Here’s an interview I did with the Irish novelist John Banville in 1995 after the publication of his novel Athena. Below are two of my reviews of Banville novels. At the beginning and the end, Banville (politely) disagrees with what I say about him (also in the middle somewhere). His disagreement seems a bit disingenuous. I still read his complex and intellectually rich books and shake my head at the idea that he is just describing the world he sees when he looks out his window. In any case the main thing in an interview is to get the subject to say something interesting. It’s a treat to hear Banville’s voice as he discusses his own work; there is a stretch when he begins talking about the beauty and tenderness of the world that is just gorgeous.
Once again, I retrieved this from a box of tapes, clumsily recorded and even more clumsily transferred to an mp3 file. There are a couple of skips near the beginning for which I apologize.
Banville Part 1
Banville Part 2
Banville Part 3
On John Banville’s Ghosts
John Banville is an Irishman with the gift of blarney, an author who writes gloriously impossible novels that seem to evanesce like peat smoke or mist out of the bogs of that strange island, phantasmagoric novels that swirl and race and swallow their own tails or dance between morbid melancholy and golden, baseless hope.
He is best known in America for two historical novels, Doctor Copernicus and Kepler, about the Renaissance astronomers who turned the known world upside down. But lately Banville has returned to the Irish setting of his earlier books (Birchwood, Long Lankin), a fantastically sterile, degenerate place of decaying aristocracy, mythically dysfunctional families, murder, incest, drunkenness and mega-alienation.
In Banville’s last novel, The Book of Evidence (1989), Freddie Montgomery, a failed scientist, impecunious husband, drunkard, liar and all-round weasel, abandons his wife and child in Spain and returns to Ireland to try to raise money by selling his late father’s third-rate art collection. Unfortunately, Freddie’s eccentric and possibly lesbian mother has already sold the paintings to a wealthy dealer living on a nearby estate. While stealing one of the pictures back, Freddie murders the maid (one of the most pathetic, grotesque and revoltingly detailed murders in literature-a joy to read) and ends up serving a life sentence.
In Ghosts, Freddie resurfaces 10 years later (a life sentence in Ireland) as the novel’s unnamed narrator, ex-con, amanuensis and ghost writer to a retired art history professor living on a sparsely inhabited island with his books and a galumphing servant-keeper named Licht (sort of a cracked Prospero with his Caliban-plenty of Shakespeare allusions here).
The professor is supposed to be an expert on Vaublin, a minor Parisian painter who apparently went mad or was haunted by a mysterious imitator in the months leading up to his death. In fact, the professor isn’t an expert and has fraudulently authenticated as Vaublin’s a little masterpiece called “Le monde d’or” (“The Golden Word”), which made up part of the collection Freddie pillaged in The Book of Evidence. He is happy to hand over the work of writing Vaublin’s biography to the maid-murdering narrator.
All this is background, and most of it comes clear late in the book. The connections between Ghosts and The Book of Evidence are pleasing to note without being necessary to the reading of either work. I mention them only because they are about all that can be said with certainty about what happens in Ghosts.
Ghosts actually begins with a shipwreck (shades of The Tempest again). A small band of tourists-two women, an old man, a Mephistophelean character named Felix and three children-is unceremoniously dumped on the island by a drunken ferry captain who runs up on a sandbank at low tide. The tourists feel a mixture of strangeness and familiarity as they clamber up the dunes to the professor’s house.
These tourists bear a striking resemblance to the figures in Vaublin’s painting of the Golden World. In fact, they may be the people in the painting come to life or they may be real people who have found themselves in a painting (or a novel). And, of course, it may be a fake painting or an authentic painting painted by a fake Vaublin.
Suddenly, Banville’s little book drops down a rabbit hole of complexity, with the text oscillating between what you might expect from a normal novel in terms of character and plot and a bizarre aesthetic universe governed by the literary laws of recurring imagery, parallel structure, doubles and literary allusion.
Nothing much happens in Ghosts, and at the same time a great deal happens. The old man in the Panama hat, for example, becomes confused, then begins to obsess, trying to remember the name of that golden “thing they keep the host in to show it at Benediction.” He wanders off along the dunes, falls down in a faint, then returns to the house even more confused.
The old man’s obscure drive to remember is less an aspect of characterization than the strange feeling a real person might have if his brain were being written into by a conniving novelist named John Banville. The missing word is less important than the fact that it is missing and that it is golden and hence stands for the old man’s dreamy awareness that he has stumbled into an alternate, ghostly universe called the Golden World.
After a series of more or less similarly inconsequential events, the little group of tourists gets back into the ferry, which refloats with the tide and disappears. All except for Flora, a vulnerable, rather pretty nanny who has been taken advantage of by the nefarious Felix (sometimes referred to as Freddie’s double). Flora remains in the house to save herself from these unwanted attentions, and briefly it seems as if Ghosts might flower into a romantic entanglement between Freddie and Flora. But then, Flora, too, drifts away.
“Such stillness; though the scene moves there is no movement,” says Freddie, describing Vaublin’s painting “Le monde d’or” (and by extension the novel itself). “What does it mean, what are they doing, these enigmatic figures frozen forever on the point of departure, what is the atmosphere of portentousness without apparent portent? There is no meaning, of course, only a profound and inexplicable significance.”
This mysterious nimbus of significance is the central marvel of Banville’s novel. His characters seem to do nothing but are suffused with a mixture of valor and sadness, a steadfastness in the face of a fate they know they cannot know. And his text glows with a gritty eroticism—remarkable, considering there is no explicit sex in the book. On every page there is just the ghostly shadow of something that never appears and is never named.
This is unsettling stuff for anyone who likes a conventional story. But it should not be dismissed as self-conscious game-playing or decadent estheticism. The conventional novel relies on a certain set of technical devices (plot, character, setting and theme) to produce a fictional world that is a simplified, stereotyped and rationalized version of our own—a world where motives drive people ineluctably into action, where cause achieves effect.
Banville isn’t trying to write this semblance of reality. Rather, he is rocketing his readers into a kind of hyper-reality, a world at the outer limits of human sensibility, a world whose complexity is not reduced by the everyday filters of common sense and the pressing need to get groceries or feed the cat, a world that begins suddenly to seem more like a dream or a poem than what we normally call life.
In this world we are constantly reminded of the brevity of existence, how we always seem to have just arrived while on the point of departure. We are bemused and battened by messages the provenance of which we are only dimly aware. We push along in our daily heroics without any real sense of purpose, with only the feeling perhaps that there should be a purpose, always bewildered by the feeling of being other than what we seem to be.
Ghosts is a strange and beautiful novel about art and the wistful inconsequentiality of being, a little paean to the human heart as it mutters its defiance into the puzzling void.
—Douglas Glover, Chicago Tribune December 12 1993
On John Banville’s Athena
John Banville is an author singularly unafraid of the stigma of hyperbole and baroque excess. His novels are littered with incestuous, decaying families, waifish women inviting the whip or the hammer, and drunken, ineffectual male orphans (real or figurative) who move through an fog of decadence, drift and dread worthy of the great Gothic masters.
Known best in America for his historical novels Kepler and Dr. Copernicus, Banville has lately been mining a vein of contemporary Irish grotesquerie centered on a serial character called Freddie Montgomery. In The Book of Evidence (1989), Freddie, drinking too much and down on his luck, tried to steal a painting from a squire’s country house and ended by murdering the maid with a hammer. In Ghosts (1993), free after serving 10 years in prison (a life sentence in Ireland), Freddie turned up on a sparsely populated island where he had been hired as secretary to an aging professor whose specialty was a little known Parisian painter named Vaublin.
If there can be said to be a conventional plot in Ghosts, it turned on Freddie’s abortive love affair with a young woman dropped ashore by a drunken ferryboat captain. This woman and her shipmates bore a striking resemblance to figures in a Vaublin painting called “The Golden World”—part of the collection Freddie pillaged in The Book of Evidence and probably a fake.
In Banville’s new novel, Athena, Freddie’s back, this time in Dublin under the assumed name Morrow, hired by a man called Morden (who works on a street called Rue) to authenticate a cache of 17th century paintings on classical themes. In contrast to Ghosts, Athena is knee-deep in conventional plot elements. There is a cockamamie art fraud plot—something out of The Rockford Files—with a cop called Hackett and a sinister transvestite gangster called Da. There is a plot of sexual obsession and sadomasochistic love between Freddie/Morrow and a girl called A. And there is an astringently tender subplot involving Morrow’s elderly Aunt Corky (not a blood aunt; the connection is vague), who moves into his dingy flat to die. In the background lurks a mysterious serial killer who drains his victims’ blood.
For much of the novel the cracked love story between Morrow and A., a young woman with preternaturally white skin and bruised lips, takes center stage. From the outset the bumbling, chronically depressed Morrow (not since The Ginger Man have we met a character so engagingly and self-destructively melancholy) is besotted and yet knows that she will leave. His breathless, goggle-eyed account (reminiscent of Humbert Humbert’s in Lolita) of their wanton trajectory, from innocent abandon, to voyeurism, to a menage a trois in a seedy brothel, to spanking and whipping and complicit infidelity, is a droll parody of Victorian pornography—melodramatic, perfervid and decidedly unsexy as the situations become more bizarre and mechanical.
Though Freddie/Morrow has taken pains to conceal his identity, everyone else in the novel seems to know exactly who Morrow is—from the criminals who hire him to authenticate their paintings, to the investigating detective, to A. herself, who shocks Morrow one day by asking him to strike her the way he struck that unfortunate maid in The Book of Evidence. Even Aunt Corky hints that she may not be his aunt but his mother. At every turn, an atmosphere of mystery, unreality and downright fraud dogs his steps, so that, though Morrow is telling the story, he seems more and more like a character in someone else’s book, a cog in someone else’s plot.
And interspersed throughout Athena there are catalog descriptions of the paintings entrusted to Morrow, paintings on classical themes of violence, rape and transformation that bear, on the face of it, a strong resemblance to the events of the book (just as in Ghosts the characters seem to have walked out of the Vaublin painting).
So Athena becomes a kind of echo chamber of comic despair in which everything seems fated or written by another hand, where gods toy with humans and turn them into beasts, where a miasma of solipsism hangs in a world of dream, and mysterious lost children, doubles and putative parents hover just out of focus. When A. disappears near the end of the novel, she leaves a note: “Must go. Sorry. Write to me.” But there is no signature and no address, and Morrow is left with only the presence of her loss, a pneumatic void into which he writes his words.
All this is peculiar stuff—heady, hilarious, hyperbolic and strange. Banville’s literary ancestors are writers like Poe, Beckett and Nabokov. His novels are little wars between a repressive, fusty, petty bourgeois sensibility (Irish, Victorian and Modern, with a capital M) and the dark, bubbling, drunken, violent, godlike forces of sex and madness that lurk beneath the surface of life and language.
On the strength of his novels, Banville is not so much a postmodern writer as a pre-modernist, and his critique of modernity rests on a romantic, Arcadian vision of our pre-Renaissance past. Part-way through Athena, Morrow explains how the invention of perspective in painting destroyed the blissful, circular forgetfulness of the past, “spawning upon the world the chimeras of progress and the perfectability of man and all the rest of it. Illusion followed rapidly by delusion: that, in nutshell, is the history of our culture. Oh, a bad day’s work!”
From this vision, everything else follows: Morrow’s confusion, the novel’s atmosphere of fog and drift result from the application of narrowly rigid concepts of self and reality to a world that is ever and always mysteriously other. Stripped clean of contemporary talk show anodynes and psychobabble bromides, the world of Athena is finally hyper-real—one in which in which loneliness, loss and despair throb at the very center of being, and poetry, once again, is possible.
—Douglas Glover, Chicago Tribune July 9 1995