Banville: 'I love being a craftsman. I quite like being Benjamin Black. But being John Banville I absolutely hate.' Photograph: Kim Haughton/The Guardian
Just before Christmas last year Caroline Walsh, John Banville's successor as literary editor of the Irish Times, walked into the sea off Dún Laoghaire. She had been suffering from depression. "It was a great shock to all of us," he says. "It's a cliché but she was full of life. It's hard to believe that she's gone. I thought I saw her the other day when I was walking around Dublin. I had to remind myself she's dead. Death is such a strange thing. One minute you're here and then just gone. You'd think there would be an anteroom, a place where you could be visited before you go."
Banville dedicated his new novel Ancient Light to Walsh. Although the book was completed before her death, the dedication is fitting. The novel aches with the narrator's sense of loss for two women: one his dead daughter, the other a lover about whom he reminisces 50 years after their affair in an Irish coastal town. Sixtysomething actor Alex Cleave and his wife still mourn their daughter Catherine, "our Cass", who apparently killed herself 10 years earlier in Italy.
Cleave recalls that when Cass was little she said she would marry her father and they would have a daughter just like her, so that if she died he would not miss her and be lonely. He resorts to other tricks to mitigate his grief, imagining a multiplicity of universes in one of which Cass did not die, or writing her back to life: "All my dead are alive to me, for whom the past is a luminous and everlasting present; alive to me yet lost, except in the frail afterworld of these words."
Cleave also recollects his summer-long affair when he was 15 and his lover 35. The book begins: "Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother." But is Cleave remembering the affair or making it up as he goes along, victim of what he calls Madam Memory, that "great and subtle dissembler"? In a sense, it doesn't matter. The important thing is his probably unfulfillable yearning: "I should like to be in love again, I should like to fall in love again, just once more."
Where did that story come from, I ask the author, hoping for a real-life story of a teenage Banville's sexual initiation by an Irish version of Anne Bancroft's Mrs Robinson. After all, Banville, 66, is roughly as old as his narrator. "Oh, I've no idea. The problem with doing an interview is that the person who wrote the story ceased to exist every day I got up from the desk. When you're writing there's a deep deep level of concentration way below your normal self. This strange voice, these strange sentences come out of you. When I was young I thought I was in control of everything. Now I realise it's much more a process of dreaming."
Banville is fond of the characters he's dreamed up, especially the remembered lover, Mrs Gray. "I like her. She constantly laughs at him. That, not the sex, would have helped him grow up. To be laughed at by a grown-up woman is one of the great experiences of life – I mean laughed at fondly." Howard Jacobsononce wrote that his ambition was to see women's throats – to make them laugh so much they hurled back their heads in pleasure. "That's a lovely notion," Banville says. And then, typically, he has a story to trump it. "Once I was having lunch with a woman friend of mine, and there had been some things in the paper about my marriage breaking up – I had a bad reputation." (Banville is married to the American weaver Janet Dunham, whom he met while travelling in the US in 1968 and with whom he has two sons; he also has two daughters from his relationship with Patricia Quinn, former director of the Arts Council of Ireland.) "There were two women at the next table, and my friend was laughing so much that from where they were sitting it looked as if she was weeping. When they left they looked at me as if to say: 'There you go he's doing it again.' What a monster I must be."
Could the affair in the new novel have been narrated from Mrs Gray's point of view? "I don't think so because I've never understood women. Never will, don't want to. I'm in love with all of them, always have been fascinated by them. Not just for sex but because they always do the unexpected – at least I don't expect what they do. They say: 'We're ordinary, we're just like you.' I say: 'You're not. You're magical creatures.' I'm a hopeless 19th-century romantic."
We're lunching at a Dublin restaurant the day after Ireland's footballing humiliation by Spain. A nation, Banville excepted, mourns. "I was at a party once and everybody was talking about some soccer game. Apart from Harry Crosbie, an entrepreneur. He leaned across to me and said: 'Imagine caring who won.' I said to him: 'Friends for life, Harry. Friends for life.'"
So forget football and tell me about the psychic wound that made you a writer. "Seamus Heaney tells this wonderful story," Banville replies. "He was talking to a Finnish poet, who was rather dour as Finnish poets tend to be and said he was having terrible troubles with his parents. The poet said: 'What about you?' Seamus said: 'I rather liked my parents.' The poet said: 'You really have a problem!'
"Like Seamus, I rather liked my parents. Lower middle class, small town." Banville was born in Wexford in 1945. He once said he didn't bother memorising Wexford's street names, so sure was he that he'd leave fast and never return. Ironically, he's returned to plunder that childhood frequently. "Sat in the fields reciting Keats to the skylarks. My brother was eight years older than I was. He was in Africa when I was a teenager. My sister was working in Dublin. So I was an only child most of my teenage years. Adored by my mother, tolerated by my father. If there is a psychic wound there, I'm their psychic wound. I must have been the most hideously irritating teenager. I thought I was smarter than them. I wouldn't have tolerated me if I'd been them."
Banville started writing aged 12, after being bowled over by Joyce's Dubliners.He tapped out Joycean pastiches on Aunt Sadie's Remington typewriter. One began: "The white May blossom swooned slowly into the open mouth of the grave." "The arrogance! I knew nothing of death." He also painted. "Couldn't draw, no sense of draughtsmanship or colour." But painting at least made him look intensely. He avoided university. "I thought I knew it all." Instead he got a job as a clerk at Aer Lingus. The job gave him freedom to write and opportunity to travel. "I would write at night after a day's work. I was very disciplined. I'd given up Catholicism in my teens but something of it stays with me. I try to create the perfect sentence – that's as close to godliness as I can get."
Later, he worked as copy editor first for the Irish Press and then the Irish Times, writing by day, subbing at night. "Graham Greene was right. He said that if you're going to be a novelist, working as a subeditor is the perfect job. You write during the day, go to work at night, the best of your energy is during the day. An old editor of mine said subeditors were people who change other people's words and go home in the dark."
His first book,Long Lankin (1970), was a collection of short stories and a novella. Within three years he had published two novels as well, and reckons that the second, Birchwood, led him up a literary dead end. "It was my Irish novel and I didn't know what to do next. I thought of giving up. I hated my Irish charm. Irish charm, as we all know, is entirely fake." Instead, he reinvented himself as a European novelist of ideas, writing novels involving Renaissance scientists. Doctor Copernicus, Kepler and The Newton Letter were, he argues, books written by a self-confident man from whom he sounds estranged. "Had he been to university, some professor would have warned him off those subjects. But I was free because arrogant, arrogant because free. Some say those are my best books. I think I took a wrong turning with them. Today if I can write a sentence that captures the play of light on a wall, I'm happy."
He reckons to have had a nervous breakdown while writing Mefisto (1986), the planned fourth part of that scientific tetralogy. "It was then that I stopped trying to be in control and trusted myself to dream in my writing." When the book was critically ignored, he retreated wounded to his garden and grew lettuces for a summer.
Banville once said of his books that "I hate them all". Is that affectation? "They embarrass me because they're all failures. We're aiming for perfection and never attain it. It's become a cliché but, as Beckett wrote, 'Fail again. Fail better.' What one does is so little compared to one's ambitions for it."
He hasn't read reviews for many years, which seems odd for such a prolific reviewer. Why? "I spend two, three to five years writing a book. I know its failings. I know the few areas in which it's succeeded. The only person who can't read this book is me because I bring to it all the history, all the dead cats and slime and that Tuesday afternoon when you said 'Fuck it', and you let the paragraph go."
One reason he ought to read reviews of his books is that most of them are eulogies. Reviewing Banville's 1997 novelThe Untouchable in the Observer, George Steiner wrote: "Banville is the most intelligent and stylish novelist currently at work in English … The mien is austere and Victorian; the awareness, the ironic readings of the contemporary are razor-sharp."
Has he ever stopped ventriloquising others and written in his own voice? "Only once. In The Book of Evidence" – his 1989 Booker-shortlisted novel about a man who murders a servant while trying to steal a painting from a neighbour – "where the narrator says: 'I have never really got used to being on this earth. Sometimes I think our presence here is due to a cosmic blunder, that we were meant for another planet altogether, with other arrangements, and other laws, and other, grimmer skies.' I believe this world is too gentle for us. We should have been in an iron world, not this one. I used to drive in to work at five o'clock in the evening looking at the sky, thinking 'Who arranged this exquisite thing?' How I wasn't killed, I don't know. This world is terrible and savage but it's absolutely exquisite and we don't deserve it."
In 2005, Banville won the Booker prize for The Sea, about an art historian returning to a seaside village where he spent a childhood holiday. The award was surprising, as Banville seemed to have queered his pitch. In 1981 he wrote to the Guardian waspishly requesting that that year's Booker prize, for which he was "runner-up to the shortlist of contenders", be given to him so that he could use the money to buy every copy of the longlisted books in Ireland and donate them to libraries, "thus ensuring that the books not only are bought but also read – surely a unique occurrence."
Worse yet, he had – by his own admission – made powerful enemies earlier in 2005 with his New York Review of Books demolition of Ian McEwan's novelSaturday, which he called "a dismayingly bad book". "It looked like one novelist kicking another novelist, and that wasn't what it was at all. As far as one can be disinsterested, I was reviewing it in a disinterested way. But, boy, have I made a lot of enemies."
Among those enemies, he feared, was John Sutherland, Booker chairman in 2005. But, with the judges poised between The Sea and Kazuo Ishiguro'sNever Let Me Go, Sutherland cast his deciding vote in favour of Banville. "Curious because he'd been furious with me for my review of McEwan." Then he bit the hand. "I blew the whole bloody thing by being michievious in an interview on BBC2 with Kirsty Wark." He said: "Whether The Sea is a successful work of art is not for me to say, but a work of art is what I set out to make. The kind of novels that I write very rarely win the Man Booker prize, which in general promotes good, middlebrow fiction."
So does Ancient Light stand a chance of being shortlisted for the Booker? "I think they may as well call the whole thing off and give me the prize now!" Banville has written a film adaptation of The Sea, which is to be directed by Stephen Brown and will star Ciarán Hinds. Like his prolific book reviewing, film writing is an enjoyable sideline from fiction. He has an as yet unfilmed screenplay on the life of his Irish revolutionary hero Roger Casement, which he wrote for director Neil Jordan. He wrote a script, based on a George Moore short story, for Glenn Close to play a 19th-century Dublin cross-dresser in last year's film Albert Nobbs. Now he's working with director Jonathan Kent on an Irish-set adaptation of Turgenev's A Month in the Country.
"My ideal would be to be one of those hacks in a bungalow in the Hollywood Hills in the late 40s, and a producer with a cigar in his mouth says: 'We need two scenes by 6 o'clock and they'd better be good, kid, or you're off the movie.' I'd love to have worked like that." It would be an antidote to the solitary torture of being John Banville, maker of baroquely structured Nabokovian works of art. For similar reasons, no doubt, after The Sea, he devised the nom de plumeBenjamin Black, whose crime novels today are more prominently displayed than Banville's books at Dublin airport's bookshops. Why did he create Black? "I love being a craftsman. I love writing reviews. I quite like being Benjamin Black. But being John Banville I absolutely hate." No wonder: it is Banville's stated ambition to give his prose "the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has". "On a good day Banville can't write more than 400 words, but they are all in more or less the right order. With Black it's 10 times more."
Being Black also gives him a break from being misconstrued as Banville, literary sage of the emotions. "I have this friend who has an incredibly complicated love life and she says: 'Advise me, John.' I say: 'I can't. Just because I write about something doesn't mean I know anything about it.' One of my models is Kafka, who said: 'Never again psychology!' He's right – artists are witnesses, we present the surface. As Nietzsche said, surfaces are where the real depth is. "
In Ancient Light the narrator says he doesn't understand human motivation, his own least of all. "That's true of all of us, isn't it? Do you think you understand yourself?" He maintains we get further from self-understanding as we get older. "I used to think age brings wisdom, but it only brings confusion. A friend of mine visited Beckett in his old folks' home in Paris and he said he was getting so old he was forgetting so many things. My friend sympathised and Beckett said: 'No, no – it's wonderful!' I know what he means: so much trivia gets wiped.
"It's quite comic, the spectacle of one's own creeping dissolution. Not so much the usual funny things of forgetting why you went upstairs, but actually to watch the physical stuff decay. It's definitely comic. I hadn't seen a profile photograph of myself for about 30 years until the other day. I thought: your hair's going as well."
Banville stands to go: "You have enough. You have the jokes, the arrogance and the sermon." I wanted more, I tell him. Over his shoulder he gives me a parting joke: "It's no good – I can't