John Banville in Seattle

John Banville appeared as himself and as “Benjamin Black” in Seattle on March 22 to promote his new book, Christine Falls. The novel primarily follows Quirke Griffin, a Dublin haunted, naturally enough, by the woman he loved but who chose his brother over him, and secondarily follows a blue collar Boston drunk Catholic (enough modifiers there?) named Andy Stafford. Quirke dominates the novel, which is fortunate because Banville writes melancholy Irish intellectual much better than angry American loser.

Then again, Banville is a character-driven author, and Quirke carries the novel more than Stafford or the murder mystery. I paraphrased Robertson Davies, who in an interview, paraphrased Edmund Wilson saying that he didn’t care who killed who but why, in a question to Banville, and he essentially agreed with the sentiment and compared bad murder mysteries to crossword puzzles. He also told me Wilson said it first, a fact I hadn’t realized since I’d just finished Conversations with Robertson Davies. This explains why some of the characters’ motives are implausible at best, and several comments don’t pass the sniff test, like one villain who passes a usual bromide for excusing villainy: “‘I’ve done some wicked things in my time’—a chuckle, another rattle—’even made people take falls, but I’ve done a lot of good, as well.'”

Mystery is much more mysterious than the explanation, or at least Banville said so, and that may help explain the let down of the resolution of Christine Falls. Expect a different understanding of it eventually, because Banville said he has at least one more Benjamin Black novel in him, and its ending will make one have to reevaluate Christine Falls. An astute questioner asked if Banville routinely gave away the end of his unpublished books, and he laughed with the audience and said that we’ll forget his comment before then. Maybe that would have been true in the days before people like me posted about readings on the Internet.

In spite of minor problems, Banville did a fair job of making me care more about Quirke than about how the woman he nominally investigates died. As often happens in mysteries—or at least as I understand them—the real journey is into the heart and life of the hero, not about the victim, much as so many people grieving over a loved one’s illness wonder more about how it will affect their own lives than out of true empathy. If that happens, I see the genre novel as equally powerful to the literary novel even if Banville apparently does not.

The audience didn’t seem much interested in discussing Christine Falls, which I found overwritten in the Banville style, but it is also elegantly ornate in way that called attention to itself without being ostentatious as The Sea was. Banville’s naming scheme commanded much more attention. Some name questions were more worthy than others, like the one eliciting the the origin of his non de plume. In some earlier books, a character named Benjamin White appeared, although relatively few know of him because Banville says those books are mostly forgotten (and he doesn’t seem upset or unhappy). As “White” indicates, the character was more of the good guy, but Benjamin Black—well, he’s got a bit more of a sense of mischief. The relationship between White and Black might be somewhat like the relationship between Banville and Black, though Banville didn’t explicitly say so.

The sense of mischief might have come out when Banville showed a curious disrespect to, or at least distance from, the noir genre, calling Christine Falls “playing at fiction.” But he also said he created a new identity to show that Christine Falls isn’t a joke or literary lark. The difference between writing literary and genre fiction comes from what Banville sees as being a craftsman, while draftsmanship is only part of a literary novel. I don’t see the difference, at least in the end product, in a fine literary or fine genre novel, and his comments smack of the unfortunate distaste for the popular. The drawing of literary lines also came up in his distinction between novels that describe “life as actually lived” and noir novels, though I think this view ignores the power of the the latter as a kind of metaphor. No one has seen Middle Earth, but I feel like I’ve already walked there, and to say that it isn’t life is to ignore the fictional dream that sustains readers.

Still, that lead led to some comments about eternal question of the relationship of the novel to real life, as when he said novelists are “complete frauds,” with a wink and that “we make it all up.” Then he gets a bit more serious and says that the great thing about fiction is that it is all made up, but that it seems more real than the life we’re living. That sounds very much like someone else I’ve been reading (see the third paragraph), and it’s a sentiment I can agree with, especially when he says that some characters in books seem more real than some people he’s met.

Characters in “The Dead” qualify, and I wanted to ask Banville about the many connections to Joyce’s “The Dead,” since Christine Falls fairly drips with allusion to it. From the stymied male characters to the pervasive sense of failure mingled with the scent of eternity to the repeated use of the two words “the dead,” which, used by an author no doubt steeped in the lore of Joyce—Banville referenced him once in his talk—you cannot get away from the story echoing through Christine Falls. The time expired before I could ask, so I went away with the question remaining.

A few other random points are worth noting, though they don’t really fit in a coherent essay. Banville also said that fiction when he started publishing wasn’t “sexy,” especially in the 1970’s, but that since things have improved. Wait, what? Fiction has somehow become sexy? If so, that’s certainly news to me.One more random Banville fact: he loves the art of painting. That explains why so many of his metaphors involve pictures of some kind, like this one: “The scene within had the unreally dramatic composition of a painting, a genre scene of a deathbed with attendant mourners.” There are enough deaths in the novel that this won’t give away a plot point.

If you want to read more see L.A. reading highlights from The Elegant Variation. Another interview appears in The Guardian.

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