Readerz.Net / John Banville
William John Banville (born 8 December 1945), who sometimes writes as Benjamin Black, is an Irish novelist, adapter of dramas, and screenwriter. Recognised for his precise, cold, forensic prose style, Nabokovian inventiveness, and for the dark humour of his generally arch narrators, Banville is considered to be "one of the most imaginative literary novelists writing in the English language today." He has been described as "the heir to Proust, via Nabokov."
Banville has received numerous awards in his career. His novel The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Guinness Peat Aviation award in 1989. His fourteenth novel, The Sea, won the Booker Prize in 2005. In 2011, Banville was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize, while 2013 brought both the Irish PEN Award and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. In 2014 he won the Prince of Asturias Award in Letters. He is considered a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Banville's stated ambition is to give his prose "the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has".
He has published a number of crime novels as Benjamin Black, most featuring Quirke, an Irish pathologist based in Dublin.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2007. He was made a Cavaliere of the Ordine della Stella d'Italia in 2017.
William John Banville was born to Agnes (née Doran) and Martin Banville, a garage clerk, in Wexford, Ireland. He is the youngest of three siblings; his older brother Vincent is also a novelist and has written under the name Vincent Lawrence as well as his own. His sister Anne Veronica "Vonnie" Banville-Evans has written both a children's novel and a memoir of growing up in Wexford.
Banville was educated at CBS Primary, Wexford, a Christian Brothers school, and at St Peter's College, Wexford. Despite having intended to be a painter and an architect, he did not attend university. Banville has described this as "A great mistake. I should have gone. I regret not taking that four years of getting drunk and falling in love. But I wanted to get away from my family. I wanted to be free." Alternately he has stated that college would have had little benefit for him: "I don't think I would have learned much more, and I don't think I would have had the nerve to tackle some of the things I tackled as a young writer if I had been to university – I would have been beaten into submission by my lecturers." After school he worked as a clerk at Aer Lingus, which allowed him to travel at deeply discounted rates. He took advantage of this to travel in Greece and Italy. He lived in the United States during 1968 and 1969. On his return to Ireland, he became a sub-editor at The Irish Press, rising eventually to the position of chief sub-editor.
Since 1990, Banville has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. After The Irish Press collapsed in 1995, he became a sub-editor at The Irish Times. He was appointed literary editor in 1998. The Irish Times, too, suffered severe financial problems, and Banville was offered the choice of taking a redundancy package or working as a features department sub-editor. He left.
Banville published his first book, a collection of short stories titled Long Lankin, in 1970. He has disowned his first published novel, Nightspawn, describing it as "crotchety, posturing, absurdly pretentious".
Banville has written three trilogies: the first, The Revolutions Trilogy, focused on great men of science and consisted of Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981), and The Newton Letter (1982). He said he became interested in Kepler and other men of science after reading Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers. He realized that, like him, scientists were trying to impose order in their work.
The second trilogy, sometimes referred to collectively as Frames, consists of The Book of Evidence (1989), with several of its characters being featured in Ghosts (1993); Athena (1995) is the third to feature an unreliable narrator and explore the power of works of art.
The third trilogy consists of Eclipse, Shroud and Ancient Light, all of which concern the characters Alexander and Cass Cleave.
Beginning with Christine Falls, published in 2006, Banville has written crime fiction under the pen name Benjamin Black. He writes his Benjamin Black crime fiction much more quickly than he composes his literary novels. He appreciates his work as Black as a craft, while as Banville he is an artist. He considers crime writing, in his own words, as being "cheap fiction". In a July 2008 interview with Juan José Delaney in the Argentine newspaper La Nación, Banville was asked if his books had been translated into Irish. He replied that nobody would translate them and that he was often referred to pejoratively as a West Brit.
Banville is highly scathing of all of his work, stating of his books: "I hate them all ... I loathe them. They're all a standing embarrassment." Instead of dwelling on the past he is continually looking forward, "You have to crank yourself up every morning and think about all the awful stuff you did yesterday, and how you can compensate for that by doing better today." He does not read reviews of his work as he already knows – "better than any reviewer" – the places in which its faults lie.
Banville is considered by critics as a master stylist of English, and his writing has been described as perfectly crafted, beautiful, dazzling. David Mehegan of the Boston Globe calls him "one of the great stylists writing in English today", Don DeLillo describes his work as "dangerous and clear-running prose", Val Nolan in The Sunday Business Post calls his style "lyrical, fastidious, and occasionally hilarious"; The Observer described The Book of Evidence as "flawlessly flowing prose whose lyricism, patrician irony and aching sense of loss are reminiscent of Lolita." Banville has said that he is "trying to blend poetry and fiction into some new form". He is known for his dark humour, and sharp, wintery wit.
In four of Banville's novels (and one as Benjamin Black), he has used the trope of a character's eyes darting back and forth "like a spectator at a tennis match".
Banville said in an interview with The Paris Review that he liked Vladimir Nabokov's style; however, he went on, "But I always thought there was something odd about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Then I read an interview in which he admitted he was tone deaf." He is highly influenced by Heinrich von Kleist, having written adaptations of three of his plays (including Amphitryon) and having used the myth of Amphitryon as a basis for his novel The Infinities.
Banville has said that he imitated James Joyce as a boy: "After I'd read the Dubliners, and was struck at the way Joyce wrote about real life, I immediately started writing bad imitations of the Dubliners." However, The Guardian reports: "Banville himself has acknowledged that all Irish writers are followers of either Joyce or Beckett – and he places himself in the Beckett camp." He has also acknowledged other influences. During a 2011 interview on the program Charlie Rose, Rose asked, "The guiding light has always been Henry James?" and Banville replied, "I think so, I mean people say, you know, I've been influenced by Beckett or Nabokov but it's always been Henry James [...] so I would follow him, I would be a Jamesian." And in a 2012 interview by Noah Charney he said the two real influences on his work were W. B. Yeats and Henry James.
Banville married American textile artist Janet Dunham, and their two sons are now adults. They met during his visit to San Francisco in 1968 where she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Dunham described him during the writing process as being like "a murderer who's just come back from a particularly bloody killing". They have separated.
Banville lives with Patricia Quinn, former head of the Arts Council of Ireland. They have two daughters together.
In 2011, he offered to donate his brain to The Little Museum of Dublin "so visitors could marvel at how small it was".
Awards and honours
Booker Prize, 2005
Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, after having been on the short list in 1989 for The Book of Evidence. His later work was contending with novels by Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Ali Smith, Sebastian Barry and Zadie Smith. The judges vote was split between Banville and Ishiguro, and Chairman of Judges John Sutherland cast the winning vote in favour of Banville.
Earlier that year Sutherland had written approvingly of Ian McEwan's novel Saturday. Banville strongly criticized the work in The New York Review of Books. Banville later admitted that, upon reading Sutherland's letter in response to his review, he had thought: "[W]ell, I can kiss the Booker goodbye. I have not been the most popular person in London literary circles over the past half-year. And I think it was very large of Sutherland to cast the winning vote in my favour."
Banville was noted for having written a letter in 1981 to The Guardian requesting that the Booker Prize, for which he was "runner-up to the shortlist of contenders", be given to him so that he could use the money to buy every copy of the longlisted books in Ireland and donate them to libraries, "thus ensuring that the books not only are bought but also read – surely a unique occurrence."
When his The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize, Banville said a friend, whom he described as "a gentleman of the turf", instructed him "to bet on the other five shortlistees, saying it was a sure thing, since if I won the prize I would have the prize-money, and if I lost one of the others would win ... But the thing baffled me and I never placed the bets. I doubt I'll be visiting Ladbrokes any time soon".
Kafka Prize, 2011
In 2011, Banville was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize. Marcel Reich-Ranicki and John Calder featured on the jury. Banville described the award as "one of the ones one really wants to get. It's an old style prize and as an old codger it's perfect for me ... I've been wrestling with Kafka since I was an adolescent" and said his bronze statuette trophy "will glare at me from the mantelpiece".
Short story collection
As "Benjamin Black"