"I've always tried not to play the Irish card," says John Banville, one of the most imaginative literary novelists writing in the English language today. "The real charm of the Irish is evasiveness. Irish writers are best when they're ambiguous. Maybe I'm a sour old bastard, but I don't understand the current obsession with heart-on-the-sleeve Irish sentimentalists. I don't see myself as an `Irish writer' with a `gift of gab.' It's bad for the work. Good writing is good writing. Period."
Banville's writing is emphatically good. Excellence, in fact, may be the only predictable thing about it. His novels are anything but similar, ranging from Doctor Copernicus, a richly textured tale about the shy, sexually conflicted 16th-century scientist, to The Book of Evidence, his feverish Booker Prize-winner, narrated by a murderous madman. Banville can be dense, steamy, lyrical, cracked, but he is almost always original, having produced an array of works impossible to categorize: among them Ghosts, a contemplative story about a tour group run aground on an old man's island; Mefisto, which treats a modern-day Faust pinned between mathematics and crime; Athena, a piquant story about a woman who appears to have stepped out of her lover's canvases; and The Untouchable, about a Cambridge aesthete who turns out to be a spy.
Banville was born in 1945 in Wexford, a small town with big history: It had been a Viking settlement before the Norman invasion. "One's past is always a kind of medieval world," he says. "But the town of Wexford was deeply medieval. I think it's why Doctor Copernicus and Kepler came so naturally to me."
His father was a "white-collar worker" in a garage supply business, his mother a strong force in persuading her three children to move on, aim high. There were no books at home, no music, but the nuns in Banville's school were thorough and inspiring -- "English classes were always taught by interesting people, and the libraries were a window to another world. I can still smell the books. I wanted to be part of them. From the start, I wanted to be a writer."
His parents had hopes he'd be an architect some day, and so he tried his hand at painting. "I had no sense of color, no gift. But it turned out to be a useful thing to do: It made me look at the world in a different way." Painting came to play an important part in his writing: Many of his novels are set in the world of art.
He refused to go to university, a decision he has always regretted. "I couldn't contemplate being dependent on my parents any longer," he says in grim defense. He took a job instead as a clerk with Ireland's national airline, Aerlingus, because it offered him a chance to travel and gather material for stories. In 1968, at the height of that unruly decade, he found himself in Berkeley, Calif., where he met his American wife.
His first novel, Nightspawn, was published in 1971, and it was followed quickly by a spate of others. By 1980, he had begun work as an editor at the Irish Press, a newspaper run by Eamon De Valera's party. When his Newton's Letter was made into a movie, he left journalism but quickly found out he couldn't make a living on fiction alone. He was hired as literary editor of the Irish Times, a post he manned for a decade before stepping aside last year. Today he is chief literary critic for the Times, and continues to live in Dublin.
"I've never been able to live off my novels," he says. "I've always had to fit them in. I've always been a night-worker." There is nothing melancholy in his voice when he says it. For all the travail, for all its limited financial reward, he has had his share of laurels; critics hold him in high regard, and he has been awarded Britain's top literary prize.
Banville is currently at work on a novel about a man in the middle of a breakdown, haunted by visions of the future. He doubts it will sell more than the usual few thousand, but he labors on, undaunted by the demands of an increasingly commercial industry and a dishearteningly small readership.
"There's a little quotation I've found," he says when he is asked to consider the great recent successes of writers like Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes). "It's from Nietzsche, and goes something like this: `Before you can get the crowds to cry Hosanna, you must ride into the city on an ass.' Isn't that it, now? Isn't that just the way it is?"