John Banville's eighteenth novel, The Sea, won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2005. The Boston Globe raved, "[T]reacherously smart, and haunting...its story of a ravaged self in search of a reason to go on is cloaked in wave after wave of magnificent but hardly consoling prose."
After its publication, Banville wrote a series of mystery novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black — Christine Falls, The Silver Swan, and the forthcoming Elegy for April, as well as the stand-alone title The Lemur. Known for his gorgeous, extraordinary prose (the Washington Post calls him "one of the most stylistically gifted novelists at work today"), Banville took those talents in a different direction in his crime fiction, along with expert plotting and character development.
Banville's most recent novel, The Infinities, is his first under his own name since The Sea, and it is a playful, luminous, and multi-layered examination of life itself. Adam Godley, the patriarch of the Godley family, lies in a coma, and the family has gathered around him during his final days. Narrated both by the family members and the god Hermes, and modeled in part on Heinrich von Kleist's play Amphitryon, The Infinities is a brilliant and magical work. In a starred review, Booklist writes, "The Booker Prize winner retains his standing as one of the world's most exquisite stylists....Banville creates a bewitching world in which to ponder what it is to be human."
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Jill Owens: The Infinities is based in part on Amphitryon, the play by Heinrich Von Kleist, which you had already adapted. What made you decide to go back and adapt it into the form of a novel?
John Banville:Kleist's play is one of the great dramas of western literature. It's hardly known at all in the English-speaking world. In fact, Kleist is hardly known in the English-speaking world. Kleist, who died in the early 1800s, died very young, I believe at the age of 32. His ambition was to blend Greek drama with Shakespearean burlesque, which was quite a task, but he succeeded, I think, in Amphitryon. It's a very good play — wonderfully entertaining and a very dark comedy. It is a comedy of errors, in which Zeus comes to Earth because he has fallen in love with the wife of Amphitryon and spends the night with her in the form of Amphitryon, so she thinks it's her husband. The next day, Amphitryon himself comes back unexpectedly, and so there follows a wonderful comedy of errors. It's very dark, but a great piece of literature.
So I thought of modeling a novel on it. I was going to stick fairly closely to the drama, but of course fiction has its own rules and requires different methods. But Amphitryon is still there, clandestine, within the book.
Jill: I would say that The Infinities is a kind of a comedy as well, even though it's pretty dark and it's about death and mortality, to an extent.
Banville: Well, it's about life.
Jill: True. [Laughter] The tone is lighter, I think, than in some of your previous works. At one point in the book, Hermes describes the gods as being playful, but not benign, which I thought actually described the tone of this book fairly well. How did you think about tone and voice in this book?
Banville: Yes, it is playful. I have always tried to avoid solemnity. I like to think I am serious, but never solemn. I think solemnity is the death of art. But yes, it is playful and it is lighter, I suppose. I didn't really see that until I'd finished the book and some people read it, and said, "This is quite funny and quite comic." I looked back over it and I thought back over it, and I realized that yes, it was. Frequently, an artist doesn't really know what he's doing. We stumble along in the darkness. There's a wonderful quote of Kafka's, I wish I could remember it. It's something like, "I don't think as I speak; I don't speak as I write. I don't write as I should, and it all goes on in deepest darkness."
I wasn't intending to make a comedy or a tragedy. I preferred to make a book and that's what I did. It did, for some reason, come out more playful and, I like to think, funny. That's what I would like to give people.If people don't laugh, hopefully they smile very hard.
Jill: The point of view is interesting as well, and this may go to what you just said about not thinking too hard about it as you were writing it. It's in third person through several different characters, and then between first person with Hermes and then first person with Adam... and then it gets very blurry. I was wondering how you decided to structure the point of view in that way?
Banville: Again, I didn't decide. I'd like to claim that I did. It's like life itself; we're so adrift. We think we're in control and we're doing this and doing that and making this decision or taking that direction — but in fact, we're just drifting along. The older I get, the more I like to let books find their own direction. I feel that my instinct now is such that I can work and I can trust it. I can work along by instinct.
I sometimes think that the entire farrago is taking place in Adam Godley's mind as he is lying there preparing to die. The whole thing is the invention of his very active mind. But as well as referencing Kleist, of course, it's intended to be Shakespearean. The names are just ridiculous — Adam Godley and Benny Grace and so on. There is a very high level of irony in it. I think that anyone looking for a straightforward novel is not going to find it. I hope they find this more interesting and somewhat delightful.
It is not a straightforward work and it is, as you said, very playful. It's full of tricks and full of little reversals, odd terms. That's the way I try to write fiction; it's always playful. If you look at even what's in the darkest works of Beckett, for instance, they're very playfully structured. Beckett was a great fan of French crime fiction. He used to devour those books. All his books have a peculiar kind of detective story plot, and they all have a twist in the end. For instance, in Molloy, Malone's action starts at midnight, when he is peeking in the window. After a long and devastating journey, he comes back to find his world in ruins. He says, "I went in, I sat down and wrote, 'It was midnight when he was peeking in the window.'" It was not midnight, it was not raining, and the whole book collapses like a house of cards, with this wonderful trick, this twist in the end. So even in the darkest work, it is always playful.
Jill: One of main themes in this book, it seems to me, is that the gods are jealous of our humanity, because of our our life force and temporality, which gets back to mortality. And I love the description of the humans from Rex's, the dog's, point of view.
Banville: [Laughter] Everybody likes that.
Jill: I was trying to figure out an excerpt from it, because the whole paragraph worked so well together. A few lines that might sum it up: "They are afraid of something. Something that is always there though they pretend it was not....Their laughter has a shrill note so they seem to be not only laughing, but crying out as well. When they weep their sobs and lamentations are disproportionate. So what is supposed to have upset them is just a pretext, and their anguish springs really from this other frightful thing that they know and are trying to ignore." Was Rex meant to be kind of a counterpoint to the gods' perspective?
Banville: Yes, he's a kind of god himself. But whereas the gods can't understand love and can't experience mortality, Rex doesn't hold that mortality and he misses the dark secret that torments the humans around him, one that he can't quite figure out. He feels sorry for them, and he doesn't understand why they're so overwrought all the time. I suppose that is one of the deeper themes in the book, the price that we pay for our self-consciousness is that we get the consciousness of death, which sweetens every single act in our lives. It's just momentous. The fact that all this will end.
So yes, that would be a theme, but again I try to treat it lightly.Rex is a comic character and I like to see him as a very Shakespearean dog. He's also very kindly. He knows his people, his human beings. He takes them for walks; he eats the awful, unpalatable food they give him. He wants to treat them well.
There are a lot of benign feelings in this book. As human beings, they're trying to think of each other and trying to tolerate each other. In a way, if you look at the book closely, the human beings are the gods and the gods are something else. They're kind of frozen in immortality, unloved and incapable of loving, driven by lust, by anger, by jealousy, by all the things that we're driven by, but without the compensating delights of ordinary love and mortal life. In a sad way, the book is trying to celebrate the beauty of this world and the extraordinary miracle that it is to be alive. [Laughter] I don't want to get carried away here, but that is what I am trying to do. That's what all art does, even the darkest of it. It celebrates what it is to be alive.
Jill: I think the book does that wonderfully. It's interesting because the title itself is referring to infinities both in space and time and of potential. The idea of other selves on other worlds and the image of the boy on the train, which seems to refer to old Adam in his youth, is an enormous subject to try and write about fairly concretely, which I think you do here.
Banville: Yes. I mean, the science is all completely fake and ridiculous. [Laughter] Of course, who knows? The most ridiculous thing that you can think of tomorrow turns out to be true. Physics is a very strange world, with very strange discoveries. It might well be that somebody will start manipulating the infinities in equations tomorrow or the next day and come up with an extraordinary discovery. That, again, is one of the great joys of being alive. There is always something new. There are infinities of new things, always. I am interested in physics. I think twentieth-century physics is often full of beautiful ideas and notions and images that are more interesting in many ways than the ideas in twentieth-century philosophy.
I think that the beauty that drives physicists and the beauty that drives the novelist is absolutely fascinating. I realized when I was very young that science and art come from the same source. Once they react to that source in the human intellect, they change. There are advantages and disadvantages on both sides, art and science. But they do spring from the same source. So, though I can barely add two and two, I know how a mathematician's mind works, because I do the same kind of thing in my much humbler way.I don't speak the language of the gods, which is mathematics, but I aspire to the condition of mathematics.
Jill: The world of The Infinities is slightly different or possibly later than our own. I read the book twice and the first time I read it, I thought that it was a slightly overlapping parallel world — which includes a bellicose Sweden, the prominence of Von Kleist as an artist, and then, of course, the physics. When I reread yesterday, I though maybe it was a little bit in the future, but I wasn't sure which interpretation was correct.
Banville: Any interpretation that you want to put on it is correct. There are as many versions of The Infinities as there are readers to read it. Every reader remakes the book; every viewer remakes the painting; every listener remakes the music. The thing stays itself, at some level, but our interpretations make new things of it. So as far as I can see, The Infinities takes place under no time. There are telephones, but the postal system is still run on the Thurn and Taxis. I had a lot of fun doing that. I had a lot of fun knocking Goethe off his pedestal. I had fun, as I say, inventing these silly names of people. I would hope that the book would be read in that spirit, to go back to the word we've been using, in that playfulness.
Jill: Yes, I think it absolutely is. I was wondering if you chose that setting, which is both familiar and a little bit alien, to introduce or reinforce the theme of the uncanny, which comes up through the rest of the book.
Banville: Yes, I think so. I do think art is a process of making the familiar unfamiliar, showing us how the ordinary is in turn extraordinary. If you read Freud's little essay on the uncanny, that's essentially what it is, bringing back familiar things in unfamiliar shapes, showing them to us, in Freud's view, in a terrifying way. But also, from the point of view of the artist, showing it to us in a delightful way. We certainly discover the things we thought were ordinary are not ordinary at all. This is what good art does. It takes a pebble in the road, or a human being, and it concentrates on them until they begin to glow. I think the concept and the notion of blushing is very important in art, and in my kind of art. You know, the artist concentrates on the detail of the object until it blushes in the way the love object blushes when a lover gazes at it with that particular intense gaze. That is what art should do. It should make the world blush and give up its secrets.
Jill: That's a wonderful way of putting that. I love that metaphor. There is a sentence in the book: "How to conceive of a reality sufficiently detailed, sufficiently incoherent, to accommodate all the things that are in the world?" This seems to get to the heart of writing to me, of creating an entirely new and entirely familiar world, all at once.
Banville: Yes, that is the difficulty of writing. When we start out when we're very young, we start writing our first short stories, or whatever, we're shamed by the difficulty of it, by that awful realization that all the things in your head cannot be put down on the page. It has to be done word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. One has to find some way of encompassing this.I always think that reality is square, but art is round. Trying to encompass that square reality with a round method is terribly, terribly difficult. It always involves sleight of hand. It is a sort of marvelous trick.
You can be sitting in a room reading about Leopold Bloom, for example, and the person you're reading about, the thing made of words, will seem to you more real than the person sitting across the fireplace from you. Art can summon up an extraordinarily vivid and intense sense of reality. How is that done? It's impossible to say. This is just a string of black marks on a white page and yet what it does to our imagination is much more miraculous than the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Jill: You were quoted as saying that you would like to give your prose "the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has." How do you think about your prose, while you're writing, paragraph by paragraph and line by line?
Banville: I work by the sentence. That's the unit for me, not the word or the paragraph. Joyce, for instance, was a master of the paragraph. Ulysses is a masterpiece of paragraph-making. But for me, it's the sentence. I have to have the rhythm of the sentence before I can feel the true meaning of the sentence. Do you know what I mean? It's not that the rhythm is supreme and I give up sense in order to have rhythm. That's allowed to the poet, but prose has to make sense. But there has to be a rhythm there. The meaning both shapes the sentence, but also to some extent is shaped by the sentence. This is a strange process that I don't understand.
It's very difficult when you start thinking about the sentence or trying to talk about the sentence. It is an extraordinary thing. I have said before that if I were asked to name the greatest invention of humankind, I would say it's the sentence. You can do without the wheel. There have been civilizations, like the Incas or the Aztecs, that had no wheel, but they had the sentence. That's where everything comes from. That's where our thinking comes from, and where our communication comes from. That's where our adoration of the Gods, our abjuration of the devil, comes from. It's all done through the sentence. So I feel extraordinarily privileged to be making some sort of living and making my life vocation through making sentences. It's an extraordinary thing. I'm a very, very lucky person.
Jill: The sentence is sort of the atom of humanity, then.
Banville: [Laughter] That's it.
Jill: I was curious who you considered influential writers. You've named Beckett and Joyce already. D.H. Lawrence came to mind while I was reading this book, in places.
Banville: I greatly admire Lawrence as a poet, more than as a novelist. He is a marvelous, marvelous poet. His poems are not terribly shapely, but my goodness, they're intense and they do conjure up the world. His poems about animals are absolutely superb. People always talk about me being influenced by Nabokov, and Joyce. But who I'm most influenced by, if I'm influenced by anybody, is Henry James.
Henry James is the supreme stylist. I think he's the greatest novelist, as a novelist. He may not be the greatest artist as a writer, but he is certainly the greatest novelist. If you look at the body of work that he left behind, and those last three novels, where his style becomes so opaque, and so cloudy, I think he may have found more interesting modernistic ground even than Ulysses. Ulysses is a kind of throwback to a medieval world. But Henry James, in those late novels, really catches something of what it is to be conscious. That strange fuzzy sensation that we have, where we're not thinking words, we're not thinking in images, we're not thinking in feelings, but we're thinking a strange whipped-up egg white of all of these things. We seem to claw our way through this strange cloud of knowing, of barely knowing. Henry James came as close as anybody has come to what it is to be conscious, which is an incoherent state. So if I were to admit to any influence, it would be to Henry James.
Jill: I happened to be in Mexico this past week with some friends, and we were talking about dead writers that we would bring along to a desert island with us.
Banville: Oh, I wouldn't bring Henry James! [Laughter]
Jill: One of my friends did pick him.
Banville: Well, he would be a marvelous conversationalist, but you might have to wait forever for him to get to the end of his sentences. [Laughter] He always reminds me of that wonderful cartoon about the German language where there are two men, one of whom is in an absolute rage, and he's strangling the other. The man who is being strangled is perfectly calm and the caption is, "He's waiting for the verb." I think with Henry James, you'd have to wait for a long time for him to get to the end of the sentence.
Who did you pick? Writers are not very good company. [Laughter]
Jill: I picked Keats.
Banville: Oh yes, Keats would be wonderful, wouldn't he? Did you see that movie [Bright Star], Jane Campion's movie..?
Jill: No, not yet.
Banville: It's quite good. It is worth seeing, but it doesn't catch anything of Keats, because Keats was such a feisty little guy. He was tiny, but he was always picking fights with people over matters of honor and principle. He was an absolutely wonderful creature.I would love to have known Keats.
There's another influence. I'm certainly influenced by Keats. Of course, one has to be very careful being influenced by somebody with such a rich imagination and such rich language. Christopher Ricks has a great book, the title of which is wonderful: Keats and Embarrassment. And you know, Keats's poetry is sort of embarrassing. You read it as a teenager and you feel you should be in a locked room reading it, it's so voluptuous. [Laughter] But he was an influence. He was one of the earliest people I started to read.
Jill: Switching gears just a bit, I had never read much mystery or crime fiction, but I picked up Christine Falls a few years ago and I was utterly drawn in by the language. How did you start writing those mysteries and why under a pseudonym?
Banville: The pseudonym, first of all, was so that people wouldn't think that I was pulling a sort of postmodernist literary hoax. I wanted people to realize that what you see is what you get. These are straightforward books. They are not meant to be literary endeavors in the way that Borges would sometimes write detective stories and so on. These are straightforward mystery novels. So I took the pseudonym, but never intended to hide behind it. I simply wanted people to realize that this was just an entirely different direction that I was taking.
I had finished The Sea in 2004, and I began to read some Simenon, which I hadn't read before. Not the Maigret books — which I've never actually managed to finish — but what he called his romans durs, his hard novels, such as Tropic Moon, Dirty Snow, and Monsieur Monde Vanishes. The New York Review of Books, the publishing wing, has reissued about a dozen of them. I was bowled over when I started to read them, to see what could be achieved with such very spare vocabulary and a very direct style. No psychologizing, no speculations, just straightforward narrative. I thought I would try to do something similar. I would not have Simenon's extraordinary spareness and his capacity to summon up a scene in half a sentence. It's an extraordinary gift. I don't know how he manages it. But I was greatly taken.
And I'd read other people, like Richard Stark and his series of Parker novels, most of which were written in the early sixties. Again, I think they're masterly works, not of crime fiction, but of literature of any sort. I'm very glad to see that, partly with my encouragement, the University of Chicago Press is reissuing Richard Stark's books.
Jill: I've seen them; they're very well done.
Banville: Aren't they wonderful? And then there's James Cain. The Postman Always Rings Twice is an extraordinary book. I think he dashed it off in a weekend. It's a frightening, dark, and absolutely true book.
I don't like the notion of genre. For me there's just good writing, and then there's writing that isn't good. A lot of very good writing indeed happens in the so-called genre of crime fiction. So I wanted to join the ranks and try my hand at it, and I found that I could do it. I could do it with extraordinary fluency. I would write a Benjamin Black book extremely quickly, whereas a John Banville book takes years to scratch out. It's an entirely different way of working.
Jill: I guess my last question would be, what are you reading lately that are you enjoying?
Banville: Certainly the American books that I have read very recently that have impressed me most are Robert Richardson's three biographies of Thoreau, Emerson, and William James. I think those three books together, which I suppose could be called a trilogy, are an amazing work of contemporary American literature. People make this whole separation between creative and non-creative writing, which I never understand. These are as creative as any fiction. They're beautifully done, and they're exciting.
I just finished reading Roberto Calasso's book Tiepolo Pink, which was reviewed in The New Republic. It's a marvelous book about a marvelous painter. That's the marvelous thing about books. There's always something else that you haven't read! I have nothing but sympathy and compassion for people who don't read, because it is such a wonderfully rich world. There is always some new, exciting thing to be discovered.
I spoke to John Banville by phone from his home in Ireland, on March 30, 2010.
Books mentioned in this post