The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
‘Sensitivity edits are nonsense. That really is Stalinism-lite’
The Booker-winning Irish novelist John Banville talks to Jake Kerridge about Catholicism, class and the crisis in publishing
“You probably want me to say a few things that will get me cancelled,” says John Banville, greeting me with a wolfish grin.
Well, I’m not expecting him to hold back on his opinions. This is the novelist who declared that it was “nice to see a work of art win” when he was awarded the Booker Prize for The Sea in 2005, and who observed, when he began to write crime novels under the pen name Benjamin Black, that most contemporary crime-fiction reads like it’s “written with the blunt end of a burnt stick”.
We meet for lunch at a restaurant near Banville’s home in a village a few miles outside Dublin. “I have to live in Ireland. I couldn’t do without the climate – that pearly chilly light that’s just so beautiful,” he says, as we survey the harbourside view. But he emphatically doesn’t regard himself as part of any local literary tradition. “I’m not an ‘Irish writer’. When I won [the Booker], Irish radio interviewed me, and they said, ‘This is a great day for Ireland.’ I said: ‘Why? Ireland didn’t write the book, I did.’ That wasn’t broadcast.”
Banville’s relish for putting people’s backs up may explain why he was hoaxed in 2019, receiving a phone call from Stockholm telling him he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was disabused 40 minutes later, when Peter Handke was officially announced as the winner. ‘Publishers no longer want big, difficult books’: Banville mixes cerebral novels with crime fiction
Banville is embracing the comic aspect of this rather cruel prank and shows me an internet meme on his phone: a photo of his fellow Irish novelist Colm Tóibín laughing with the critic Fintan O’Toole. The caption has O’Toole saying: “Did you use the ‘Swedish chef from The Muppets’ voice when you rang him, Colm? Tell me you did.”
The run of cerebral, poetic novels that may yet net Banville the Nobel came to an end with last year’s The Singularities. This dense, allusive, funny novel about revolutionary discoveries in quantum mechanics turning our notions of the universe on their heads (and provoking academic jealousy) was “a summing up”, he says, reintroducing characters from his previous books. “I can’t bear to read my own work,” he adds, “so I had to depend on my memory. I’ll never write that kind of book again. It took five or six years to write. I’m 77. As the Americans say, do the math. And also, I’ve said all I have to say.”
It says much about the intellectual calibre of publishing in the UK that The Singularities wasn’t issued by a British house (though the independent Swift Press will publish a paperback later this year). “As my old pal Martin Amis said, they don’t want big, difficult books anymore. But good old Knopf [the US publisher] took it on with great enthusiasm, and didn’t try to do any of these sensitivity edits. All that nonsense – here I am on the slippery road to cancellation, but – that really is mini-Stalinism, Stalinism-lite.”
Banville is still going with his more immediately reader-friendly crime novels, which take three or four months to write. “I’m quite satisfied with them – they don’t pretend to be art, but they’re crafted to the highest level I can do. What I’m trying to do – no, what I’m doing – is making crime fiction speak beautifully. Why shouldn’t it?”
‘I think the Catholic Church is an evil institution. It should be abolished’
I find Banville’s elegant crime novels almost as addictive as Simenon. His latest, The Lock-Up, sees the return of Dr Quirke, the sleuthing pathologist in 1950s Dublin (played by Gabriel Byrne in the not-quite-up-to-snuff BBC adaptation of 2014). The vulnerable Quirke seems particularly popular with female readers, who complain in their droves about the disasters Banville mercilessly inflicts on him, including the death of his wife in one of the books. “And then my own wife died 18 months later. If she were here now she’d say, ‘It happened because you predicted it, you bastard.’”
Much of the fun of these books lies in the awkward alliance between the Catholic Quirke and his detective colleague St John Strafford, one of those sons of the Protestant Ascendancy who so often feature in Banville’s novels. “I’m very fond of them. I love their shabby elegance, and their sense of having forfeited power. I feel that this is a great loss for us in the Republic: partition was a disaster, not for the reasons the IRA go on about, but because we lost the Northern Protestant contrarian spirit. They retreated into their domains and left us to the priests and the petty politicians.”
Banville no longer uses the Benjamin Black pseudonym for his crime fiction, but retains a sense of a divided self. “I made my living for 35 years as a journalist, so I would write during the day at home then I would go into work at night at the newspaper [he was a sub-editor, and later literary editor of The Irish Times], and I was two entirely different people.”
Do you feel that Banville the novelist is the “real you”, I ask him. “There’s no real me, there’s no real anybody, we invent ourselves at every moment. Which is wonderful – we’d be robots otherwise. The notion of there being a self is a hangover from religion. The soul… the thing that will survive after us. Thank God such a thing doesn’t exist.”
In The Lock-Up, the Catholic Church is a malign presence, interfering in Strafford’s investigation into the murder of a pro-abortion campaigner. “Don’t get me started on the Catholic Church. I think it’s an evil institution. It should be abolished. It’s not just the child abuse, but the suppression of women, the hatred of the flesh. My poor mother used to say to me: ‘Laughing will turn to crying.’ She wouldn’t have been like that otherwise. At the end of her life she realised that she’d been had. This whole religious thing was nonsense. It’s a power structure run by men.” He draws breath. “Obviously I’m now prepared for the Catholic equivalent of a fatwa.”
Banville grew up in Wexford, the son of a garage clerk. His mother, he says, was “frightened” by his books when he was first published. “She was lower-middleclass, or upper-working-class, and I was leaving her world, and she couldn’t follow me. It was heartbreaking to watch her watching me leaving her world – but we all do that.”
In one sense, Banville has left his own children a difficult legacy: “My younger son, he said to me one day: ‘Why couldn’t we be called Smith or Jones?’ In a tiny country like this, to be called Banville, everybody knows who he is, and that must be hard.”
His private life has long been newsworthy in Ireland. “I went off and had an affair,” he says, “and I had a couple of children with another woman, and stuff was being written about me in the public prints. I felt very sorry for the two women and for my children, but I didn’t care what anybody said about me. I’m not heroically rising above it, I’m just literally not affected by the thought of what other people think. I often think I’m not quite human – there’s sort of a chromosome missing somewhere.
“There’s a wonderful scene in the John Malkovich [film of ] Ripley’s Game. No lines, just Malkovich watching this guy. A psychopath watching a human being, thinking: ‘Oh, this is what they do, this is how they react to things.’ And I often feel myself doing that as well: ‘Oh, so that’s what it’s like to be human.’
“Maybe this is why I write books. To try to give an account to myself of what it is to be human.”
‘The Lock-Up’ is published by Faber on April 30