John Banville: 'I give an impression of knowing about real life. But I don't'

The Irish novelist on this year's Man Booker shortlist
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The Independent Online

"I grew up in the great age of journalism," he says. "In the Sixties, critics like Toynbee were gods to me. They made great statements about culture, how important writing was to the life of society. I think that's gone now. That's why I think prizes like the Booker are so important. I can't believe the list has got so much attention. It's seems to have really caught people's imagination. And it shows that when there's so many good, serious novels on the list that those books do appeal and do sell."

With a writing career that began back in 1970, Banfield self-effacingly describes himself as one of the old farts of the literary world. He is the most experienced and long-lived of the six shortlisted writers.

Born in Wexford in 1945, Banville's first book, Long Lankin, began a career that has proved one of the most enduring, and successful, of recent generations. He won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Doctor Copernicus in 1976, the Guardian Fiction Prize for Kepler in 1981 and, as well as a Booker nomination The Book of Evidence secured the Guinness Peat Aviation Award in 1989. A prolific and sought-after reviewer, Banville was the literary editor of The Irish Times from 1988-99.

The Sea marks the 14th novel in his career, and is the second to find its way on to the Booker shortlist.

Like much of his past work The Sea is characterised by a poetic intensity that makes few compromises with the commercial mainstream. Although he professes scepticism about the term, this is "literary" fiction in a genuine sense: intense, poetic and deeply probing in its intelligence, albeit animated by outbursts of intense black humour that bear more than a passing signature of Banville's professed mentor, Samuel Beckett.

"That category 'literary' is a new phenomenon," he says, speaking at his home in Dublin, "and I think it's a pity things have divided that way. But perhaps there's a change coming. In the Nineties, especially in Ireland, we were lucky. There was peace, our economy changed, things looked good and it seemed like that would last for ever. We didn't know what was slouching towards from the festering deserts of Arabia. The world now is so dangerous - perhaps that means culture is going to have a comeback."

The Sea, like much of Banville's past work, is fiercely embedded in the local detail of Irish life, yet from its base in the small scale makes broader connections to the larger themes that have dominated much of European modernism and post-modernism over the past century. In its reflection of time and memory, it's possible to detect a touch of Proust; in its deployment of a narrator not entirely to be trusted there's the hand of Nabokov; and the enduring influence of Beckett is palpable in the intensity of its metaphysical reflection. It's a testament to Banville's abilities and achievement that he's not out of place in such esteemed company.

One of two Irish novelists nominated this year (Sebastian Barry is the other), Banville is one of many of Ireland's writers to find success in the UK. But he is acutely aware of the difficulties in the relationship between what he ironically names "mother England" and his home country.

"Peculiarly for Irish writers, English isn't really our language. We might have spoken it for 200 years, but we don't necessarily always feel at home in it. The problem for us Irish novelists is that we publish in London and are reviewed in England by English reviewers who often regard Irish novels as a failed attempt to be English. I read something the other day that referred to the 'Celtic fringe' of writers. I thought: Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, Beckett - if this is the Celtic fringe, where would I find the full head of hair?"

With a publishing history that stretches over 35 years, Banville has no plans as yet to hang up his pen. "I think, after the first 30 years, that I've begun to get the hang of it," he comments wryly. "Certain technical challenges become easier, although I do find that language always brings you back to its own difficulties. I think now I give a good impression of knowing about real life. I don't, of course. I sit in a room alone for four years writing, but then emerge with this thing. A book is like a waking dream, I suppose, but to be able to share that with other people is a great privilege."


In John Banville's The Sea (Picador, £16.99) the widowed narrator, Max Morden, returns to an Irish coastal resort where, as a child, he encountered the other-worldly Grace family who shaped the rest of his life. It was shortlisted last week for the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

"Like aged liquor, potent and malty, his writing demands to be imbibed in appreciative sips, lest its sheer power intoxicate and overwhelm."

The Independent on Sunday

"It has been said of the Irish by some English person that we gave them a language and they taught us how to use it. This was true of Wilde, Shaw, Joyce and Beckett, and now Banville."

The Daily Telegraph

"Banville is an aesthete. He is a new Henry Green, who can conjure with the poetry of people and places."

The Independent

"Banville has a talent for sensuous phrasing, and pungent observation of human frailty, but in other areas important for fiction - plot, character, pacing, suspense - The Sea is a crashing disappointment."

The Sunday Times