John Banville's finely-tuned prose is famous for its precision, but has he pulled off the feat of ventriloquising a gay British spy? Ruth Padel meets the Irish novelist, while Elspeth Barker reviews his latest (right)
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The Independent Culture
IN THE Shelbourne Hotel, the grandest public spot in Dublin, spring sun is blazing on the face of John Banville, Ireland's "dazzling cross between Henry James and Hitchcock", the "outrageous master of seductive prose", as he has been called. But there's nothing dazzling or outrageous about him on the surface. He is small, and ferociously neat, like a Cretan shepherd out of Harold Pinter, and what he wears (a silvery tweed and black shirt buttoned to the throat) absorbs the light. This man can drink for Ireland, I've been told, but this afternoon it's China tea.

He has written ten novels, including the Booker-shortlisted The Book of Evidence. They have all been praised to the skies, and his new one, The Untouchable, is also tipped for the galaxies. It is a spy story but it's set in the language of art, and narrated in the ultra-English voice of a Thirties Oxbridge aesthete.

"If an English writer tried to write in the voice of an Irishman, we'd carve him up," says Banville, over the Shelbourne's custard creams. Well - has he got the Englishness right? There are a few details - estate agents would kill for a Georgian mansion in Victorian North Oxford; the AA might wonder if Hampstead Heath is the best route from Oxford to Poland Street, even in the Blitz. And he's written the whole thing in the voice of a gay man? "I'm hopelessly heterosexual. I'd be very surprised if I've got that right."

But Banville's not interested in getting that sort of thing perfectly right. What he's after is the English mask, our tradition of self-impersonation. "What a whale of a time they had, those communists in the Thirties," he says (a touch enviously). "Floating on a sea of champagne, screwing anything in sight, then being something else. Having the best of so many worlds."

To impersonate someone "being something else", he based his masked hero ("Maskell") on the spy and art historian Anthony Blunt. "Blunt was a passionate man but unwilling to get the passion out. That was why the Soviets relied on him. When things went wrong they always went to Blunt." But he crossed Blunt with the Irish-born poet MacNeice, giving Maskell MacNeice's well-documented Irish childhood.

Back in the early days, some of his novels, such as Kepler, breathed a sense of caged genius. Did he feel pretty caged himself, writing them? What was life like then? "I was working in newspapers, I wrote at night, then the kids came and it was more difficult - we didn't have much money. I like to work with an open door, the sound of the Hoover outside ..." Women writers can't do that, I point out boringly. They're at the wielding end of the - "My wife's been very good to me. I love life going on around me. I like it to be ... filled," he says, as if the writing life were a Cadbury's egg.

Getting the right word is overridingly important to him. He's not going to utter a sound until it comes. Even a firing squad would wait for Banville to finish a sentence. But people often ask where the feeling is, in his work. "In practically all my books, what is significant is what is not there. I'm wary of sentimentality. All artists have a strong streak of it. It's a trap. But it's also too easy to make yourself cold and cruel to avoid it. It's my one area of doubt about Beckett: the motiveless cruelty. He can be sentimental - the pet hedgehog that dies, and so on."

Beside us a toddler stands up on her armchair and bashes her frontal lobe against its back. Banville starts up. "That's going to go over," he worries. There's a perfectly good dad standing by, and it's a Shelbourne chair, a byword for solidity. Banville's unconvinced. "It's going to tip over," he says again, suspecting its fundamental untrustworthiness. Is that how he sees life: tippable-over, at any moment? Is that the underlying feeling in his work?

"People say I choose bleak, grotesque things, but I genuinely feel I write realistic fiction. This is what the world looks like. There's no need for magic realism. I'm always amazed when people call me Gothic. I've had to suppress things because they were unbelievable. Kepler spent eight years of his life preparing his mother's defence in her witch-trial. Eight years! His wife died, his children died, still he went on. I had to make it less grotesque." One character in The Untouchable injects cyanide into a Granny Smith and eats it. A poisoned apple? Isn't that a little - "No, that's real. That was Turing. He was brilliant. He cracked the German codes in the war - the Allies would never have won without him, England would have starved. But they hounded him afterwards. He confessed to a policeman about a homosexual affair he'd had. He couldn't help telling the truth." Is that why the book's pet name for him is "Psyche"? Is he the conscience of the Cambridge Apostles? "Maybe. I hadn't thought. Maybe. These coincidences ..."

Coincidence my foot. This man has such a weirdly pattern-making unconscious, he could conjure up coincidences in the molecules of a mashed potato. His novel Birchwood ends: "There is no form, no order, only echoes, sleight of hand, dark laughter." And The Untouchable? "It's a bleak book," he says. "It's about pathetic characters trying to live a life. I discovered American pragmatism recently - so bleak. You realise where America got that - " (another word-search) "heartlessness."

Brandy? "Why not? The sun's nearly over the yard-arm." Colonialism suddenly eagles into his speech. Has English self-impersonation infected him? Or is this get-the-Brit, a game not unknown in Dublin? No: he'd never be mischievous in the flesh. ("I prefer the written word.") This Brahmin formality is one of his masks. Does he ever drop them? Does he, for instance, relax? "No. I'd melt if I relaxed." Chess? Crosswords? "Nothing." Holidays? "No. Well - I took a holiday. A few weeks ago. Went to New Mexico, and down into Old Mexico for a few days. Fell in love with it straight away. To my surprise I did find myself relaxing, sleeping ten hours a day. This is terrible, I thought. Maybe senescence has set in."

People go on about his flawless technique. "Writing is a 20-year apprenticeship. It was only with The Book of Evidence I knew I had the mastery." His sentences are brilliant, surprising - sometimes over-poetic? "The danger of poeticised fiction is that the novel has to be to do with lived life." Well, I chip in, poetry is supposed to like that too ... No dice. "There's verse and prose. Poetry can occur in either. I envy the formality of poetry. I want to make fiction as dense and demanding as poetry. For most people, the novel is a loose, baggy thing you can slip in and out of. Skip a paragraph and it won't make any difference. I'd hope you can't blink when you are reading my work, or you'd miss something. I want to say to the reader, you're not going to be able to read this in the way you think."

So how does he work? "I tend to concentrate on the paragraph. I spent eight months composing the first paragraph of Kepler. My books are static. I work in a series of 'freezes', in both sense of the word. I've never been very interested in action. But when you set a book in a period you've got to move it forward." And how does he like to be read? "The most succinct bit of criticism I ever heard was when a man said to his wife, 'Too many words'. I liked that. People may see exuberance in my language, but I always know what I'm doing. Language is always a danger for us." (He means the Irish.) "The obsessive thing that artists like me have, is to reproduce the world. How it looks, how it smells and feels."

The Untouchable is dedicated to his sons. "I don't think they read my work. I think they are embarrassed by it. Like seeing your father strip naked. No - like seeing him sing at a party." I try to imagine this man in the tweed mask, the man who'd melt if he relaxed, singing.

He was born in Wexford, never went to university. "One of the most important books of my education was George Steiner's Language and Silence. When I was growing up he was a window on to wider things. I'm infected with thought. It's one of my besetting sins [he means, I think, as a writer] that I'm fascinated with ideas." He explains, "Autodidacts like me always cling to thought and envy rigour. They fear the way they do things is a magpie sort of knowing. The danger is you'll pick up bits that look as if you had deep knowledge when you haven't.

"My wife is American, went to a good American college, and I envy it. It's very unfashionable now to believe in the value of thought. People value the instinctual today. But every artist has to have thought."

Does he follow Steiner in his multilingualism? Has he lived outside Ireland? "A year in England. Otherwise not longer than two weeks. I have no languages. I can't become the other person which speaking another language requires. I mumble."

So he's very much part of Ireland? "We're so smug, we think we're secretly running the world. The story goes that the Irish Times mentioned the Titanic under the heading 'Cork Man Drowns At Sea'. I'm not writing about Ireland. But I'm not an international novelist in the sense of an anonymous European writing about the state of the world from a hotel room. I'll tell you - the only direct thing I've written is at the end of Birchwood. The narrator says of his parents' house: 'I shall stay here, alone, and live a life different from any the house has ever known.' That was my manifesto. No one noticed at the time, thank God. After all these years I can confess it. I live in exile here. I'm out of touch with other writers."

But you're the literary editor of the Irish Times? "I was brought in to internationalise the pages. But I'm hopelessly ill-informed, here. People have to tell me things."

Exile has compensations. "In Ireland people are proud of writers. When I was on the Booker shortlist, I was walking down a back street in Dublin and a workman on a bike started pedalling furiously towards me. Oh God, I thought, he's going to run me over. He swerved at the last minute, shouted 'Great fucking book!' and shot off again."

! Ruth Padel's latest collection of poems is 'Fusewire' (Chatto).