John Banville is an author from Wexford in Ireland (having written 17 novels as himself and six as crime author Benjamin Black), a screenwriter and adapter of dramas. Banville’s work has won numerous awards. The Book of Evidence won the Guinness Peat Aviation award in 1989. The Sea won the Booker Prize in 2005. He was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize in 2011 and is a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Last night, I went to hear him read and answer questions at Kaufleuten in Zürich. Here’s a distilled version.
How did you get into writing?
When I was twelve years old, I read Dubliners. It was a revelation. Fiction could be more than cowboys! It could be life as I recognised it. So I started writing, terrible, terrible imitations of Joyce, then kept writing until I learned how to do it for myself.
Aren’t your siblings also writers?
Yes, my brother and my sister both write. I’m the oldest so I sucked the life blood out of them, stole everything. We’re Irish, we love words, we’re infected by the language germ.
Who were your influences?
I spent a lot of time reading detective novels by middle-class ladies in frocks. I loved the clean style, the wonderful way with English of Sayers, Waugh, Wodehouse, but of course I read Joyce, Beckett and O’Brien, Henry James and Yeats. I was mesmerised by what Beckett could do with words. He had a voice, the Beckett voice. Joyce did not. There’s a book called Joyce’s Voices, by Hugh Kenner, which illustrates the range of voices, genres, parodies and so forth in Ulysses. I learned that if you parrot a great stylist, you will only ever be a shadow.
You used to write short stories.
I did, in the 60s. All of us were doing our own version of Dubliners. But I’ve lost the skill of writing a short story. Like I have for poetry. I never chose to stop writing poems or stories, it’s just that I’m still trying to get novels right.
The Infinities began life as an adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s Amphitrion.
Yes, Kleist was a great dramatist and poet, but almost unknown in the Anglophone world. I’ve done three versions of his work. But my book, as they tend to do, went its own way. This book isn’t about being gods, it’s about being human. We are capable of such huge achievements but have a finite lifespan. That is what gives life its savour. I recall a quote from the piece on the meeting between Heidegger and Paul Celan (Todtnauberg). “Death stands at the midwife’s elbow.” The awareness of death sweetens all that we do.
How did you come to the structure of The Infinities, with the use of Hermes as the narrator?
I don’t know. That’s like asking me how a dream started. A dream always starts in the middle. I work on a book for four years or so. By the time I’ve finished, I’m a different person, so I have to go back and write it as who I am now.
Four years on The Infinities?
Many people comment on how light it is. That only came out after I’d finished. There must have been playful moments, but I don’t remember many. I remember four years of unremitting hell.
What is the purpose of literature?
Making me famous. And immortal. Oh, I don’t know. Literature won‘t change the world. People are as they are. As Gore Vidal says, I just want to create beautiful things that weren’t there before. I love books. I love books as objects. Talismans. Art, and I mean all art, takes reality and shows it in an artistic concentration that makes the object glow. The essential job of art is to make the object blush, because we blush when we are at our most vulnerable, and most self-aware.
With painting and music, as with literature, you have to bring a sense of being there, of the essence of the experience. I was at the Pierre Bonnard exhibition in Basel today, and I stared at the painting of his wife in the bath. It’s a kind of magic. I don’t know how it’s done and after my own attempts at painting, I know still less. How did he know when to stop? Well, he didn’t. There’s a story of him and a friend walking round a gallery and they find one of his paintings. The friend keeps watch while Bonnard takes out his brushes …
So we’re back to infinity?
Every work of art is a solution to a problem. How to say a thing. A work of art is never finished. It’s just abandoned.
Would you like to be immortal?
I’d like to try it out. Although it might get boring. I believe we only see a tiny strip of reality. Dogs and cats can see things we don’t. Ghosts and fancies and fantasies, human imagination creates all these things. Nothing is more powerful than the imagination. I don’t believe in life after death. Sometimes I wish I did. But then I think about all the awful people I’d have to meet.
I was asked to contribute a short story of six words to an anthology based on the Hemingway legend: “For Sale: baby’s shoes, never worn.”
I wrote, “Should have lived more, written less.”
But I can’t really believe that.
Do you know the story of someone approaching James Joyce, here in Zürich? A man came up and asked him, “May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?”
Joyce replied, “No, it did lots of other things, too.”