Like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, the name John Banville is frequently mentioned in the reverent tones reserved for writers more often invoked than read. His prose, lush and hypnotic, is flecked with mordant humor, but even his most ardent fans agree it can be difficult to register a chuckle amid the ruminations in such novels as The Untouchable, Eclipse, and even his Booker Prize-
winning The Sea. Which is why his latest novel is something of a shocker.
Christine Falls, published under the name Benjamin Black – not to conceal his identity but to signal his new direction – is a flawlessly executed crime novel that balances a brilliant plot with luminous prose, entertainment with existential dilemma. With this page-turning tale of murder and its consequences in 1950s Dublin and Boston, Banville joins the ranks of a very different pantheon of writers. Move over, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, Benjamin Black has arrived.
Small in stature, Banville epitomizes the literary figure. Not the rumpled tweeds and scuffed shoes variety that typifies Irish writers; think instead of a member of the modish French intelligentsia: impeccably cut dark suit, black fedora, and a scarf, probably cashmere, his concession to the March winds in Boston on his recent visit there to promote Christine Falls.
In print and in person, Banville can come across as distinctly frosty. By contrast, in this interview for Irish America, he was expansive, chatty, and sometimes amusingly catty. And while he dismisses the idea that his turnabout is all that exceptional – Beckett loved crime fiction, he says, and Banville himself has read it all his life – Christine Falls reveals a more entertaining side to the author then we’ve previously been allowed to glimpse. It also provides the perfect response to his critics who’ve said he can’t write plots or dialogue.
In conversation, Banville suggests he’s even happier than his readers to escape “that bloody first-person voice” (his words) that dominates the majority of his previous fourteen novels, which tend to involve querulous men in contemplation at some crisis point in their lives. It’s hardly surprising that his first wife, by whom he has two sons, described him in the throes of writing as like “a murderer who’s just come back from a particularly bloody killing.”
“When I sat down that March morning I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says, conjuring up a very different image of his working style while writing Christine Falls. “By lunchtime I had a few thousand words. If I were writing as John Banville, I’d have written a few hundred words. I suspect it’s the sort of book I would have written when I was 22, if I’d had the technical skills to do it. The
characters are interesting; it’s plot-driven, and I’m just finishing a second one. There is a kind of schoolboy glee; here I am able to do this stuff!”
Christine Falls, his dark tale of murder and megalomania among Ireland’s Catholic middle class in the 1950s, introduces us to the hard-living Dublin pathologist Quirke. Rescued as a child from an orphanage by Judge Garrett Griffin and raised alongside the judge’s son, Malachy, the two subsequently become brothers-in-law when they marry into the same Irish-American family. Quirke’s wife dies, however, and although the two men work at the same Dublin hospital, where Malachy is a successful obstetrician, they avoid each other. That is, until one night when, after a boozy office party, Quirke stumbles down to the hospital morgue and finds Malachy altering the file of a recent intake to the morgue: a young woman named Christine Falls. The ensuing story is set against a richly evocative portrait of Dublin in the 1950s and Scituate, Massachusetts, once an enclave for wealthy Irish-Americans, and known as the Irish Riviera.
“The 1950s absolutely fascinate me,” Banville says, admitting that the period also relieves him of the problem of discussing DNA testing and other methods of modern pathology. Describing the Ireland of that time, he says, “When you look back on it now, we were exactly like the Eastern European countries under the Soviet Union. We didn’t know it; we were told that we were free. The church’s stranglehold on us was absolute. I remember my mother, who was a devout woman; she used to read Woman and Woman’s Own, magazines which were innocent beyond belief. All they ever had were articles about the queen and her corgis, and recipes for plum pudding. And at confession one week, because she had no other sins to confess she told the priest about the magazines. And he said, ‘Oh you have to give those up.’ And she gave them up!”
He describes his own childhood as happy. He was born in 1945 in the town of Wexford. His father, a store manager at a garage, was a man of modest habits; his mother was, he says, “the original Chekhov character. She wanted to go to Moscow. She wanted to be in Dublin, but she had no way of doing it.”
His two siblings also grew up to be writers, albeit lesser known ones. His sister, Vonnie Banville Evans, has written children’s books and a memoir of the family. His brother, Vincent, writes under the name of Vincent Lawrence.
Always the brightest boy in the class, Banville’s intelligence protected him from the casual cruelty and the pedophilia, mild and otherwise, that was part of growing up for so many in that era. By the age of seven or eight he had decided that small-town life was not for him and precociously showed it by refusing to learn the names of the streets of Wexford.
Though his mother begged him to go to university, he refused, not wanting to remain dependent on his family any longer. Instead, moving to Dublin after secondary school, he went to work as a clerk for Aer Lingus because it offered him access to cheap travel.
“Looking back on it I think it was a mistake,” he says of his decision not to go to university. “I should have taken the three or four years to be a student. I might have gained a different perspective on work and on duty. But then, if I’d had that, maybe I wouldn’t have worked so hard as a writer – it’s foolish to think about what one should have done. One does what one does and that’s it – but maybe I would have had more of a sense of myself and the things that it would be legitimate for me to ask from life and the world.”
When his first book, Long Lankin, was published in 1970 Banville was working as a sub-editor for the Irish Press. For the next thirty years he worked in the newspaper business, moving to the Irish Times after the Irish Press folded in 1995. Appointed literary editor of the Irish Times in 1998, when that paper began to lose money a few years later, he accepted a redundancy package. Writing by day, working by night, was, says Banville, who has two daughters with his present partner, Patricia Quinn, “the only the way to be free. I didn’t have to make money from my writing.”
Writing to please himself has never produced commercial success, although his books have earned him most of the literary awards available to writers in Ireland and England; including, in 2005, the daddy of them all, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
Possibly the most commercially important book award in the world, it typically earns its winners the number one spot on the bestseller list as well as increased sales of back titles. None of its previous winners, who include Margaret Atwood, J. M. Coetzee, and Ian McEwan, can claim, however, to have created quite as much controversy as Banville.
His winning novel, The Sea, about an elderly art historian who after losing his wife to cancer revisits the seaside villa where he spent his childhood holidays, created a firestorm of protest in the London press, who deemed it the worst choice ever made in the thirty-eight-year history of the prize. Reading the press reactions on the morning of his win, Banville says now, “A huge smile spread across my face and I said, ‘Yes! Yes! I’ve annoyed the London literary critics.’” Still, his often peevish sounding, if justified, comments (“If they give me the bloody prize, why can’t they say nice things about me?” he complained to the BBC) suggest he wasn’t quite so indifferent to the critics’ abuse, even if his win was, as he declared, a victory of art over commerce.
“People have always said I couldn’t do plots, I couldn’t do character. I couldn’t do dialogue. Look, I’m doing it,” he says describing Christine Falls, a work which also suggests that, as he enters his seventh decade, Banville may have finally learned it’s OK to take life a little easier – and let his readers have some fun too.