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Torre Martello

Blog del Instituto Cervantes de Dublín

John Banville, Premio Príncipe de Asturias de las Letras / Prince of Asturias Award for Literature

Transcripción de la entrevista / Interview’s transcription

David Smith: Good afternoon, continuing our interviews for the Isla Festival here, in the Cervantes Institute we are with the acclaimed Irish novelist and critic John Banville. John, you are very welcome here to the institute this afternoon

John Banville: Thank you

David Smith: You opened the Festival yesterday you gave a wonderful speech one of the images that you invoked in the speech is a memory that you had your first visit, to Spain. A man on a horse, such a clear Quixotic reference, such a clear Cervantes reference.

John Banville: Cliché is the word that you are looking for.

David Smith: I did like that you mentioned that you didn’t know whether it was a black horse with a white background, or vice versa..How do you see the image of Don Quijote as it travels through…

John Banville: Sancho Panza is my hero, I don’t care much for Don Quijote. Sancho Panza is wonderful. I mean he is every man, he is every man trailing behind a mad dreamer, you know. The world is full of us. And of course it´s, you know, it really is the first novel, I suppose. You could go back to Latin
times but I think Quijote is the first great work of fiction in certainly in the modern era.

David Smith: Joyce says,whimsically that it’s the first book that´s a little bit about itself.

John Banville:Yes that’s true I hadn’t heard that but yes that is true it is self-conscious, it is aware it is self-referential. I suppose it’s more modern than it seems in that aspect.

David Smith: Do you see it as a book that will continuously submit itself to the prevailing literary theories?

John Banville: Well I mean, I don’t know. When I was young I was a great one for theory but the older one gets the more theories fall away. You know, the academies must be supplied, they must keep working… Comparative literature… but the thing about Cervantes is that you know, it’s great popular
literature. Now, Nabokoff hated Don Quijote, he said, you know, only people who find people being sick in each others faces will find this book funny and to a certain extent I agree with him. There´s a raucousness about it that I’m not quite convinced by… So here I am in the Cervantes Institute criticizing Cervantes. Typical!

David Smith: As Don Quixote would do himself. And your prose, interesting that you mention Nabokoff here compares to that confessional narrative famous of Vladimir Nábokoff. Your prose which has this extremely rich poetic element, one of the elements that was discussed yesterday in the roundtable
the boundaries between poetry and prose to see those two territories as territories that cross over?

John Banville: Well my old friend John McGahern used to make a nice distinction. He said that ”There’s
verse, and there’s prose and then there’s poetry.” And poetry can happen in either medium. And I agree with him. One has to be very careful. Irish writers are in love with language, we roll in it like a pig rolling in mud. You know, flinging it in the air. So we have to be careful, we have to apply self-discipline. But I do try to make my books as demanding as a poem. W.H. Auden said that ”The poem is the only work of art that you either take or leave.” You know you look at a picture and your mind can wander to think what you going to have for dinner, you can listen to a symphony and think about your girlfriend or something but a poem you either read it or you don’t. And I try to make my prose the same level of density and I want to make it as demanding as poetry This puts a lot of people off by the way.

David Smith: Interesting. And Octavio Paz, by the way, the great Mexican poet has a very clear distinction
he says ”Poetry inspires,” It’s beautiful in Spanish, this is a shoddy translation that I’m doing. He says that ”Prose aspires to say something whereas poetry aspires to be something.”

John Banville: Yes, well I won’t try to blur that distinction my books you know, you don’t read them for the plot. If you do you’ll be greatly disappointed. You don’t read into the characters you
don’t read them for dialogue, there’s very little dialogue. You read them for something else, you read them for an intensification. I see my book says, like all works of art, as quickening the sense of life, the sense of being alive giving you an intensified sense of what it is to be human that’s when I aspire to do and I see no distinction between prose and poetry and that aspiration.

David Smith: When I heard I had this opportunity, I went digging through old books of yours that I haven’t read in years. I have underlined one line in particular that always struckme as a difficult line, from ‘Shroud’ ”I used piously to hope that they would not have suffered” He’s talking about his mother and his father ”But since then I’ve learnt about hope.”That always affected me, I always wonder whether that was a difficult line for you to write? Do you find yourself-ah?

John Banville: Oh, no I’m not involved in ita I’m not there it’s it’s entirely impersonal. The notion that writing is self-expression is a false notion. And when I stand up from my desk and I
finish my day’s work the person who did the writing ceases to exist. This is why when I meet admirers of my work at readings, they always see this, you know you can always see this disappointment only in their eyes I want to say to them the point is, you like the books, but I have nothing to do with the books. The person you are talking to has nothing to do with it. He sits at the desk and does the work. But when he stops he ceases to exist. This is a difficult concept because people imagine, especially people who aspire to be writers that they are themselves going to have an intensified sense of being alive. It doesn’t work that way. My writing doesn’t work for me.

David Smith: Have you done this through discipline or is that idea, not one John Banville but a multiplicity…

John Banville: Oh I think any any artist would have the same sense of disembodiment and Elliott himself said you know that ‘The man who suffers is not the artist to create immense suffering,’ in the general sense of course, being Elliot it’s got to be suffering but you know, I firmly believe that that’s something else happens. Time becomes strange when you’re working. I always give the example I was writing
one day years ago, my wife put her head in the door of my study and said ‘I’m going to the shops’ a moment later she put her head in again, I said ‘I thought you were going to the shops? She had been to the shops! And I had no sense that of that time that space having past, there’s nothing on the page even,So where was I in that period? And that’s the point of the kind of prose that I write, it’s extreme concentration. I concentrate. You know, mornings will pass by and I won’t write anything, I’mjust sitting there,you know, and I sink deeper and deeper and deeper into myself Or I lose myself- I’m lost in myself so that by three or four in the afternoon, when I’m really working John Banville ceases to exist.There’s somebody
else there doing this. I discover I use words that I don’t even know the meaning of. I’ll look them up and discovered that they’re the right words. And that happens increasingly nowadays My workaday memory is fading because I’m getting old, but my store of words is intact. The day that I can’t drag up a word from that store, I’ll know that I’m finished.

David Smith: Characters in your book seem to be based on real, on historical figures. What obligation to history do you feel as a writer when you create a character?

John Banville: Absolutely none. Zero. Novelists, artists, are cannibals. We will eat our own children to make a line, to make a corner of a painting or to make a piece of music. We are completely ruthless. But then again, as I say the citizen who goes in to my study and sits down ceases to exist, when I start writing. The artist is completely amoral. I have no interest in politics, the person who writes has no interest in politics, society, in morals, family anything except getting this done. It’s a completely ruthless process, and anybody who tell you otherwise is lying, or is a fool.

David Smith: I see you about town, time to time. Dublin. And my friend always comments on ‘John Banville, the great wearer of hats. ‘I wonder..forgive me for asking such a whimsical question. Somebody who’s so involved, who wrangles with notions of identity, notions of consciousness, are you- I love your shoes the way. Are you conscious of style? Do you follow fashion?

John Banville: No, I like shoes, I like hats, I’m human you know but.. No I’m not, I’m not. I mean, look at me, this is hardly fashionable.

David Smith: It’s autumnal.

John Banville: I’m always autumnal. High summer, I’m autumnal. This is my season, this is the season I love, this is when Ireland comes into it’s absolute best. I love the climate here anyway I could’nt live anywhere else. The only city that I’ve ever been in that I thought looked anything like Dublin and in terms of light, is Copenhagen. It has that silvery melancholy light at all times of the year. Very very beautiful.

David Smith: Style in your work, are you conscious of a signature? That certainly the world is
aware of.

John Banville: No. For the most part I don’t know what I’m doing. I work in the darkness. I work in a personal darkness. I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing. I work by the sentence. Each sentence makes the next sentence and that sentence makes the next one. And I work on the principle that, if you look after the what is the phrase..If you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves.If you look after the sentence then the book will get done eventually by itself, in some strange mysterious way that I don’t understand. When I was young I was very much, I thought that I was very much in control of everything You know, when I started a book I knew what the last line was going to be.. But as I got older, I allowed instinct to work. And also you know you imagine that with age will come wisdom. It doesn’t. all that comes with age is confusion. But confusion is good state for an artist to be in. Not knowing is better. I was always puzzled by I think that Elliott said, that T.S. Eliot said that the artist, it’s no business of the artist to think. I was always puzzled by this, and I still am to
a certain extent. I do see what he means, that you have to work by instinct, you have to work by passion.
But I am infected with the Bacillus of thinking. Thinking I like books where I can see evidence of a mind at work and I like my own books to be that as well. But it’s very difficult get thought into fiction. Difficult to get thought into art. I discovered that when I was writing my books on Copernicus and Kepler to put actual science into fiction, they just don’t fit together. They really do not fit.

David Smith: In terms of how people describe your work, Do you have a preferred adjective?

John Banville:Oh I don’t know because I don’t read reviews. I don’t read anything about myself so I don’t know what they say.

David Smith: Banvillian.

John Banville: Oh that’s nice, I’ll get into the Oxford Dictionary for you, probably.

David Smith: And my last questions, John, the quote that I took from ‘Shroud’ refers I think to the Nietzschean quote that you introduced the book with. The words themselves and just the words
that Nietzsche chooses in this case is, ‘I do suffer.’ That ´´words in general perhaps are on the horizons of our knowledge but not truths.´´ Is this what drives you, is this tendency towards a horizon? As I say, you get older you perhaps realise that things are more in the dark but that you
tend towards a horizon of meaning.

John Banville: That’s a good question. I strive to get to make my sentences as close to perfection as I can. I will never get perfection, you know, all works of art are failures. By necessity. Because they set
out to be perfect and perfection is not given to us. But that’s about the limit of what I do now, I try to make the sentences as good, and as rich and as poetic and as elusive as I can. And the rest takes care of itself, so. You know, in the early books, especially in the Copernicus and Kepler books, a long time ago. The strive towards knowledge, towards cognition is very evident in those books but since then, my writing career, such as it is, has been a flight from meaning, a flight from thought, a flight from cognition, into something else that I haven’t got a name for. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do, maybe I’m trying to define what it is I’m trying to define.

David Smith: John thank you very much for joining us this
afternoon, I hope you enjoy the rest of the festival.

John Banville: Thank you.

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