Out of the Archive: Banville on Beckett

The babble of different languages in the lecture theatre stands testament to both Beckett and Banville’s culture-crossing writing. Delegates, Beckett scholars, and students have gathered for one of the highlights of the Out of the Archive conference on Samuel Beckett. The talk is even being streamed live into another room. John Banville, a writer, reviewer, journalist, screenwriter, and playwright, can certainly attract a crowd.

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Introduced by Hugh Haughton, the 2005 winner of the Man Booker Prize reads a preview from his forthcoming novel, completed only a fortnight ago. In the extract, it is night-time. A daughter has committed suicide, and her parents are struggling with the force of their grief. Shuffling loose sheets of paper, Banville speaks in a brisk and undramatic manner. He allows the words to speak through him, adding his Irish lilt to the many other accents already in the room. ‘No book comes from the surface’ he explains. ‘Books all come from very deep inside oneself.’ ‘It’s a complicated book’ he tells later of this as-yet-unpublished novel. ‘I’m playing a lot of games.’ The novel draws on his previous ones, and his protagonist Cass Cleave. ‘The reviewer will be absolutely furious that I require them to go back and review earlier books.’ Banville pauses; chuckles. ‘It’s always good to annoy the reviewers.’

Entering into discussion with his two ‘interrogators,’ as he wryly terms them, the audience is then also given the opportunity to ask questions. Banville talks about what it means to be a novelist, an Irish author, and the influence of Beckett on his work with an engaging frankness and truthfulness. Why he writes is simple - it is the desire to tell stories. But he remains uncomfortable with the title this gives him, musing ‘I wonder if any novelist thinks of himself as a novelist.’ Revealing how he writes, it is not through plot or character progression, but rather from line to line. ‘I make sentences. ‘I work by sentences.’ He reinforces his remark often made in interviews that he is doing his ‘little bit’ to give the novel the force and denseness of poetry.

When it comes to reading his books, the message is clear: ‘you can take them or leave them.’ But he does expect commitment from his readers, warning ‘your attention can’t slip when you’re reading my books. You can’t go and do something else after five minutes.’ Eyes twinkling, he finishes the thought with ‘and most people do go and do something else.’ This is characteristic of his affable, self-deprecating humour and frequent use of anecdotes. Banville is always quick to undercut his more serious statements. Commenting on the disappointment of his readers at book-signings, he sighs ‘I’m always older, shorter than they thought. Not as good-looking.’ He gives us insights into the business side books, and their sales and reviews. ‘Why can’t I write simple books that people would like and would buy?’ he groans. Having been writing for over four decades, he appears conscious of growing older. But age has made him more candid, and more at ease. ‘You get to my age, you can have fun. The books aren’t going to sell. They’re only going to hate it anyway. You can have fun.’

Banville acknowledges his debt to Samuel Beckett. He first encountered him in Malloy, being particularly struck by one paragraph that contained a wonderful, human moment of comedy. Banville’s first novel, Nightspawn, as he has commented elsewhere, was ‘very much influenced by Beckett. Much too much so.’ Like Beckett, Banville combines Irish literary tradition and European culture. But he also chooses to set himself apart from other Irish writers. Whilst Beckett, Joyce and others left, Banville remains. ‘I can’t do without Ireland’ he explains, talking about its ravishingly beautiful look and climate. At the same time, he confesses that he doesn’t ‘feel part of Ireland. I feel exiled in Ireland. I wouldn’t want to feel part of any country. Irish writers should try to be international.’

‘That piece I read today,’ he muses a while later, ‘Beckett would have hated it. He would have loathed it.’ He names Henry James as the writer that brought us out of Victorian literature and into modernism. Banville then poses a difficult question. In choosing to follow Beckett and Joyce, rather than Henry James, were we right? After all, ‘we’re not here for me,’ he scoffs. But, actually, I rather think we are.

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