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John Banville: "Sex is wonderful but writing about it is terrible"

The author on bad sex, bad reviews and comparisons with Joyce.

Ancient Light, your new novel, is about a 15-year-old boy having an affair with his best friend’s mother. You said on Radio 4 that writing sex into a novel is impossible.
The act is wonderful but writing about it is terrible, terrible. D H Lawrence tried to do it, with appalling results. It’s always either sentimental or terribly stern.

Is it something about the extreme subjectivity of the experience?
It’s the fantastical aspect about sex. We have to imagine we are clasping a goddess or a god in our arms, otherwise it won’t work. Afterwards, our rational selves have to realise that this is a human being. The erotic always tends to affection, love or negative things. You can’t write about fantasy without being ridiculous.

I would love to write a pornographic book – I think it’s a great challenge.

Do you read your own work?
No, I wouldn’t dare. When I have to do readings, I read with one eye closed. What am I going to discover here? Usually horrors.

But your prose style is very lyrical. Do you never read aloud when writing?
Oh, yes. I catch myself chanting these lines aloud. I don’t know I’m doing it – now and then I just hear it. It’s a very dangerous prose style to have.

Do you read the reviews you get?
About 20 years ago, I stopped eating meat. I was eating less and less and thought one day: “Just don’t eat it any more.” So I didn’t. At the same time, I found that I was reading less and less of the reviews. I thought: “Why not just stop?” It’s a wonderful sense of freedom. When I publish a book now I feel I’m in a hot-air balloon, in total silence, just drifting away. Then your friends ring you up and tell you about the bad ones.

Do you recognise playfulness in your novels?
Entirely. People take my work much too solemnly; seriously is fine by me. Life is tragic but it’s equally comic. A friend of mine called Ortwin de Graef publishes with the University of Nebraska Press and he was the one who uncovered the anti-Semitic newspaper articles by Paul de Man. If you look closely, [the fictional character] Fargo de Winter is an anagram of Ortwin de Graef. I was very pleased with that. And my friend used to be a punk, so this guy is a professor of post-punk studies.

Are these inside jokes scattered throughout?
Pedrigo Seagran in Ancient Light is an anagram of an Argentinian friend of mine. When I told him I was writing this book, he said, “Give me a walk-on part.” I should start charging. Would you like to be in my next novel? I’ve advertised Guinness quite a bit.

The tramp in Ancient Light, Trevor of Trinity, is like a character out of Dubliners.
He exists – he’s a straight description. I’ve always followed the congress of tramps.

Do you enjoy the Joycean comparisons?
It’s simply true that Dublin is a walking city. It’s infuriating in many ways. It’s very sad now because we’re all so poor, but it still has something of what it had when I first came from the provinces in the 1960s. All those clichéd things about Dublin are still there.

The novel is written with a strong, first-person voice. Are we meant to long for the interiority of the mother?
The point about Mrs Gray is that she lives on the surface. She’s not a thinker, not introspective. She’s so generous. I’m in love with her; I think she’s a wonderful creature. I don’t know how I created her. She must be my own mother.

Is this a preoccupation of our age – always trying to get below the surface?
Nietzsche says: on the surface, that’s where the real depth is. It’s true. All a work of art can do is present the surface. I can’t know the insides of people. I know very little about the inside of myself.

There’s a great deal of mirroring in the relationships. Do you map it out on paper?
I’m not doing it purposely. The older I get, the more I realise writing is a process of dreaming. I’ve learned to trust my dreaming self. The best stuff happens when you let the unplanned happen. No writer likes to admit that, because we like to imagine we’re in control, but actually we’re not. I think I’m less the writer than I’m the written.

“Ancient Light” is published by Viking (£16.99)

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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SRSLY #14: Interns, Housemaids and Witches

On the pop culture podcast this week, we discuss the Robert De Niro-Anne Hathaway film The Intern, the very last series of Downton Abbey, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Lolly Willowes.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen to our new episode now:

...or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on Audioboom, Stitcher, RSS and  SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

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If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we'd love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

The Links

On The Intern

Ryan Gilbey’s discussion of Robert De Niro’s interview tantrums.

Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed on “Anne Hathaway Syndrome”.


On Downton Abbey

This is the sort of stuff you get on the last series of Downton Abbey.


Elizabeth Minkel on the decline of Downton Abbey.



On Lolly Willowes

More details about the novel here.

Sarah Waters on Sylvia Townsend Warner.


Next week:

Caroline is reading Selfish by Kim Kardashian.


Your questions:

We loved reading out your emails this week. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we've discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.



The music featured this week, in order of appearance, is:

i - Kendrick Lamar

With or Without You - Scala & Kolacny Brothers 

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

PS If you missed #13, check it out here.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.