Art and craft with John Banville

Author: Jason Kelly '95

I don’t know what John Banville’s trying to say. Equipped with my bachelor’s degree in English, I should be able to tease out meaning in the Irish novelist’s poetic, impressionistic lines. I can’t. But he makes me wonder.


That’s enough for me — wonder — and I think enveloping readers like me in imaginary worlds made of words is enough for Banville, too, never mind the library shelves of analysis devoted to his work. Once described as “a true literary anarchist,” he all but dares critics and scholars to go spelunking in his pages. He seems to delight in what they find in the recesses of his sentences, game either to agree or to parry in high-minded salons.


For a couple weeks in November, Banville engaged in just that kind of badinage as a visiting scholar in the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies.


He’s a man of wandering interests and intellect. He knows poetry and philosophy and astronomy, his fiction exploring those murky fathoms of the human mind and scientific imagination. His quiver of reference points includes Gary Larson cartoons. Banville’s serious novels have drawn comparisons to Beckett and Nabokov, his pseudonymous noirs to Raymond Chandler. He won the Booker Prize for his 2005 novel The Sea. For his half-century body of work, you could get decent odds on him for the Nobel.


Reputation preceding him at age 73, Banville dispenses little piths like a grandfather with a pocketful of candies. Like: “Art is both consolation and illumination.” And: “Beauty has become a problem word for us. It’s a bit like sex to the Victorians, you don’t quite know what to do with it. It embarrasses us. But we all crave beauty.”


For all the critical acclaim and academic excavation he inspires, Banville cherishes discovering that he has created experiences of beauty for ordinary readers like me. There’s a story of his wife in a supermarket checkout line and the cashier noticing the name on the credit card. “Are you related to John Banville? Tell him The Sea is the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.” Another, funnier recollection involves a guy on a bicycle recognizing him and pedaling over, to all appearances prepared to take physical exception to something Banville had written. Instead he delivered the best book-jacket blurb imaginable — if only it were fit for print.


Banville figures there are a couple thousand people like that out there somewhere, readers who engage his work where it lives — on the page — seeking it out for the “buzz in the aesthetic part of ourselves” that, for him, defines art. I wondered when he had last felt that aesthetic buzz, from a piece of music, a painting, maybe something he wrote?


“Obviously not something I wrote,” he says — like a Banville character with a dual identity (and like most writers), he possesses both a fulsome pride and the self-effacing sense of an impostor. He considers his books embarrassing failures. “Better than everybody else’s,” he has said, “but they’re not good enough for me.”


Back to the aesthetic buzz. It happened to him on a private visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid, standing alone before Diego Velázquez’s enigmatic painting, Las Meninas, a portrait of the Spanish court that breaks traditions and rules of perspective, frustrating interpretation for centuries. The mysterious 1656 masterpiece, looming more than 10 feet high, held its secrets close and seemed to look back at this solitary voyeur. “A transcendentally beautiful experience,” Banville says, “but it was also frightening.”


He wanted to be a painter once and still sees the form as analogous to literature. Novels, like paintings, are “flat surfaces, decorated.” And an artist in any genre must see with an almost indecent depth of perception. “The artistic gaze makes the world flinch,” he says. “It doesn’t expect to be looked at with such intensity.”


I was interested in Banville’s elevated idea of art, as distinguished from craft, because I came to his writing first through the pen-named mystery series about a melancholy 1950s Dublin pathologist called Quirke. Benjamin Black, Banville’s “dark brother” who writes the Quirke books, generates an aesthetic buzz in his own right, but he/they (Banville refers to both in the third person) see the books as categorically distinct.


“Banville tries to be an artist, he tries to make works of art,” Banville says. “Benjamin Black produces pieces of craftwork. And he does his best. He tries to make them the most beautifully crafted, as a well-made table or a well-made chair or a well-made ornament, but that’s as far as it goes.”


Art, he says, transforms its material, ceasing to be pigment on canvas or lines in a script, coming to life as something else altogether. Craft, on the other hand, relishes its physical stuff, reshaping whatever it’s made of — wood, words — but retaining the essential properties.


Banville writes with a fountain pen on paper, a painstaking process in which a paragraph can take weeks, as if fashioning language through a jeweler’s loupe. Black writes on a computer screen, completing manuscripts in a few months, page-turning plots clattering to life in the percussive tap-tap-tap of keys.


I’ve read some of both Banville and Black and I can sense the distinction more than I can articulate it, but if the idea is to encounter beauty as rendered through language, the difference is academic to me.


Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.