John Banville on fiction and art, a conversation with the Booker Prize winning author
I was keen to talk to him about ‘literary’ fiction and ‘genre’ fiction. Coincidentally, Banville has since written a genre novel, the first in a crime series, under the pen name of Benjamin Black. (Christine Falls is scheduled for publication, here, in November.)
We spoke in Melbourne, last week.
[CHRIS BOYD:] FICTION, NOWADAYS, ISN’T ALLOWED TO BE AS WEIRD OR AS ODD AS FACT.
[John Banville:] Well, it never could be. The world is so bizarre. If you portrayed it as it is, nobody would believe it. I always tell the story... people accuse me of being exaggerated and grotesque and gothic... they used to anyway. And I’d tell the story of driving through Dublin the day after Christmas day, down this long empty street. Completely empty. Nobody, except me in my car and on the street corner three albino men deep in conversation.
I thought, if I put that in a book, nobody would believe it. They’d say, oh there’s Banville exaggerating again. Three albino men. [I thought:] Is there a convention?! A White Christmas?! I don’t know, it’s very strange.
DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN BART SEES A FEW JEWISH MEN ON A STREET CORNER ON HIS FIRST VISIT TO NEW YORK CITY. THEY’RE EITHER RABBIS OR HASIDIC. THINKING THEY’RE ZZ TOP, BART CALLS OUT: YOU GUYS ROCK! AND THEY GO, “AH! MAYBE A LITTLE!”
I watched an epidode of The Simpsons yesterday, which I haven’t seen for ages. It’s quite -- it’s still genius. It’s just astonishing. The inventiveness -- and the complete disregard for the conventions of that kind of show... Just the weirdest things can happen. [It's a] great show.
I PARTICULARLY WANTED TO TALK TO YOU AS SOMETIME LITERARY EDITOR OF THE IRISH TIMES, AND TO TALK TO YOU SPECIFICALLY ABOUT GENRE FICTION AND LITERARY FICTION WHICH, TO ME, NOWADAYS, HAS BECOME A KIND OF GENRE IN ITSELF. THE ONLY METAPHOR I CAN COME UP WITH... IN PORNOGRAPHY, “NATURAL WOMEN” HAS BECOME A SUBSPECIES... A FETISH IN ITSELF.
When I started publishing, there was just fiction. There were good books and bad books, or successful books and unsuccessful books. We didn’t have this subgenre of “unshaven” fiction.
I would divide fiction into fiction that attempts to be art and fiction that is carrying on the grand old tradition. Let me put it this way, the distinction between George Eliot and Henry James, right?
George Eliot is writing -- as James [said] -- big, loose, baggy monsters of novels about society, ethics, politics, social matters, the industrial revolution, all that stuff.
Henry James [had] no interest in any of that. What Henry James wanted to do was make a work of art that would live through the ages. Live forever. And the way he did that was to take no notice whatsoever of what was going on in his own time. Which Joyce also did for instance. I mean, there’s no mention anywhere in Joyce’s work -- I mean, apart from the politics of 1904 -- there’s no mention of the World War, any of that stuff.
I don’t believe that it is the business of the artist to talk about these things. I feel that 9/11 should be banned as a topic for fiction for at least 15 years. Because that’s not what art is for.I had this argument -- used to have it -- with George Steiner. Steiner says art has become problematic because concentration camp guards would read Goethe then go out and put Jews in gas chambers.
It’s not the point. You’re asking the wrong question. You’re asking the wrong thing. Art is not for civilizing people and stopping them from being monsters. People are monsters or not. And no amount of art will change anything like that... that’s not the point. And in a way, George is guilty of taking art too seriously.
[Art is] a wonderful thing. It broadens our lives, it gives us moments of transcendence and epiphany but it doesn’t make us better people... [It’s] nonsense to expect art to do that.
That just isn’t what art is for. I believe that absolutely. WH Auden said: “poetry makes nothing happen.” That’s the glory of [art]. That it’s completely useless.
YOU’VE BASED SEVERAL OF YOUR NOVELS ON REAL EVENTS AND LIVES. HOW DOES WHAT YOU DID IN THE UNTOUCHABLE, SAY, DIFFER FROM CAPOTE IN IN COLD BLOOD OR MAILER IN ARMIES OF THE NIGHT?
I forget that I’m writing stuff that’s based on real lives. I made up most of [The Untouchable] anyway. I have no sense of responsibility to fact or so-called truth. “Blunt’s” childhood was Louis MacNeice’s childhood, in Ireland.
Fact becomes fiction when you start writing. As Wallace Stevens wonderfully says: “Thing as they are are changed upon blue guitar...” Art being the blue guitar.
DOES THE ABUSE OF TRUTH ALLOW YOUR FICTION TO BE MORE GROTESQUE AND GOTHIC?
Fiction’s a funny business. It’s so like our dreams. And yet, it has the kind of discipline and control that our dreams don’t have.
And the relationship between the reader and the novel has always fascinated me. I know it’s not true. I know it’s made up. I know the whole thing is “got up”. Yet I believe in it, while I’m reading it, far more vehemently than I believe in the reality around me.
When you’re reading a novel, it is absolutely real. This is a very strange phenomenon! Why do we do this? Is it that we never grow up and we want to... that we’re children and want to be told stories?
The difference is, Chris, that children want the same stories to be told over and over again. I wish we’d stay childish to that extent... people would read my book over and over and over again!
I’ll post more from this interview at Sarsaparilla, the new lit/media/culture blog, in the next few days. And keep an eye out for a piece on literary authors slumming it in genre fiction. It's scheduled to run in the Financial Review the weekend after next...
* Kerryn Goldsworthy asks “Will it make me a better person?” at A Fugitive Phenomenon.