Quirke of the author’s fate

Fateful encounters, streams of consciousness, sinister politics and a rich period setting – one of Ireland’s finest prose stylists, John Banville, brings artistry to the craft of crime-writing

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There’s a moment in John Banville’s most recent novel, April in Spain, when his longstanding protagonist, Dublin pathologist Quirke, allows himself a moment of introspection while holidaying in San Sebastián. “He was pleased to be here, there was no denying it. This of course made him uneasy. What of his long-worked-at reputation as a malcontent and moaner?”

“Writing is never easy. I found my previous novel, Snow, a hard book to write.”

It’s an intriguing digression from the main plot, and there are others in the same vein. In one sense it’s a classic Banville touch, giving a character a self-analytical turn and thus lifting a thriller towards something more like a bona fide literary novel. But it is also, I am certain – from chatting to the author and reading interviews he has given over three decades of ever-increasing literary fame – the author winking at us. For Banville has often been presented by critics and the wider media as very serious and a bit of a curmudgeon even. And yet, behind this mask, he is witty, sly and very self-aware.

April in Spain is Banville’s thirteenth crime novel but only the second to appear under his own name. He previously used the nom de crime Benjamin Black, a ruse to make money as a popular author which, he insists, “didn’t work”. He has also written seventeen non-crime novels, including the 2005 Booker Prize-winning The Sea and three acclaimed fiction trilogies.

He says his approach to writing thrillers is very different to the one he adopts for the more serious novels.

“I write my crime novels very quickly, with as much spontaneity as I can manage. A crime novelist must take an interest in plot, in character, in dialogue and so forth. The other writer in me has little time for such things. He doesn’t care what people do, and wants only to know what people are.”

For all that, he insists: “Writing is never easy… I found my previous novel, Snow, a hard book to write, a hard book to live with while I was doing it. It started out seeming lighthearted, with parodic touches and so on, but my God does it darken as it goes along.”

Though he may write them in haste, the crime novels are not crude or clumsy affairs. There’s always a well-crafted plot with a dramatic denouement in its sights, the roaming, ruminating mind of Quirke and, in the last two books, the coolly intellectual Detective Inspector St John Strafford as well. In April in Spain, there’s also something of a stream of consciousness quality about the way the story unfolds. Banville is a student and admirer of his esteemed Irish literary forbears James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and brings to bear all his gifts, whatever the genre he’s working in.

A word that surfaces time and again in reviews of Banville’s work is “lapidary”. One of those stock adjectives literary critics like to use, it alludes to the polishing and engraving of stone or gems. When I remark that to be regarded as a writer of highly polished prose is quite a plaudit, he demurs.

“I don’t think they mean to be complimentary. A lot of readers have trouble with my graven-on-stone prose. They get particularly indignant at being sent to the dictionary, forgetting that the dictionary is one of humankind’s greatest inventions.”

But he is insistent that careful writing matters. “A careless or compromised prose style does indicate a shoddy mind. Tyrants love lazy, imprecise language.”

I wonder, too, if the emphasis on words that matter is a reaction to living in the land of blarney and craic where every daytime radio host is a motormouthed, gaspingly ironic Graham Norton type. Banville’s is a voice of controlled calm in a world of tweets and slogans, bluster and blabber.

He was born in Wexford in 1945 and educated at a Christian Brothers’ school and St Peter’s College in Wexford. Religious themes and characters surface in much of his work. Snow opens with a dead priest in a library, an Agatha Christie-type scene, though this priest has been castrated, which wouldn’t have happened in a Poirot story. He worked for Aer Lingus in Dublin, and travelled widely before taking up the position of literary editor at the Irish Times, a post he held from 1988-1999. His first book, the short story collection Long Lankin, was published in 1970.

Banvile’s memories of post-war Ireland are a powerful influence on his work – especially the Quirke novels, which are set in the 1950s.

“From the start I set these books in the 1950s because in Ireland it makes for an ideal noir setting. All that repression, all those sins and secrets, all that drink, and everyone smoking like chimneys – perfect.

“The 1950s is the forgotten decade, not only in Ireland but in other countries too. The war – or the Emergency, as it was called here – had ended and left the world exhausted and at a loss as to where exactly to go next, or how to go anywhere. I call it the doldrum decade. Although we didn’t suffer much war damage – Dublin was bombed only once, to little effect – we felt the weight of what the world had inflicted on itself during those terrible five years.”

But what about the Ireland of high-tech and tax breaks, the “captured state”, the EU member telling the UK where to go?

“I have no desire to write about the present. The novel is essentially a historical form. If you look at the great novels of the nineteenth century, you’ll find they were all set in the author’s past. No one for a moment – with the possible exception of George Eliot – thought of the novel as a form for commenting on the present time.”

Banville’s literary novels bear this out, scouring the centuries for their themes and characters. Birchwood (1973) is set at the time of the Great Famine of the 1840s and 1850s. Dr Copernicus (1976), a fictional portrait of the fifteenth century Polish astronomer, was the first of three novels exploring the lives of eminent scientists and scientific ideas. The second was about the sixteenth-century German astronomer Kepler (1981). The Newton Letter: An Interlude (1982) is the story of an academic writing a book about the mathematician Sir Isaac Newton. It was adapted as a film by Channel 4 Television.

The Frames trilogy reflects on the importance of art, with a fictional Dutch artist having a central role in Ghosts (1993).  The novels in the Cleave trilogy roam Europe to explore intrigues and scandals rooted in the Second World War. Prague Pictures: Portrait of a City (2003) is a personal evocation of the European city.

The grand continental themes and the travelogue point to Banville’s essential Europeanness.

“I had written a couple of novels set in Ireland and I thought what do I do now?” he says. “Become an Irish novelist? There’s too many of them around. So I thought I’d become a European novelist of ideas.”

The bet has paid off, at least in terms of critical acclaim (he maintains he makes very little money from his fiction). As well as the Booker for The Sea, he has been awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Guardian Fiction Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize, Princess of Asturias prize, Austrian State Prize for European Literature and many Irish prizes. He has been described as “the heir to Proust, via Nabokov”.  Fellow Irish author Colm Tóibín ranks Banville among his favourite Irish writers, alongside Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and John McGahern. Nor is everyone sniffy about the “lapidary” style. In Don DeLillo’s words: “Banville writes a dangerous and clear-running prose and has a grim gift of seeing people’s souls.”

Yet he claims to find writing a “torment”, and says he hates his output. “I would distrust any writer who liked his or her own work,” he says, only half-joking.

Perhaps that’s why he returns, time and again, to thrillers, where his talents are not quite so fully tested, and he can have dark fun and, even, take a holiday.

Certainly, April in Spain, for all its dark undertones and shady characters, exudes the sensuousness and epicurean delights of San Sebastián. For a brief period, you half expect the novel to turn into a sort of meditative travelogue, as Quirke luxuriates in the fish dinners, glasses of “drily fragrant” txakoli wine and handsome hotel.

“I was down there for a book festival in Bilbao,” Banville recalls. “And stayed in San Sebastián for a few days at the wonderful Hotel de Londres, with a magnificent view of the bay from my room. I fell in love with the city, and thought, why not set one of my crime capers here, and get away from Dublin’s rains and glooms for a while? So I sent Quirke there for a holiday, and then proceeded to ruin his life.”

This he certainly does, and I won’t spoil the story by even hinting at the grim finale. But April in Spain surprises at every turn, shifting locations and narrators, taking us into the corrupt political heart of Dublin, exploring the psychoses of a darkly fascinating killer, Terry Tice, who reads Graham Greene and has something of Brighton Rock’s Pinkie about him. It dissects Quirke’s cynical, self-sabotaging yet profoundly curious personality. It is this last trait that permits the character to make daring and decisive connections and allows Banville to subvert the crime writing convention of thinly drawn protagonists.

Banville, meanwhile, is already hard at work with both hands.

“I’ve started another Quirke/Strafford novel, which opens with the death of a young Irish Jewish woman. Who knows where it will go?

“A couple of months ago I finished a long novel – it took five or six years to write – with the catchy title The Singularities, which is very different, harking back to my previous books, especially The Book of Evidence and The Infinities. I’m sure The Singularities will sink straight to the bottom.”

I’m sure it won’t.

April in Spain is published by Faber (£14.99)

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