BookHampton was honored to present the great Irish novelist John Banville in our East Hampton store on Saturday, July 9. The occasion was a reading of his new novel, A Death in Summer written under his pseudonym, Benjamin Black. The store was packed to the rafters as Mr. Banville began to read; his brogue and cadence cast a spell that enchanted all who were present.
Mr. Banville or Mr. Black? That was the “theme” of the evening as Banville read from Black’s latest chapter in the ongoing saga of Dr. Quirke and his hard-won efforts at crime-solving. How is it that John Banville, one of the most acclaimed writers in the world and the recipient of many great literary accolades and awards — including the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea — became the mystery writer Benjamin Black? “We are all more than one person, always” said Banville. “We ‘change’ as we go through any day. And so it is only that side of me, mystery writer, prefers being called Benjamin Black. It might not bear further exploration,” and then he added, with a rather impish smile, “then again it might.”
Mr. Banville read the opening paragraphs of the book and then, by way of contrast, read the dazzling first paragraph of the most recent novel published under his own name, The Infinities.
There followed one of the most interesting, illuminating and humorous discussions that I can ever recall experiencing at our readings. In response to the inevitable questions about why he chooses to write these mystery novels under a pseudonym, he said that he wanted to signal to his readers that these books were to be understood as having a different sort of craftsmanship; a Benjamin Black novel is written directly on the computer in a period of weeks or months, whereas a Banville novel is written by hand and will take years.
He added that he loves Quirke and the other characters of the mysteries because they are all so incompetent (“Inspector Hackett never gets his man”, he said) and he loves the challenge of writing everything on the surface; he quoted Nietzsche as saying that the surface contains all the depth we would ever need.
In response to a question about his literary influences (in which the questioner suggested perhaps Nabokov, Proust or Dostoevsky) Mr. Banville named Henry James, whom he characterized as the progenitor of a path to modernism that was not pursued by later generations. Much as he admires Joyce and Beckett, it is in James that he appears to find his inspiration.
When another audience member asked that he identify his favorite among his own books he laughed and said that he was being asked to choose among his children; more seriously he added that he didn’t care for his own books once they were completed; much as he “might find them better than anyone else’s,” he regards each of his books as a failure in some sense, a failure to express the idea that gave rise to the book in the first place. Quoting Beckett he said that perhaps each work is doomed to failure but in the course of a life would could learn to “fail again, fail better.”
Asked about the extent to which anything in his books was autobiographical, Banville said that of course every character in every book is himself, since we only can know ourselves from the inside. On the other hand the particular adventures are almost wholly made up since a writer’s life, he said, must consist of little besides sitting at the desk and writing.
Combining a self-effacing charm with a dazzling erudition John Banville and Benjamin Black gave us an evening that those present will never forget.
— Jeremy Nussbaum
All photographs © Jeremy Nussbaum 2011
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