The Two Mr. Banvilles

"What you get with John Banville is an extreme of concentration. What you get with Benjamin Black is, I hope, spontaneity," the author says. His alter ego writes "very quickly, very fluently." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008


If John Banville had his way, his entire collected works would disappear.

"I have this fantasy," says the much-lauded Irish novelist. "I'm walking past a bookshop and I click my fingers and all my books go blank. So I can start again and get it right."

He spends years writing and rewriting the things, but the misery doesn't stop there. For example, when he finished "The Sea" -- now his best-known book by far, because it won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 -- he anticipated an embarrassing scene in which his publishers would stare at their hands and say, "John, we think we'd like your next one. This really isn't very good."

All of which explains why he's so fond of Benjamin Black.

Black is Banville's thriller-writing alter ego. His name graces the covers of "Christine Falls," "The Silver Swan" and "The Lemur," though the pseudonym has always been an open secret. And Black, unlike Banville, is the kind of writer who can pound out a novel in a few months and never look back.

"I'm proud of the Benjamin Black books in the way that a craftsman would be proud of a nicely finished table," Banville says. "John Banville books I loathe and despise and hate. They're a standing affront to me."

How did a cheerful, prolific crime novelist come to inhabit the writing mind of one of the most angst-ridden perfectionists on the planet? The answer says a good deal about the Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship of so-called literary fiction and genre fiction. But it also makes you wonder:

Are Dr. Banville and Mr. Black really as different as they seem?

* * *

A gray-haired, neatly suited man of 62, Banville is diminutive enough that he often jokes about his stature. It's no accident that Quirke, the amateur detective at the center of the first two Black books, is 6-foot-6: His creator found it amusing, as well as "technically interesting," to imagine how the world would look to someone "so much bigger than I am."

He is in Manhattan as part of a brief tour to promote "The Silver Swan," his favorite of the Black oeuvre. Set in 1950s Dublin, its plot has Quirke -- a pathologist by trade -- deciding to look into the mysterious death of an acquaintance's beautiful wife.

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