The NYTimes By the Book Interview: “John Banville, the Contemporary Novelist Who Avoids Contemporary Novels”

From a By the Book interview in the New York Times Book Review headlined “John Banville, the Contemporary Novelist Who Avoids Contemporary Novels”:

What books are on your night stand?

I’m rereading the Everyman’s Library edition of Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” in the magnificent translation by John E. Woods. Also “The Empress of Ireland,” an inexplicably neglected memoir by Christopher Robbins of the inexplicably forgotten Irish film director Brian Desmond Hurst, first published in 2004. The book is extremely engaging, sad and funny, and a sort of masterpiece in its way….

What’s the last great book you read?

See above.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

I’m considering having another go at “Middlemarch,” which I have never managed to finish. I find George Eliot’s didactic tone and suffocating authorial presence pretty well unbearable. Go ahead, Elioteers, shout abuse at me, I don’t care. And I‘m reading the “Annals” of Tacitus. Honestly, I am.

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

Oh, yes indeed….I think Dostoyevsky is an extraordinarily clumsy and slipshod writer. Nabokov thought so too, which is good enough for me….

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Well, I can’t think of a book that no one has heard of. If you mean a neglected classic, I’d say “Herself Surprised,” by Joyce Cary. It’s part of the trilogy that includes the better-known “The Horse’s Mouth,” but it’s every bit as good….

Until last year, you used the pseudonym Benjamin Black when you wrote crime novels, and reserved your real name for quote-unquote literary books. Did your reading life change as well when you were writing as Black?

No, no. When I wrote my first crime novel, “Christine Falls” — first, if you don’t count “The Book of Evidence” — I used a pen-name just to let readers know I wasn’t playing an elaborate postmodernist joke. Lately I had to check back on some of the BB books in order to write a sequel to one of them, and since I can’t bear to read my own work I hit on the idea of listening to them in audio form….As to reading others, I’ve always been a keen admirer of the classic crime writers, Chandler, Margery Allingham, Richard Stark, etc. And above all, of course, Simenon. I read him all the time, and he never palls.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

I wouldn’t feel guilty even if I were only reading the back of a cornflakes box. The act of reading is extraordinary — whole worlds created out of black squiggles on a white ground — and I’ll read anything if it’s well written. Lately I revisited “Treasure Island” and was as thrilled and charmed as when I first read it as a boy. Stevenson is one of the great, unobtrusive stylists…..

Which books got you hooked on crime fiction?

Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” Richard Stark’s “The Outfit,” Simenon’s “Dirty Snow.” And dozens of others.

What makes for a good mystery?

I would give as answer what William Goldman said of the movies — No one knows anything….

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

“Dubliners,” by James Joyce. I was, I think, 12, when I was given it for my birthday.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Avid. I used to cry when I came to the end of one of the Just William books, by Richmal Crompton. Also a little pamphlet called “Maggie’s Rosary,” by I can’t remember whom. I think it was the first extended text I read, at the age of 7 or 8, and it too made me cry….

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

William James, Denis Diderot, Elizabeth Bowen.

What do you plan to read next?

Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” — I’m on a binge — in, of course, the Everyman edition.


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