The Two Mr. Banvilles
High-Toned Irish Author's Inner Gumshoe Is Busily Pecking Away

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.

Sherlock Holmes he's not.

"What I like about Quirke is that he's kind of dumb, like the rest of us," Banville says. "He cannot figure out what's going on. He misses the clues. People tell him the truth, he thinks it's lies; people tell him lies, he thinks it's the truth."

Banville also likes the fact that, because his doctor-detective is working half a century ago, "I don't have to do all that science they do nowadays." His research consisted of "a half-hour drink with a pathologist friend," who later told him: "You got everything wrong."

Plunking Quirke down in the repressed, provincial Ireland of the '50s had another advantage. It meant that readers wouldn't expect the amped-up mayhem so common in today's thrillers -- most of which, Banville says, are "written by people who've never seen more violence than somebody bumping into their car in the street."

He grew up repressed and provincial himself, in Wexford, in southeast Ireland. When he was 12, his brother gave him a copy of James Joyce's "Dubliners," which astonished him with its portraits of lives both "squalid" and "illuminated."

Bad imitations ensued.

One began: "The white May blossom swooped slowly into the open mouth of the grave."

"A 12-year-old!" the author says, laughing. Then: "You know, artists don't really have all that much experience of life. We make a huge amount out of the small experience that we do have."

Banville's experience includes forgoing a university education for the chance to see the world beyond Ireland. He got a job with Aer Lingus, flew all over the globe, met the woman he would marry in Berkeley in 1968. A year later he was back in Ireland, working as a sub-editor -- "what you call a copy editor" -- at the Irish Press.

"I loved that tinkering with language," he says. Then he quotes, with relish, a boss's definition of copy editors as "people who change other people's words and go home in the dark."

Lured by Hollywood, he tried to quit once.

"I wrote a little book called 'The Newton Letter,' " he says. "I remember being paid 500 pounds for it; it took me two years to write. I did the script for it in three days and I was paid 15,000 pounds." He took a risk, sold his house and soon discovered that "the movies are a much harder business to get into than one imagines."

So he went back to his day job -- eventually, he became literary editor of the Irish Times -- and kept writing.

John Banville novels, of which there have been more than a dozen so far, weren't exactly mass-market fare, as you might guess from this fairly typical reviewer's judgment: "Banville has constructed a style that combines the sensuous beauty of language as a physical object with a painful, hesitant self-awareness that derives from Beckett's prose." They tended to sell around 5,000 copies each, Banville says, though 1989's "The Book of Evidence" did modestly better after it was shortlisted for the Booker.

The fans he did acquire, however, tended to be passionate.

Novelist and screenwriter Mark Sarvas, proprietor of a literary blog called the Elegant Variation, first encountered Banville in 2000, when he read a review asserting that "Eclipse" might be the novel that finally got Banville noticed. Sarvas "walked across the street to a bookstore, read the first page" and was hooked.

"Nobody writes a sentence like this man does," Sarvas says. He goes on to describe Banville both as a novelist of ideas and as a wonderful observer of the landscape of "the damaged male."

"Eclipse," it turned out, was one more breakthrough that didn't happen. It wasn't until his Booker win that Banville actually started to sell. (According to Nielsen BookScan, "The Sea" is pushing 200,000 -- in combined hardback and paperback sales -- in this country alone.)

Meanwhile, Benjamin Black's career was starting to take shape.

"The Sea" was finished in September 2004. In March 2005, Banville began writing the first Quirke novel. Six months later, on the same day the Booker shortlist was announced, his agent presented his British publisher with the manuscript of "Christine Falls."

Banville asked that it be published under a pseudonym. The idea was simply to signal that "this was something different."

* * *

The difference begins with the act of writing itself.

Banville writes with a fountain pen. "I have to have that resistance of the paper, because the computer is much too fast," he says. As Black, he types his stuff straight onto the screen.

Banville takes three to five years to finish a book. Black can do it in that many months. That's because "what you get with John Banville is an extreme of concentration. What you get with Benjamin Black is, I hope, spontaneity." He's writing "very quickly, very fluently, and not thinking about it."

Then, of course, there's the plotting.

Black novels, like all thrillers, are built around plot. Banville has a reputation for ignoring it -- though that reputation may not be entirely deserved.

"The Sea," for example, weaves together the story of narrator Max Morden's marriage and the trauma of his wife's death with the story of a life-changing childhood summer that builds to a jolting climax. "It seems to me to be packed with plot," Banville says. "I don't know what they want in the way of plot. I really don't."

It's clear, however, that its plot matters less to him than the ideas he's grappling with.

He's interested in how "the past becomes our legend," something "we think we remember" but manufacture instead. The subject of Max's intense, pre-adolescent love affair provokes a meditation on "what growing up consists of," which is "an increasing sense of the particularity of things." He observes that when we fall in love, "we fashion a mirror image to see ourselves. I always think of lovers as two mirrors clasped face to face." This, by the way, is "the same as making art. I think of art as an almost sexual process where you concentrate absolutely on the object."

It's hard to imagine Benjamin Black talking this way.

Black's plots resemble other thriller plots. Like just about every Dick Francis hero, Quirke gets beaten by thugs trying to warn him off the scent. Like countless investigators before him, he falls into passionate sexual connections that are certain to end badly.

"In that genre one has to work in cliches," Banville concedes. The best he can do is try to banish them from his sentences.

Something else that's hard to imagine is the author of "The Sea" writing serial fiction for an American newspaper. As Benjamin Black, however, Banville cranked out a 15-part mystery called "The Lemur" for the New York Times Magazine this year. (It came out in book form last month.)

"I thought I'd be doing it week by week, and I was thrilled by this," Banville says. "I'd have been like Dickens!" Alas, the Times insisted the whole thing be finished before it printed Chapter 1 -- but he still loved the challenge of matching a story arc to a rigid format.

"Benjamin Black is like a schoolboy who's been given an extra week's Christmas holiday," Banville says.

"This, of course, is worrying. To enjoy writing is deeply worrying. I must be doing something wrong."

* * *

The schoolboy on holiday is grinning. He knows he's not doing anything wrong. But he also knows -- despite the fun he's had pitting Banville against Black -- that his writing personas are more closely linked than he sometimes implies.

For one thing, Black was created because Banville needed a kick in the novelistic pants.

"I see now that it was a device to get John Banville to think differently," he explains. For too long he'd been writing first-person narratives about men in deep trouble who are all "intensely telling their own story."

The Black books, he says, are his first venture into the third person in decades.

For another thing: Banville's taste may not match that of most thriller writers or fans, but he can sound a lot like them when he calls James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice" a masterpiece or praises Georges Simenon's more serious novels as "up there with the best of 20th-century literature."

"All art at a certain level is entertainment," Banville says. The heck with Aristotle: "We go to a tragedy by Sophocles to be entertained."

No one is likely to confuse "The Sea" (first sentence: "They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide") with "The Silver Swan" (first sentence: "Quirke did not recognize the name"). Yet there are plenty of passages -- such as the following dense slice of Black prose -- that could slip easily into either book:

"Sometimes the beauty of things, ordinary things -- those unseen flowers, this burnished foliage, the honeyed sunlight on the pavement at her feet -- pressed in upon her urgently while at the same time the things themselves seemed to hold back, at one remove, as if there were an invisible barrier between her and the world."

And when the next books by John Banville and Benjamin Black come out, their respective admirers may be in for some surprises.

The Banville novel will, on one level, continue in extreme highbrow mode. "It takes its inspiration from Heinrich von Kleist's great play 'Amphitryon,' " he says. His publisher's reaction: "Another crowd-pleaser, John, what?"

Yet it will be lighter than recent Banville efforts and written largely in the third person -- "a different kind of book for me."

As for the next Benjamin Black: Fans may be alarmed to hear that Banville is bored with Quirke.

He's more drawn to the pathologist's wayward daughter, Phoebe, these days. Little more than a plot device at first, she has grown into the troubled young woman from the passage quoted above -- the one simultaneously drawn to beauty and detached from the world.

"Phoebe," says her two-headed creator, "is more of a John Banville character than a Benjamin Black character. That's probably why she interests me so much."

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