John Banville Q&A: “I’ve reached the age where I can be a cross old geezer”

The writer talks Nietzsche, Just William, and never taking advice from anyone.

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John Banville, 71, is an Irish writer who won the Man Booker Prize for “The Sea” in 2005. Under the name Benjamin Black he writes crime fiction: a television adaptation, “Quirke”, was broadcast in 2014. He once said of his books: “I hate them all.”

What’s your earliest memory?

As a baby, lying on my back in my pram – I can still see the lace surround of the hood – being tickled under the chin by my cousin Josie. Very strange, to be able to reach back that far, even to so trivial a primal scene.

Who are your heroes?

When I was a little boy I thought Richmal Crompton’s William Brown was the epitome of enviable, heartless nous and a master of the game of one-upmanship. My hero (one of a very few) as an adult is dead: the philosopher William James. Who else would have tackled the question of free will by the example of our getting ourselves out of bed on a frosty morning?

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, despite the unfortunate English title. This is the most poetically intense of his works, and one of the wisest.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

I suppose I must say Barack Obama. His trouble was, he just didn’t care all that much about being president. A healthy attitude, but a drawback in the job.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Concord, Massachusetts in the time of Emerson and Thoreau, then moving to Cambridge, Mass., to be a member of the short-lived Metaphysical Club, with William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sanders Peirce, and that most odd and endearing figure, Chauncey Wright. What high-flown larks they must have had.

What TV show could you not live without?

Bloodline. In the second series there is a family set-piece, loured over by Sissy Spacek, which is as good as anything the Greek dramatists ever did.

Who would paint your portrait?

Pierre Bonnard. I once asked Henri Cartier-Bresson – there’s name-dropping for you – which of the painters he had met did he consider the greatest, and without hesitation he answered, Bonnard.

What’s your theme tune?

The opening movement of Bach’s Actus Tragicus. Or “Bye Bye Blackbird”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The advice I gave myself early on: never take anyone’s advice.

What’s currently bugging you?

It might be better to ask, what is not bugging me. I’ve reached the age where I can be unapologetically a cross old geezer whom everything annoys.

What single thing would make your life better?

A great deal of money, enough to keep me in the luxury to which I am decidedly unaccustomed, until I die, and leave my heirs rolling in it.

When were you happiest?

When I was a toddler, and still thought my mother was God the Father, with my father as the paraclete.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?

A composer. Music seems to me an entirely unearthly art form, a kind of alchemy, or white magic.

Are we all doomed?

I’m afraid so, unless they can find an antidote to death. Increasingly I wish they would hurry up about it.

John Banville’s latest novel “Mrs Osmond” is published by Viking

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship