker prize should be. There are plenty of other rewards for middle-brow fiction. There should be one decent prize for [pause] real books.
  • I'm very much against the notion of the Great Man, the Great Figure who is telling us all how to behave. Writers are just like other people, except slightly more obsessed.
  • Once in the 1930s, the Inland Revenue did an investigation into Yeats's tax returns because they could not believe someone so famous could have such small sales. One should never allow oneself to be discouraged by small sales. As Pinter says, I stuck to my guns.
  • When I started writing I was a great rationalist and believed I was absolutely in control. But the older one gets, the more confused, and for an artist I think that is quite a good thing: you allow in more of your instinctual self; your dreams, fantasies and memories. It's richer, in a way.
  • Summoned, one shuffles guiltily into the department of trivia.

John Banville: Using words to paint pictures of "magical" Prague (2006)[edit]

Coilin O'Connor. John Banville: Using words to paint pictures of "magical" Prague, Radio Prague (30 July 2006)
  • Oh, I'm terribly ignorant of Czech literature. It's disgraceful really.
  • I always remember how a novel written by John Braine in the 1950s about working-class life in England, which was called Room at the Top, which was translated into Swedish as The Attic!
  • I suppose this is peasant food. You know, the workers in the fields needed these heavy dumplings and things to eat, but God don't offer them to me...
  • I don't see why the young in Prague or Budapest or Warsaw shouldn't be allowed to go to hell in a handcart if they want to. They do it everywhere else and they have great fun doing so.
  • I'm doing my best to not be too rude about it, but oh my God that Czech food...
  • There is something slightly sinister about Prague, just as there is about Lyon and Turin.
  • My books must be an absolute nightmare to translate. I wouldn't do it. I had a couple of them in Japanese some years ago and my wife met a Japanese woman who said that she had read the books. And she asked her what the translations were like. This woman said they were the worst translation she had ever read in her life. She said she didn't recognise the books when she finally read them in English.
  • I hesitate to talk about Czech food. [...] The people are very sweet, wonderfully cultured, very friendly, but my God how they eat that food I do not know. It is surely the most disgusting cuisine in the world.
  • [T]he older I get the more I realise that the world is not as varied as we thought it was when we were young. Most places are much alike.

Writers' rooms: John Banville (2007)[edit]

Writers' rooms: John Banville, The Guardian (15 June 2007)
  • We cannot all afford a farm in Cuba or a suite at the George V in newly liberated Paris, and more often than not must strive to forge our clean, well-lighted sentences at a folding table wedged between the baby's cot and the dining table.
  • We all yearn in our hearts to be Larkin's "shit in the shuttered chateau", but few of us achieve that grand apotheosis.
  • My present study - a word that always makes me uneasy, I am not sure why - is a small apartment in a huge, anonymous, quadrilateral block in Dublin city centre. My window, the one I do not look out of, gives on to a courtyard where no one ever goes, and where the silence is day-long and almost pastoral. When I first began to come here to work, a dozen years ago, I used to shut my door on entering each morning and put the chain on. The place is clean, or cleanish, and, yes, well lighted. Here I am unassailable. Or so I like to imagine.

John Banville, The Art of Fiction No. 200 (2009)[edit]

Belinda McKeon. John Banville, The Art of Fiction No. 200, The Paris Review
  • A boy in his teens! What did I know about death? This is a problem for Irish writers — our literary forebears are enormous. They stand behind us like Easter Island statues, and we keep trying to measure up to them, leaping towards heights we can't possibly reach. I suppose that's a good thing, but it makes for a painful early life for the writer. Anyway, hunched there over my Aunt Sadie's Remington, I was starting to learn how to write. Now, fifty years later, I'm still learning.
  • I feel a kind of intellectual regret, not an emotional regret, at having left my parents and that world behind. But it's not a great weight on my soul. In a way I wish it were. To leave one’s background without guilt is an indication of shallowness of character, I suspect.
  • But trying to be a painter did teach me to look at the world in a very particular way—looking very closely at things, at colors, at how things form themselves in space — and I've always been grateful for that. You have all this space, and you have a figure: what do you do with it? And in a way that’s what all art is. How do we find a place for our creatures, or inventions, in this incoherent space into which we’re thrown?
  • Fiction is just a constant torment, and an embarrassment. I loathe my fiction. I have a fantasy when I'm passing a bookstore that I could click my fingers and all my books would go blank, so that I could start again and get them right.
  • I am essentially a religious type. In my teens I gave up Catholicism, and at the same time I started writing. Writing keeps me at my desk, constantly trying to write a perfect sentence. It is a great privilege to make one's living from writing sentences. The sentence is the greatest invention of civilization. To sit all day long assembling these extraordinary strings of words is a marvelous thing. I couldn't ask for anything better. It's as near to godliness as I can get.
  • For me, a line has to sing before it does anything else. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above itself and above any expectation I might have had for it. That's what keeps me going on those dark December days when I think about how I could be living instead of writing.
  • Doing what you do well is death. Your duty is to keep trying to do things that you don't do well, in the hope of learning.
  • My wife says I had a nervous breakdown during the writing of Mefisto. Maybe I did, but what's a nervous breakdown for a writer? For a writer every day is a nervous breakdown. [...] The book came out in the spring, and I remember I spent that following summer digging my garden — Voltaire would have been proud. I made a wonderful garden. Grew beans, lettuces. I was healing myself from some kind of traumatic process that I don't pretend to understand. All right, let's agree with my wife and call it a nervous breakdown.
  • The world is a dark place, and I find it endlessly funny.
  • When I was young, art for me was a new religion. Now I see the aims and ends of art as less grand. If I can catch the play of light on a wall, and catch it just so, that is enough for me. I don’t want to write about human behavior. Art now seems to me in many ways the absolute opposite of psychology. It’s simply saying, This is how it is. This is how it looks, how it feels. To describe things well is far more worthwhile than the kind of cheap psychologizing, or even expensive psychologizing, that the novel so often indulges in.
  • Copernicus stuck very closely to the facts, but in Kepler I invented freely, and it's a much better book because of that.
  • Flaubert read too many books, and in consequence some of his own books stagger under the weight of his erudition. He said he'd read some preposterous number of books to prepare for the writing of Salammbô, and you can feel them dragging the novel down. It would have been much better if he'd made it all up.
  • After all, who knows what the distant past was like? About Kepler and Copernicus, people often say, You captured the period so well! I always want to ask, How do you know? You weren't there either.
  • [On book reviewing] I will only turn down a book if I know I won't be able to muster enough interest to read the bloody thing. Or if I realize that I despise the author, and that I'm just going to become hysterical in my dispraise. A couple of times in my life I've disobeyed my own rule, and later regretted it. [...] It's a delicate business. All too often, if one writes a favorable notice, it's seen as a product of the old-boy network, and if one dispraises a book, it's seen as envy. Nobody seems able to accept that I review books as a book reviewer, not as a competing novelist. When I review, I'm being as honest as I can. And I'm saying to the reading public — the minuscule segment of the reading public that reads reviews — that this is my judgment.
  • The first thought that occurred to me, that night when I heard the chairman of the jury announce my name, was, Just think how many people hate me at this moment. Naturally, I wanted to annoy those people even further by being arrogant.
  • Art is like sex: when you're doing it, nothing else matters. Away from his desk the novelist can care deeply about the social, political, moral aspects of what he is writing but when he sits down to write, all those concerns fall away and nothing matters except the putting down of one carefully chosen word after another carefully chosen word, until a sentence is finished, then a paragraph, then a page, then a chapter, then a book. When I'm working I don't care about anything, not even myself. All my concentration is directed towards the making of the thing on the page. The rest is just stuff — even though it is the stuff of life.

John Banville on the birth of his dark twin, Benjamin Black (2011)[edit]

John Banville on the birth of his dark twin, Benjamin Black, The Guardian (22 July 2011)
  • Every novelist knows – perhaps everyone knows who has written even a letter, or a page of a diary – that the process of composition involves two separate sensibilities.
  • There had been rain but it had stopped, and the light from a luminously clouded sky was pewter-bright, and puddles on the road were shivering in the wind, and the rooks above the trees in St Anne's Park were being tossed about the air like scraps of charred paper.
  • March in Ireland can be a very lovely month, if you like your air rain-washed and your light wind-shaken.
  • The force of the idea was such that I drew the car to the side of the road and stopped and, for some reason, laughed. It was a loud laugh, unsteady, and sounded, even to my own ears, slightly maniacal. Thinking back now, I realise it was less a laugh than the birth-cry of my dark and twin brother Benjamin Black.
  • So vivid is my recollection of the birth of Benjamin Black that surely, I feel, a cunning artificer has been at work, fashioning a surreally realistic picture of something that happened quite differently from what I seem to remember. Consider that light falling on the sea, how effulgent and steady it is; consider the trees, improbably full-leafed for the time of year – and look at those birds! Has Madam Memory really such a piercing eye for detail, are her powers of recall so comprehensive?
  • Certain moments remain in the mind with such force and clearness that one suspects they must be invented; that they are not held in the memory but generated out of the imagination.
  • Come, Benjamin, put your arm around me and we shall be comfortably one, mon semblable—mon frère!
  • When I stand up from my writing desk, "John Banville", or "Benjamin Black" – that is, the one whose name will appear on the title page – vanishes on the instant, since he only existed while the writing was being done.

John Banville: claiming Kafka as an Irish writer (2011)[edit]

David Vaughan. John Banville: claiming Kafka as an Irish writer, Radio Prague (12 November 2011)
  • Coming from a tiny island, it's very exciting to be at sea in Central Europe in the sense of vast stretches of land all around one. We don't get that in Ireland.
  • I'm also lumbered with the title of being a writer's writer, which is the worst possible reputation you can have, because, of course, other writers don't read other writers except to gain evidence against them. And it puts readers off.
  • I'm a little older now and I think I've lightened up a bit as I'm getting older.
  • T. S. Eliot said it is no business of the artist to think. I presume he meant it's only the business of the artist to feel, but I like the notion of there being a mind behind the fiction that I read and that I write.
  • Well, [Kepler] reminded me of myself – the little man running desperately in circles, trying to find an explanation for the world, for his place in it, to find a plausible system, to account for reality – and never finding it. Finding lots of rules and laws which are very important, but never actually finding his own way into what it is to be in the world – very much an existentialist before his time, I think.
  • [W]e would probably claim Kafka as an Irish writer. His tone of voice is certainly quite Irish: that sense of melancholy, that sense of strangeness and of being a stranger in the world. I think that we empathise with that very much indeed.
  • I suppose many people in Ireland would regard me as being more a European writer than an Irish writer. I don't think this is so.
  • I don't know what citizens of Prague must feel about these endless lines of tourists tramping over their streets.
  • I know that this is a cliché by now and I suppose that Prague people are sick and tired of hearing Prague referred to as ‘Magic Prague’, but, you know, I may complain about the tourists, but I am a tourist after all. I'd rather not be, but I am.
  • I like to hide in Ireland, but I like to think of myself as an internal exile.

Fully Booked: Q & A with John Banville (2012)[edit]

Travis Elborough. Fully Booked: Q & A with John Banville, Picador (29 June 2012)
  • A book at the very start comes to me as a nebulous geometric form, a kind of tension in space that has to be resolved. The resolution is effected by fleshing out the form with character, plot, dialogue, etc. But the original structure perseveres throughout, even when, or perhaps especially when, I am not conscious of it being at work. Art is a mysterious business.
  • One of my mottoes as a writer is a little jotting from Kafka's journals: ‘Never again psychology!’ But alas, humankind is obsessed with its psychological workings, and since the novel can only treat of humankind . . . You see my predicament.
  • One must try to keep a sensible perspective and not take oneself too seriously.
  • My friends tell me I must stop saying in public that I ‘hate all my novels’. What I mean is that I am profoundly dissatisfied with everything I have done simply because it is not good enough by my standards. But my standard is perfection, and as we know, perfection is not allowed to such as us. On the other hand, I begin every new book in the complete conviction that this time, this time I shall get it right. Rationally I know this will not be so, but art has its reasons.
  • A work of art is not about something, it is something, in the same way that life is not something that has meaning, only significance. And art's intentions are entirely innocent – no comment, no opinion, no attempted coercion. All – all! – art attempts to do is to quicken the sense of life, to make vivid for the reader the mysterious predicament of being alive for a brief span in this exquisite and terrible world.
  • All art is to some extent shaped by what has gone before. But that is an organic process, not a conscious intention. Novels are made out of novels as much as they are out of life.

How I Write: John Banville on ‘Ancient Light,’ Nabokov, and Dublin (2012)[edit]

Noah Charney. How I Write: John Banville on ‘Ancient Light,’ Nabokov, and Dublin, The Daily Beast (3 October 2012)
  • Every artist has a Dorian Gray slaving away in the attic.
  • When young writers approach me for advice, I remind them, as gently as I can, that they are on their own, with no help available anywhere.
  • I was in Miami, reading at the book fair. My partner on the platform had won the Pulitzer Prize the previous day. At the book signing afterwards, Pulitzer Man had waiting for him a queue of admiring readers that stretched up the spine of Florida, while I had three people — an academic who was writing something on my work, the usual maniac in a raincoat, and a kindly chap who leaned down and said to me in a confidential whisper, “I'm not going to buy your book, but you looked so lonely I felt I had to come and talk to you.”
  • I write in what we call Hiberno-English, and it would be disastrous to lose my literary accent, as both Joyce and Beckett began to do in exile. In their case the unique tone of voice they each unwittingly adopted only made for a deeper poetic intensity; I suspect if I were to undergo a similar loss the result would not be so productive.
  • I drive from home to my office, a small apartment on the river in the center of Dublin. I write there from 9 a.m. to lunchtime, I take a simple lunch—bread, cheese, nice cup of tea—work until 6 p.m., then home for dinner. Viewed from outside my head it is a singularly dull and uneventful day, but inside my head … aaah.
  • Interviewer: What would you like carved onto your tombstone? Banville: I'd rather not have a tombstone.

John Banville: Who cares whodunnit? (2013)[edit]

Ciara Dwyer. John Banville: Who cares whodunnit?, The Daily Beast (30 June 2013)
  • As a boy I was very solitary but blissfully happy. We lived on the edge of town in Wexford and I wandered the fields with my dog, declaiming Keats to the trees.
  • I never learned the names of the streets because I couldn't wait to get out. It was too small and I was bored. I was a pretentious little twerp and I had ideas above my station, which everyone should have. I was deeply ambitious but I was deeply dismissive of what was there and that was a mistake. Wexford was a fascinating town and so was the society. I remember a friend of mine telling me about wife-swapping parties that went on there and how people would throw their keys into the middle of a bowl. This was the late 1950s. I didn't believe a word of it. If I believed him and looked about, I would have found another version of Wexford. I'm not saying that I wanted to be at wife-swapping parties, but the Wexford I imagined wasn't necessarily the Wexford that was real. So I blinded myself and I was just as narrow-minded and blinkered as the people whom I despised there. That was a mistake.
  • I remember my father didn't say very much – he was a very laconic man. When he'd go to a party, he would become very animated. My mother would say – 'Look at him. He never says a word at home and look at him now.' This is how we all are.
  • I don't know anything about myself. Put it this way, there is no self. I believe that we're a compendium of personalities. We're whoever we meet. We go through the day being who we think we should be and who we think we'd like to be.
  • Look at what goes on in our heads when we think about our family or we think about sex. There are things in there that you'd never really say to anybody. You're even ashamed to think it yourself.
  • If you think I'm being bleak, I'm not. It's wonderful to be making yourself up. That's what makes life so exciting. It's an unending adventure.
  • I often think that there was nothing more exciting and erotic than getting a glimpse of a woman's leg at the top of her stockings. There's something about that white bulge and for anybody who grew up in my time, nothing replaces that, nothing. I remember I had a girlfriend when I was 16 and she had this bra – it used to open down the front – which I thought was absolutely wonderful. It was like opening a tabernacle.
  • I like to dress conservatively because then the outrageous things you say are even more outrageous.
  • I always thought when I got older that I'd be jealous of my children but I'm not. It's the opposite. I love seeing their possibilities. Nothing makes me as happy as sitting at dinner with loved ones, having a glass of wine with a meal that I've cooked. What could be better?
  • When I created Quirke, he was 6ft 6in and blond. But then a woman reader wrote to me and said, 'Why do you keep saying his hair is blond? It's not. It's brown.' I wrote back to her and told her that, of course, she was right. So I darkened his hair and now that he's being played by Gabriel Byrne; with each successive book he gets a bit smaller and smaller.
  • Benjamin Black is a craftsman and these are crafted works. I'm very proud of them. I think they're well made, but Banville is doing something else – he's trying to make a kind of poetry, I suppose. I'm a perfectionist. It's an illness but a good illness. It's a completely different method of writing. Banville writes with a fountain pen on paper in a manuscript book and Black works straight on to the screen. It could take me a whole morning to write a few sentences as Banville, but as Black I'd be very annoyed if I didn't have at least two or three pages done. This drives crime-writers crackers because they think I'm saying that their craft is not worth it. I'm simply saying it's a different thing. I don't know why they worry when I talk about speed; after all, Georges Simenon wrote his books in about 10 days.
  • [On The Sea being filmed] It's not a blockbuster and it's not going to earn half a billion in the first weekend, but it's a work of art and I'm very pleased with it.
  • They filmed it down in Wexford and I visited the set for about half an hour. I don't usually go near the set, because there's nothing for a writer to do there and you're constantly getting in the way. If I give a book to the movies, it's theirs. Writers often whinge about being betrayed by the movies – I have no sympathy for that. If you don't want a movie to be made, then don't sell your book to the movies.
  • When I won the Booker Prize, I said that it was nice to see a work of art winning this prize and I've never been forgiven for that. When you get a prize, you're suppose to be humble. Somebody was interviewing me and said, 'This is a great day for Ireland'. I said, 'Why? Ireland didn't do it, I did it.' I wasn't forgiven for that either. I don't wear the green jersey and I don't hobnob with Michael D in the Park, although I quite like Michael D.

Quotes about Banville[edit]

  • You can sense the volumes of Joyce, Beckett and Nabokov on Banville's shelves.
  • Irish stylist springs Booker surprise [...] A 7-1 outsider in the betting odds and untipped by virtually any critic [...] The veteran Irish stylist John Banville brought off one of the biggest literary coups last night when he took the £50,000 Booker Prize from under the noses of the bookies and the literary insiders.

External links[edit]

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