Working on John Banville: My Awkward Relationship with My Subject

June 28, 2011 | 9 books mentioned 15 13 min read

My relationship with John Banville is a strange and unnatural one. In some odd sense I can’t quite identify, I often think that it might even be an unseemly one. A few months back, I finished a Ph.D., having written my thesis on Banville’s fiction. It took me about four years to complete, which means that over that period—at a rough calculation along the lines of a 42 hour working week and a 50 week working year—I spent something in the region of 8,400 hours engaged in activities that were directly Banville-related. 8,400 hours: that’s basically the equivalent of an entire calendar year spent reading his novels, thinking about them, reading and thinking about other academics’ opinions of them, formulating my own opinions, and thinking of clever things to write based on them. There’s nothing remarkable, of course, about a person spending a non-trivial portion of his or her life writing a doctoral thesis about the work of a single writer (university English departments are full of such misfits) but it is presumably fairly unusual for a person to spend four years writing a doctoral thesis on the work of someone who is not only still living and writing, but doing so within a couple of minutes’ walk from where that thesis is being written.

Dublin is a fairly small city. While I was working on my thesis in Trinity College, it wasn’t unusual for me to leave the library to go for a sandwich somewhere and to pass Banville on the street. It happened more than once that I would be having lunch and he would enter the restaurant and sit down a couple of tables away, or walk past the window with his fedora, his large and quaintly flamboyant scarf, and his mysterious canvas carrier bag. (Containing what? Groceries? Surely not. Books, most likely, but then why would Banville be carrying around books? Where would he be taking them, and to whom?) When this happened, I would usually nod casually and discretely in his direction and say to my lunch companion something like “there goes the boss man,” or “there’s the gaffer now.” It amused me, for some reason, to think of myself as a low-level functionary, labouring away obscurely for years, scrutinizing texts and producing a complex 100,000 word response unlikely to be read by more than a tiny handful of specialists, as though this were a service for which I had been engaged by an eminent and enigmatic novelist.

I had also convinced myself that it amused me to be utterly unknown to Banville, and yet to be spending my working days doing nothing but thinking about his novels. But I’m not sure it really did amuse me. I think it felt a little indecorous; even, perhaps, a little shameful. I sometimes joked about feeling a bit like a stalker, but I wasn’t always entirely sure that I was joking.

It wouldn’t have felt so strange to be writing a thesis about the work of Bellow or Dickinson or Joyce or Woolf, because these are no longer men and women, as such, but historical figures, Great Writers, bodies of work to be read and thought about and, if you’re so inclined, interpreted. Even, as we say in the lit-crit racket, “working on” a living writer like, say, Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo would not carry with it this faint but indelible stain of unseemliness, because these people are remote, semi-legendary figures, securely encased in their reputations and, more importantly, their foreignness. Even if I lived in Manhattan and were writing a thesis on Thomas Pynchon, I would be unlikely to find myself standing behind him in the queue for the ATM (and even if I did, it is highly unlikely that I would realize it).

coverBut while I was working on him, Banville was everywhere. My period of postgraduate research coincided with his ascension to a level of fame and visibility he hadn’t previously inhabited (not long before I started writing my thesis, he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea). He was giving readings from as-yet-unpublished novels across the square from the library where I was writing about his published ones. He was curating exhibitions of eighteenth century etchings in galleries on the other side of town. He was getting into public squabbles with crime novelists for writing a highly successful series of mysteries under a pseudonym and bragging about how easy he found it (Banville has always seemed to enjoy mixing it up). At one point, presumably undergoing a particularly severe bout of inter-project restiveness, he was even embroiled in a weirdly out-of-character controversy over vivisection at the School of Medicine at Trinity. The spat became a minor news story, culminating in J.M. Coetzee’s weighing in on his behalf in the letters pages of The Irish Times, and involved his taking part in a small but vocal protest by animal rights campaigners outside the college, which I had to pass one day on my way to the library. Surely Richard Ellmann never had to pass Joyce on a picket line; surely Boswell was never called a scab by Dr. Johnson? (Nobody called me a scab, I should clarify—and neither am I seriously comparing myself to Boswell or Ellmann, or Banville to Johnson or Joyce—but the image is an amusing one, so I’ll let it stand).

For four years, the question I was inevitably asked by anyone who happened to express an interest in what I was doing with my life was this one: “Have you met Banville yet?” It’s a question I got slicker at answering the more I was asked it, until it became a sort of automated response. It was always some minor variation on the following basic template: “No,” I would say, “I haven’t. In fact, I’ve sort of been avoiding him. I’ve been in the same room as him quite a few times, at readings and that kind of thing. I’ve passed him on the street Christ knows how many times—Dublin is a small town, after all—but I’ve never felt inclined to speak to him, to introduce myself. To be honest, I don’t think it would do me or my work any good. I don’t think a critic should have too close a relationship with the writer he’s writing about, or better still any relationship at all. Why would Banville’s opinion of my opinion about his work have any bearing on those opinions, when you think about it? It’s not about what he thinks of me, it’s about what I think of him. Interviewing him would just compromise the integrity of my work.”

This last phrase I always delivered in an ironic, jocular staccato, as though acknowledging the pretentiousness of such a notion, as though highlighting the absurdity of the idea of my work having anything like integrity (I have this highly irritating habit of being dismissive of my own endeavours, and then immediately feeling as though I’ve slighted myself unforgivably). Like a lot of things we say to people, I suppose I both believed this and disbelieved it at the same time. Ambivalence was always the dominant affect of my thesis-writing years.

Behind the jokes about stalking Banville lay a real discomfort with the fact that I was spending so much time thinking about him and writing about him—or thinking about his fiction, at least, which may or may not amount to the same thing. He is, I think, a fascinating novelist, and among the more important presences in contemporary literature, and so it makes perfect sense for there to be a considered academic response to his work (there’s loads of it, by the way, which, given his stature and his prolificacy and the finely-textured allusiveness of his writing, isn’t surprising). It also makes sense that I, as a scholar in the early stages of my career, should choose Banville as the subject of my apprentice work, because I am provoked and perplexed by it in intellectually productive ways and, even now, after all the time I’ve spent with it, still derive real pleasure from reading it. He is, I think, a great writer, and may even turn out to be a Great Writer. But he is also just a guy, and this is something that his physical proximity to me—the fact that I kept passing him on the street—made very difficult to ignore. I often asked myself what it might feel like to know that, somewhere in your city, a person with whom you are entirely unacquainted is spending his days writing a psychoanalytic examination of your life’s work. I was eking out an existence for myself—you couldn’t quite call it a living—through government-funded scholarships that were contingent upon the value to society, however hypothetical, of my interpretation of Banville’s fiction. I did occasionally have an unpleasant image of myself as a parasite living off a large animal who was innocent of my unobtrusively, harmlessly blood-sucking presence. You can have a certain image of yourself and then reject it, but you’ve still had that image: it has come from somewhere. I would have been a lot less uncomfortable had I been working on someone who was dead. (The morticianary insinuations of that sentence were not intended, but they are discomfitingly apt. It is only now, in fact—as in right this second—that I finally fully get Banville’s biographer-as-embalmer joke in The Newton Letter.)

Strangely, when I did finally end up sitting down and having a conversation with him just a couple of months ago, his first reaction to my telling him that I had written my thesis on his work was to apologize for not being dead. I laughed, but made no comment on the spooky perceptiveness of his joke.

“You must absolutely despise me,” he said. I told him—truthfully—that I had somehow managed not to. What I didn’t tell him was that he had often, indirectly at least, given me occasion to despise myself. The awkward ambivalence of my psychological relationship with him, though, was not something I thought it wise to bring up over mini salmon vol-au-vents and room temperature white wine. I had not planned the meeting; in fact, I had had no idea that it would be happening until a couple of hours beforehand. I had received an email from my former Ph.D. supervisor, who had himself just received an email requesting, as a matter of extreme urgency, that someone—anyone—volunteer themselves to conduct a public interview with Banville that evening in a lecture hall in University College Dublin. He was due to receive an honorary lifetime membership of the university’s Law Society that evening, and whoever had initially been scheduled to handle the interview aspect of the proceedings had to cancel at the last minute, and they were now desperately looking for someone who could pull it off at short notice. I wasn’t sure that I was necessarily their guy but, deliberately denying myself any time to think about it, I rang the number anyway, and two hours later I was sitting in the UCD staff bar with the boss man, making small talk. (Against all reasonable expectations, Banville is really very good at small talk.)

While acknowledging that he would be unlikely to conceive of it in the same way, I had always imagined our eventual meeting would be a kind of lower-intensity literary version of that café sit-down scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, in which Pacino and De Niro appear on screen together for the first time. (In moments of greater clarity I understood that, at best, it would be an episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio, with me as a less polished and fulsome James Lipton). The way it panned out, though, not even I could fool myself into sensing any kind of frisson of tension or significance. Banville appeared not to have any particular interest in the topic of my thesis—or at least if he did, he managed not to betray it by asking me any questions on the matter. I was both slightly disappointed and slightly relieved by this. The thesis was entitled “Narcissism in the Fiction of John Banville”, and so there was always the slight but non-negligible possibility that he might understand the whole project to be a long-winded and tortuous accusation of self-obsession and vanity on his part. Even if he didn’t take it personally, there was a chance—far less slight and non-negligible—that he would consider the whole approach facile or wrong-headed or obtuse or in some other way completely beside the point. I had absolute confidence in my work, but—as paradoxical as this might sound (and probably is)—less than absolute confidence in my ability to maintain that confidence in the face of any degree of criticism or dismissal from of its subject. Now that I think about it, it’s likely that Banville had similar reasons for not asking me about it.

Apropos the issue of my spending (give or take) four years reading, thinking about and writing about his writing, he mentioned having interviewed Salman Rushdie for the New York Review of Books in about 1993, at the very height of the fatwa. He spent two full days transcribing their taped conversations. By the time he had finished, he said, he was consumed by an intense hatred of both Rushdie and himself. So he could, he assured me, imagine how I must feel about him after four years.

covercovercoverI chuckled drily and, I hoped, urbanely. It struck me that having a conversation with the man amounted to having Banville on tap. All I had to do was make a comment or ask a question and, as though I’d popped a coin in a vending machine, it would provoke an emanation from the same source that produced The Book of Evidence, Doctor Copernicus and Shroud. I felt an unaccountable, giddy compulsion to start pointing to things and people and demanding that he describe them. How would you characterize the taste of these vol-au-vents, Mr Banville?; or See that elderly man over there at the bar? Let’s have an adjective for him; or What would you say if I asked you to describe this wine? This was, after all, someone who has described the taste of gin more frequently and more variously and more vividly than probably any other novelist in history—gin, with its “silver-sweet fumes” (Eclipse), and its “cold and insidious and subtly discomposing” taste with “the faintest tinct of paraffin-blue in its depths” (The Infinities).

At this point the undergraduate from the university’s Law Society who had introduced us—and who seemed to be the main organizer of the event—had excused himself to go and check on the turnout in the lecture hall. Banville had just finished his own wine and was wondering aloud, presumably rhetorically, whether he might get away with swiping the untouched glass the Law Society guy had left behind. I gave him my blessing, though he seemed not to require it.

A large grey-bearded man with a German accent sidled up to our table and shook hands with Banville. He congratulated him on what he called his “apotheosis”—presumably he meant the lifetime membership of the Law Society—and handed over a pile of about five or six first editions and foreign translations, which Banville dutifully signed. (The man offered him a biro, but he declined, withdrawing from an inner pocket of his jacket a gracefully gold-trimmed Mont Blanc. This glamorous implement now unsheathed, the mere idea of Banville ever writing with anything else was instantly relegated to the category of the preposterous.) I thought how strange it was that the man had used this word, “apotheosis,” so enduringly associated as it was, for me, with Banville’s writing. I had, in fact, written something in my thesis about his repeated use of it.[1] I wondered, briefly, whether the man could be making some kind of sly allusion here, but then checked this flight of obsessive fancy, realizing how unlikely it was that he would be as wonkishly preoccupied as I was with Banville’s fondness for a particular word, and what it might mean in the context of his work as a whole.

The conversation turned again, somehow, to the topic of death, specifically that of Banville’s death. We spoke briefly of the difficulties future biographers and scholars would come up against now that no one, not even novelists, wrote letters any more. He pointed out that emails were probably more useful from a future scholarship point of view, given that they were all automatically archived and organized and searchable, to which I countered that that was all well and good if you had the password. He conceded that this was a fair point, and suggested that if I played my cards right he might think to pass on his login details to me before he died. I said that I would be honored. The idea of Banville having anything as vulgar as login details, however, seemed as strangely implausible as Nabokov owning a pickup truck—he is that kind of writer. Did he use instant messaging, I wondered? (It was an odd thought, but it was not inconceivable. A few years ago, I interviewed the philosopher Peter Singer for a magazine, and he still occasionally pops up on Google Chat, an occurrence which gives rise to all kinds of inane impulses.) I speculated idly on whether Banville’s password might be something like “@pose0s1s” or, maybe, “banvillenobel2016.” Was he a Gmail man, I wondered? Probably not. Outlook Express, if anything.

The interview was less of an ordeal than I had imagined it might be. On our way down to the lecture theatre I had told him that I had agreed to it only a couple of hours previously, that I was as a consequence grossly underprepared and that he would therefore have to do a lot of the heavy lifting himself, and he had patted my arm lightly and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m a raddled old whore at this stage.” My questions seemed to me to shift from the bafflingly gnomic to the recklessly long-winded without ever occupying any intervening sweet spot of coherence and concision but, true to his word, he responded to them with an eloquence that, retrospectively, made those questions appear shrewd. Afterwards, there was a flurry of book-signings and hand-shakings, through which I stood awkwardly off to one side. There was some kind of official photograph that needed to be taken, and I allowed myself to be hustled into the shot, and then that was pretty much it for the evening.

As we walked toward the exit, Banville asked me whether I needed a lift home. I had not anticipated this; had I foreseen it as a possibility, I might well have taken the bus there instead of driving. I told him that I had my car—I think I may even, moronically, have produced my keys and held them aloft, as though some kind of proof of my having driven might be required—but almost immediately regretted doing so. It would, I thought, have been worth the trouble of getting the bus back the following morning to collect my car, had it meant getting a lift home with Banville. I found myself wishing, suddenly, to know what kind of car he drove and, above all, what kind of driver he was. Would he handle his car like he did his prose, with supreme confidence and restraint, changing lanes with suave precision, overtaking with brisk wit and style? Or would he be ill at ease behind the wheel, as I imagined his protagonists would be, constantly wrong-footed by the stubborn actuality of traffic lights and lane-mergers, the boorish incursions of other motorists? I remembered a bit in Martin Amis’s The Information about the comparative driving skills of poets and novelists. The (almost certainly spurious) jist was that Novelists are generally decent drivers, while poets don’t drive, or at least shouldn’t: “Never trust a poet who can drive. Never trust a poet at the wheel. If he can drive, distrust the poems.” And then I remembered Banville’s tendency to make grandiose-sounding claims in interviews about his aspirations of forging some sort of formal synthesis of poetry and the novel. Would he drive, I wondered, like a poet or a novelist? Would I gain some oblique insight into his mind, into his philosophical stance toward the world, by observing him negotiate the M50 and the Red Cow roundabout (that black comedy of infrastructural errors in which thousands of Dubliners play a daily role)? What would we chat about? How would he respond to questions as to fuel consumption, reliability, general performance? What radio stations, if any, would be preset on his car stereo? Would he have a SatNav, or one of those hands-free Bluetooth earpiece setups for his phone? I would now probably never know the answers to these questions. But perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I successfully convinced a publisher that my thesis was worth the time and money it would cost them to publish. So I’ll be spending a further few months on Banville-related activities, hacking and thrashing the thing into a book-like shape; and then, if I’m lucky, my first monograph will afford me some sort of reputation as an academic, as, specifically, a Banville scholar. And these would all be great things, things that might—I permit myself to hope—even lead to that greatest of great things, an actual full-time job. In the meantime, I’ll just have to get over my discomfort with what seems to me to be the rank presumption of regarding oneself as an “expert” on the work of someone who is still living and writing and (who knows?) possibly using a hands-free Bluetooth earpiece while driving.

Eventually, I’ll have to come up with another topic on which to position myself as an expert. In my cockier moments, I sometimes fancy my chances with Nabokov. I would, of course, imagine him being utterly dismissive of whatever reading of his work I might decide to argue for. But that wouldn’t matter very much, because he is safely, unapproachably dead, and therefore reassuringly unlikely to sit down at the next table in a café, or offer me a lift home. I think it would be an easier relationship.

Back | 1. In a section dealing with the novel Shroud, I find that I wrote the following: “‘Apotheosis’, in its associations with ideas of self-perfection and deification, is a key term in Banville’s later work. The narcissistic content of the word as he tends to use it is connected to the notion of the self as a work of art.”

is a staff writer for The Millions and a book columnist for Slate. His ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, was published by The Millions in 2013. His book To Be a Machine will be published by Doubleday in March 2017. He lives in Dublin.


  1. Thanks for this. It was particularly interesting for me because I have just started reading his work. I recently finished reading all of Hilary Mantel’s fiction, and was searching for another writer whose prose would affect me as hers does, and Banville is that writer. I’m not saying their writing is similar, only that they can do wondrous things with words, each in their own way.

  2. I enjoyed this so much – if your dissertation is as interesting, I’d gladly buy a published copy.

  3. beautifully done! I second the interest in whatever analytic manuscript you are going to publish…I hope you write fiction, too…this is really very vividly drawn

  4. I hate to be critical, but I learned much more about Mark O’Connell than about Banville. I read Banville’s The Infinities last year and I loved it, I was expecting to learn a bit more about him.
    The comment on poets and driving was good, though.

  5. It would be pleasant in a teasing kind of way if someone (Irish Times, perhaps?) could convince Banville to review your book when it is released.

    In my expereince Banville is more a man for the Dart then the car. Makes sense when you think about what that drive in from Howth is like in rush hour.

  6. I, too, finished a dissertation on a living author, Richard Selzer. I began interviewing him, and I am glad to say he augmented–and did not distract–from my critical assessment of his work. Like some I do not feel that you must critique a work withot any personal knowledge of the author. Isn’t that, by now, old school. Or has it come around again?

    But, when I moved into writing his biography, he often said it was “awkward” that he was alive, that he should in fact “be dead.” But I had the advantage of being able to see him in the flesh, measuring his responses, unlike the “biographers of yore,” as he put it.

    All in all, having a living biography subject has been a pleasure, especially since I learned early on to keep a professional distance.

    I enjoyed your description of “the interview.” I wrote about one of mine, as posted on my website:

  7. Hallo,
    I am a swiss composer of contemporary music and, after having read ‘the infinities’, took a quote out of the book and used it as title for my trio piece: “a bit of bungling on the battlefield” .The trio was premiered in New York last december and will again be played in London and Edinburgh in march 2012. I would like to invite John Banville to the concerts (even though Dublin is not that close to those cities) but I have no idea how to get in touch with him. Does anyone know?
    Thank you. M.R.

  8. Hi Mark,
    I could relate to many of the points you mentioned about writing about Banville. I didn’t know about your work on Banville. I’m also doing a dissertation on Banville and I’m doing psychoanalysis as well. (Mainly Lacan though). I can’t wait to read your dissertation. I hope it’ll be i print soon so I can get hold of it.
    Mehdi Ghassemi

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