John Banville: Man Booker winner tries new genre

Last year's Man Booker winner John Banville has made an abrupt change of direction and written a cracking crime thriller set in grimy Fifties Dublin. But is it, asks Tom Rosenthal, an attack on the Catholic Church?
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One of the more dubious clichés of the cultural life is that all clowns yearn to play Hamlet. Oddly, few people maintain that the average Hamlet wants desperately to play the clown. It's also put about, again rather dubiously, that your typical genre writer, be it of police procedurals or political thrillers, wants to be taken seriously as a novelist. Most of us have our favourite writers whose best genre books already seem to be as good as many so called literary novels. There are of course several "literary" novelists who write with different personas. Graham Greene famously called some of his novels "entertainments". Other very distinguished novelists have written genre fiction, almost invariably pseudonymously, to pay the rent. Gore Vidal wrote mysteries under the name of Edgar Box and Brian Moore wrote thrillers as Bernard Mara. Significantly, both Vidal and Moore gave them up once their serious novels built up serious sales.

This season we have had William Boyd's World War Two and Cold War thriller Restless, so good that, as far as I'm concerned, it is simply his most recent literary novel; and now last year's Man Booker winner, John Banville, having published 14 highly cerebral literary novels, has given us, in Christine Falls, an account of dirty deeds in Dublin and Boston in the early 1950s, written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.

Its protagonist is Quirke, a pathologist at a leading Dublin hospital, who discovers that a young woman, Christine Falls, has had her cause of death altered in the official records by one of the city's leading obstetricians, who happens to be not only Quirke's colleague but also his brother-in-law.

Quirke possesses most of the by now archetypal attributes of the troubled investigator/hero. His physical appearance (huge) is striking; he drinks too much; he is a widower; he suffers a fearsome beating at the hands of thugs hired by the sinister, ultra-Catholic cabal of Dublin worthies who run the city if not the country. He also gets his fair share of opportunistic sex. And, like all the breed, he pursues the mystery despite everyone's opposition, to the exceedingly bitter end. To some extent his victory is Pyrrhic and the epilogue with Police Inspector Hackett is ambiguous. But Quirke survives to do battle in another book.

The sense of guilt and retribution is worthy of the House of Atreus, and in terms of narrative drive and plot structure the book is reminiscent of Ibsen at the height of his powers. Quirke, before his widowing, had, like John Gabriel Borkman, married the "wrong" sister, but it would be a crime to give away the intricacies of an ingenious plot that encompasses everything from brutish violence to the subtlest of moral corruption; from passionate love to baby farming for fanatical Catholic purposes.

Most of the book is set in a meticulously recorded and dissected early 1950s Dublin. Brendan Behan makes a significant appearance, metamorphosed into Barney Boyle, and there's a marvellous description of a chilly lunch between Quirke and his brother- in-law at Jammets, at that time the only decent French, or indeed any sort of, restaurant in Dublin (now, alas, defunct). A key character, superbly drawn, is a former (fictional, I trust) Chief Justice of Ireland and neither Banville nor Quirke is in any way a respecter of the city's leading figures.

Christine Falls is in every way a most satisfying book and, to anyone who knows Banville's normal output, from the subtlest of his novels to his sharply honed, sometimes devastating, long book reviews in the New York Review of Books, a most surprising one. Over dinner last week I asked him about Quirke's genesis.

"It was quite simple. About three years ago I began to read Georges Simenon, not the Maigret novels but the non-formulaic books, his hard novels, and I wanted to try and see if I could write that sort of thing in that simple, direct style. I had a TV script which wasn't going anywhere. But when I decided that it should become a novel every single line of dialogue had to be changed. When you write dialogue for a script you have to do in a very flat way, to allow the director and the actors to do their stuff. But when it's a novel that's all there is: the words on the page."

When I mentioned that it was unusual for literary writers to turn to genre books only after great success with pure literature, he pointed out that he'd written Christine Falls in the summer of 2005, before the announcement of the Man Booker shortlist.

"I'd been writing books in the first person, men making confessions, men in trouble, for a long time, since the early 1980s. The Sea was the end of that process. Something was changing in me - a sort of sea change. I did this mainly to escape myself, to give myself a shock. It was fun to do. I'd been writing 'literature' since I was 12. So I needed to do this. I'm already half-way through the next one in the series and I'm having a peculiar kind of holiday from myself."

I suggested that up to now his novels were primarily novels of ideas (particularly the early ones), and that they were not driven by plot or narrative. However Christine Falls, whose characters were no less interesting than those of, say, The Sea or Birchwood, was wholly plot- and narrative-driven and it might be this that makes it so liberating for him, because ultimately, fiction is plots and narratives. He did not demur and quoted E M Forster: "There has to be a plot. There has to be a story. Ulysses has a story. Beckett's late works, they all had stories. You're right, I decided that for once I wouldn't resist story. I was interested to move these figures around and not treat them as literary artefacts. These were people who had more presence than I thought they had. I found, quite late in my writing life, that I was quite interested not in describing people but to try and give a sense of their physical presence."

What's also striking about Christine Falls is that Banville has created compelling action scenes with vivid, clearly visual language not found in his usual crystalline, even jewelled, prose style. I instanced the episode in which a brutal and villainous chauffeur drives himself and his despised wife into the path of an express train in a way that makes the reader gasp with shock and admiration.

"Well, the funny thing is I wrote that paragraph in about the time it would take you to read it and that's a completely new thing. In my earlier work I would have laboured over that for a week, and that scares me slightly."

While he was alive, I saw John McGahern as by far the best Irish novelist but, paradoxically, he was not better than Banville. He was different in that he was an almost entirely autobiographical novelist, writing in an exclusively Irish idiom wholly about life in the Ireland he knew. Banville on the other hand, while some of his fiction was set in Ireland, was in spirit, range of ideas and structure, a European writer despite his Irish citizenship. When I put this to him he not only agreed but told me that he and McGahern had been close friends partly because of both mutual admiration and the firm knowledge that their totally different approaches to fiction ensured that they would never be rivals.

"I was having dinner at McGahern's house in Leitrim. We agreed we could be friends because we weren't competing. Somebody had written a review of one of my books saying that 'Banville is trying to open a window onto Europe' and McGahern said 'Yes. And I'm to trying to slam it shut!' And we had this wonderful idea for a cartoon by Jack Yeats of me trying to open a window and McGahern trying to shut it. McGahern was writing about local truths. I certainly wanted to be something else... Sometimes I think I was wrong to do that. You know I used to have this vision of myself - do you remember the Fontana Modern Masters series? John Banville: The Great Novelist of Ideas. I learned the error of my ways. After Copernicus, after Kepler [subjects of his earlier novels], now I've learned humility. And that's nothing to do with achievement; it's to do with a different stance towards art and to the world. I think you realise, at a certain age, how little you can do. How small your discoveries can be... And in a way, then you begin to write more freely."

When I asked him if in future he would alternate between Benjamin Black and his Banville books, he laughed somewhat ruefully, not unlike a convict seeing sunlight through his window while the shadow of the treadmill looms. "I'm half-way through another Quirke novel now which I hope to finish quickly, to give myself for my birthday on 8 December. The Banville book [which he has also begun] will take another two or three years, minimum, and I couldn't possibly write it at the speed with which I wrote Christine Falls. That's because, with the Quirke books, the main interest is the story and not how it's told."

Banville is being modest here, since as any reader of his literary novels knows, they are, no matter how stylish, full of substance. You have to work at reading them, just as he works at writing them. Slowly, deeply, with absolute concentration. In Christine Falls, the style is still there, immaculate, not a cliché in sight, but you read it at speed because it is, in that old phrase, a real page-turner.

Banville deliberately chose to set it in 1952-3 when he was himself seven or eight, living in a small town in the south of Ireland. He was brought to Dublin for his birthday and found that the smell of diesel fumes was "the most romantic thing - we didn't have buses in that small town - and I wanted to catch that smoke-filled, foggy atmosphere."

When I asked him if he really believed that Dublin in those days was as corrupt as his novel implies, he responded instantly and vigorously: "Oh, more so! Ireland in the Fifties was like those Eastern European states. It was ruled by a monolithic, over-arching ideology. Which was the Church. The State had made its pact with the Church because it realised that this was the way to power. Of course, when you have a society run by an ideology, anything is possible. You can do anything because everything is subsumed under that ideological rubric. You may not challenge this because you will be upsetting the State. Now, having lived through the Fifties, and looking at Dublin as it is now I sometimes think: 'Christ! Bring back the Church. Bring back frightening people..." he chuckles mischievously, "because we thought, in the Sixties, that freedom was indisputably a good thing. What we didn't realise, because we were young, was that the biggest burden you can give people is freedom.... And of course, as we well know, looking back at history, what the despot does, the tyrant does, is say to people, 'Yes, I recognise your problem. Give me your freedom. I will take it from you. This is too heavy a burden for you. You don't want to be free. You want to be told what to do.'"

Given this bleak analysis, I asked if Banville was concerned that this might be seen as an anti-Catholic novel.

"I think in Ireland it probably will be. Now that I'm 60, looking back, I can see that that period was, for a large number of people, a terrible time. You would not want to be an orphan or anybody who was in any way outside the mainstream of society. I don't think it's the fault of the Church. I think it's the fault of people themselves. When I was a kid, everybody knew about child abuse and the other things that are now being investigated by tribunals. You don't have to be brainwashed, you don't have to be terrified to go along with the system; we're a deeply debauched society, spiritually, emotionally, morally, ethically. We are also a damaged society, we have very deep wounds indeed, not inflicted by the British but inflicted by ourselves. It's too easy to blame only the Catholic Church. A people cannot blame its own philosophy that it took on."

He mentioned the general welcome in Ireland for the smoking ban in pubs: "The smokers who were against the ban became happy because they could claim that they were being victimised. All sorts of romantic relationships have started up because of the fellow-feeling of victimisation among the banned. The Irish love this. There's a wonderful acronym for Ireland: MOPE. Most Oppressed People in Europe. If you look at Europe which was flattened in the war, within 10 years it was up and running again. We're still whining about what the English did to us."

It's a joy to listen to Banville in full flow, a writer and talker in the great Irish tradition and one can only welcome both Christine Falls in particular and Quirke in general. May he have a long life.

'Christine Falls' by John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, is published by Picador (£12.99). To buy a copy for £11.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897