Wednesday, November 2, 2011

John Banville on Grief and Memory in a Small Irish Town

(This interview originally appeared in the Denver Post in December 2005)

By Dylan Foley

In a surprise upset, Irish writer John Banville beat out novelists Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan to win the 2005 Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious book award, for his short novel "The Sea" (Knopf, $23). The novel chronicles a man's return to a seaside town of his youth after this wife's death from cancer.

The grieving widower Max Morden has returned to the nondescript resort where as a 10-year-old boy he found first love and witnessed a tragic drowning. In Banville’s fictional town of Ballyless, happy people seem to live elsewhere.

"Look out at the world," says Banville sweeping his arms out towards the window of a Midtown Manhattan hotel bar, indicating the packed rush-hour sidewalks and taking mock offense at the idea that there are no upbeat people in his novel. "Are there many happy people in the world?"

When Banville won the Booker Prize in October, his publisher pushed up his American publication date by four months and brought him from his home in Dublin to New York to exploit the literary buzz. He is is a novelist famous for lush, difficult books that explore broad themes like mortality and disastrous personal choices. Despite a new beautiful, bleak novel about relationships and death and severe doubts about the existence of happy people, the 60-year-old Banville is an engaging drinking companion.

"I was going to write a short story about a childhood at the seaside," says Banville over a few glasses of Pinot Grigio. "This voice began to speak, one of my first-person narrators. I
was having trouble with the book and Max saved the day.”

Banville made the novel’s village very reminiscent of a 1950s Irish seaside town where he himself spent childhood summers. It was a different Ireland, a land of repressive priests and censored films.

"Ireland was such a simple place back then," says Banville without nostalgia. "It was isolated from the world. Books were banned and newspapers from England had their condom ads blanked out."

The unconventional Graces, a wealthy and worldly couple, are thrown into Max's bland world with a son and daughter in tow. Young Max first falls for the sensual mother, then Chloe, the young daughter. Chloe is followed around by Miles, her mute twin brother. The siblings have an unearthly symbiotic relationship.

"The Graces would have been exotic," he says. "They had traveled to the continent and were free spirits outside of the restrictions Max lived in.”

Five decades later, a 60-year-old Max returns to Ballyless after his wife's protracted illness and death. "That's what you do when you are that age and in trouble," says Banville, "you go back to the far past. My past was in a little place called Rosslare, which is what I based it on. I was always falling in love with these little girls. There was no sex. A kiss would set everything off."

The drowning in the novel is seen through the eyes of a younger Max . "Kids love that kind of thing, death," says Banville. "Max notes that he is now carrying an important thing. It wasn't a tragedy for him. It was a happening. Everything then happened for the first time-- the
first kiss, the first death."

Through seamless flashbacks, Banville establishes Max’s life living off his wealthy wife. He muses on his wife’s draining battle with cancer. The grief he feels over her death transfers into a verbally abusive relationship with his daughter. Max also drinks too much.

"Max is not an alcoholic," says Banville. "He's Irish. We all drink like that. He's just drowning his sorrows."

Max is unsparing in his harsh memories of his marriage. Though he and his wife Anna loved each other, there were fights, rages and implied infidelities. At one point, a dying Anna tells Max that it is okay, she knows they have both hated each other a bit.

"Isn't that what married couples do?" asks Banville. "They love each other, they protect each other, they hate each other. This is what people do. It is a perfectly straightforward marriage. He's now full of anger at his wife dying.

"Even when we are happiest, we are in conflict. We could not live without conflict. It makes life interesting."

In his 14 novels, ranging from the "The Book of Evidence" to “Shroud,” Banville has established a reputation as a demanding, cerebral novelist. Banville's hope for his Booker Prize is that it will help other complex novels.

"When a book like 'The Sea' wins a literary prize, looking at it as objectively as I can, it is a good thing for publishing,” says Banville. “The next time a 25-year-old writer with a 'difficult' book like 'The Sea' comes into a publishing house, he has a chance of being published.

"Somehow, the Booker has caught the world's imagination," he notes. Nobody cares about the Nobel Prize for Literature anymore. The Booker Prize will increase the sales of my book 10 to 15 times."

In cold, hard numbers, instead of selling the 20,000 copies "The Sea" might have sold before the literary award, it will now sell 300,000 copies.

Banville's view of the literary world is harsh. "There are too many books being published nowadays," he says. "In England alone, 4000 books are published every year. There aren't 40 good novels a year."

Banville escaped Ireland in the 1960s by being a clerk at Aer Lingus, Ireland’s national airline, which allowed him to fly around the world virtually for free. "I went to Greece, Paris and Rome in my teens," he says. “Virtually no one in Ireland did that then. I was determined to get out of Ireland. I didn't go to college because I would have been dependent on my parents.”

It turns out that one of the world's most intellectually intimidating novelists is an autodidact and wasn't shaped in a writing program, where so many American cookie-cutter novelists are made nowadays.

"For me, it was reading, reading reading," he says. "I had an older brother who was a teacher in Africa,” says Banville. "He would send me books every week-- Joyce Carey's 'The Horse's Mouth' and Graham Greene. He pointed me in the direction of reading fiction very young. I don't tell this story often enough."

Despite being a prominent literary critic in Ireland, and having an American readership through his articles in the New York Review of Books, Banville doesn't read his own reviews. "I don't find them that interesting anymore," he says. The good ones irritate me as much as the
bad ones, even more so."

Friends, however, can always be counted on to deliver the bad news. "I always say you can really depend on your best friends to tell you about the bad reviews," says Banville. "We all want to see our best friends fall from high places."

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