A photograph never quite tells the whole story. I recognised John Banville the moment he walked into the London Review Bookshop, he was exactly like his photographs. Yet there was still something different: he was shorter and heavier than I had anticipated. His face seemed the result of high gravity, the flesh had descended loosely around cheek and jaw but was tight across the brow. He had that mournful, Clement Freud look, offset by an attractively self-deprecating sense of humour.
I was at the London Review Bookshop because Banville was giving a reading from his new novel, The Infinities (which sounds so like a title Christopher Priest would choose). I was there early, of course, but there was still a cluster of people waiting outside. They were the typical audience for such LRB events, predominantly white, middle-aged and middle class, fairly evenly divided by sex. My name was on the list at the door, though despite my repeating the name several times during the telephone conversation when I booked my ticket they still had me down as ‘Mrs Kincaid’. They were anticipating a good crowd, the seats filled the entire available space in the shop, so there was no room to go browsing. So I grabbed a glass of wine and found a seat close to the front.
An unkempt haystack of a man in off-white t-shirt and baggy sweat pants, festooned with bags that seemed to contain nothing but books, came and plonked himself directly in front of me, then turned and demanded to know if I’d seen the shortlist. As it happened I’d caught a brief glimpse of the Booker Prize shortlist earlier, enough that I remembered four of the titles on the list. The haystack wasn’t satisfied with that and went to blag a complete list off the bookshop staff. A very helpful woman actually printed off several pages from the Booker website for him. Since the haystack seemed intent on talking to everyone within earshot, I then found myself caught up in a conversation that started out about the Booker list (the haystack persistently pronounced Coetzee, ‘Curteez’), moved on to the iniquities of contemporary British publishing, and ended with him repeatedly asking how he could subscribe to the New York Review of Books. ‘Do they have a London office?’ he said in response to everything anyone else said, ‘I can’t find an address’. ‘Go online,’ I suggested. The third time I said this, he admitted he didn’t have the internet.
By now the room was near-enough full, virtually all the wine the shop had provided had disappeared, and even the inevitable late stragglers had somehow straggled in. At this point Banville entered with a small entourage who turned out to be wife and bookshop manager. The manager introduced the guest and said he would do a 15-20 minute reading. ‘I thought we agreed three hours,’ Banville interjected, ‘like Paul Auster.’ ‘We compromised on 15 minutes.’ ‘But it could grow to three hours?’
Banville reads aloud better than most authors I have come across. He has a good, clear voice with a soft Irish accent that either disappeared through the course of the reading, or, more likely, became so interwoven with the rhythm of the prose that it became unnoticeable. The novel concerns a famous mathematician on his deathbed, but the passage he read, because it was self-contained not because it was representative of the book, was an extended flashback to his childhood. It was beautiful, with all the linguistic care and sensibility I associate with Banville, but also, I felt, with something of the pace I have come to associate with his alter-ego Benjamin Black.
After the reading, there were questions. The haystack immediately put his hand up: it was a long, rambling peroration that went on for several minutes, but boiled down to how dreadful it was that Banville, Colm Toibin and William Trevor had been excluded from the Booker list and was his publisher at fault for not getting the book submitted in time. Banville, I must say, responded with more patience and better temper than I probably would have done. If it was anyone’s fault getting the book in late it was his, because he only finished it in March. You couldn’t pay too much attention to things like the Booker. But at the same time, his wife would testify that Booker time was always a fretful time for him.
When someone asked the inevitable question about what was going on in the novel he said: ‘I’m not kidding, if you’ve read the novel you probably know more about it than I do. It’s all in the past for me.’
Someone else asked if he put the new book alongside his novels about scientists, or his novels about the decaying great houses. ‘You only ever write one novel,’ he replied, ‘which is incomplete at your death.’ In response to later questions he admitted he knew very little about maths, but understood how the mathematical mind worked because it was a creative mind. When he wrote novels like Doctor Copernicus, Kepler and Mefisto he had wanted to write about creativity without it being just another book about an artist. He had once wanted to write a big novel about scientific ideas that would feature Einstein and Oppenheimer and others, but hadn’t been able to do it; he probably never would now. He is fascinated by ideas, but finds fiction that is purely about ideas tends to be very flat.
And in response to yet another question, he used to plan out his books in rigorous detail, but as he’s got older he tends to do that less and less. The Infinities started out based on Heinrich von Kleist‘s Amphytrion (a play Banville had adapted for the Dublin stage a few years ago), and he can still see the skeleton of Kleist’s play in his novel, but in the writing it soon moved away from that original plan.
And at the end we learned that Banville will be returning to the London Review Bookshop sometime next month with his friend, the philosopher John Gray, to discuss Simenon. If at all possible, you can bet I’ll be there.
First published at LiveJournal, 9 September 2009.