Odd and Unreliable Faculties: An Interview with John Banville

Emily M. Keeler is a writer and the editor of...

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John Banville’s sixteenth novel is a return, of sorts. Ancient Light revisits Alex Cleave, ten years after Shroud, where he learned of his daughter’s suicide. She, Cass Cleave, also makes a reappearance, in a haunting way, having featured in both Shroud and Eclipse. Alex is caught between two times, his first love affair as a teenaged boy and the present, where he is a first-time film actor, rather late in his life. When I met with Banville at his publisher’s offices in Toronto to discuss Ancient Light, he was initially preoccupied, having just discovered that his Google account had been hacked. He apologized for having his phone on the table, and warned me that he might keep looking at it while we talked, given the circumstances. But once I began to ask him about his work, his eyes intently fixed themselves upon mine.

Alex Cleave is a bit of an unreliable narrator. Did that complicate the process of writing this novel?

I think all narrators are unreliable, because memory is unreliable, and even our notions of the present are unreliable. The older I get, the more I think that we don’t remember, we imagine. The imagination works much harder then the memory. Neuroscientists are now coming to the conclusion that we don’t actually remember, that we make models of what we see and what we experience, and that these are what we carry forward. Which is a nice theory, because it explains why—everything. You know, you go back to a house that you lived in as a child and everything’s slightly shifted. And it’s because the model in your head has decayed over time. I think that’s true. So memory is a very odd faculty.

Even though all narrators might be unreliable, is there one narrator in literature you would most like to believe?

Most like to believe? Alex Cleave. I would like to believe that what he remembers of Mrs. Gray is true. Of course, he’s so selfish, and so self-centred that he doesn’t know what’s going on even while it’s going on. He doesn’t notice what’s happening with Mrs. Gray. But what 15-year-old boy does? Especially if he’s having an affair with a 35-year-old woman.

Alex, while he’s narrating the novel, is constantly calling into question the words he’s using. He goes back and says “No, that’s not the right word,” or “That’s precisely the word. ”Do you think that’s something that someone who is especially not good at noticing would do?

Well, I think it simply reflects the difficulty of language. I always say that the world is round, but language is square. Fitting the two together is as difficult as squaring a circle. Language has its own force, its own desire, and its own willfulness. You know, you write a letter, a very important letter to a lover, or your father, or something. At the end of it you read it, and think, “That’s not quite what I meant to say.” Who is speaking here? Who is speaking here is language. Language speaks. I often say that we think that we speak, but we’re spoken. So language is constantly coercing us into—perhaps self revelation. Those were Freud’s great adventures, and great discoveries; they were language. Language would betray us into doing and saying certain things that, y’know, we would prefer to have unsaid. But language is an extraordinarily difficult medium. I mean, you know that as well as I.

Do you think then that language supersedes psychology, in terms of how we understand our own minds and experiences?

I mean, one of my mottoes comes from Kafka. He wrote in his diary, “Never again psychology!” I’m as far from being a psychological novelist as I can possibly be. To me, art is a presentation of evidence. A work of art is an artist saying, “This is what one man saw, in his brief moment on earth.” Here is a partial account of it. I can’t pretend to understand other people’s inner lives. I have no idea about you. I barely know anything about my own inner life. What I see of other people are what they present to me, their surfaces. I glean evidence from them and then present it.

That strikes me as a little depressing.


The idea that most of the world is covered over, that most of it is unseen, and that you’ll never get to see it. It’s a little sad.

But that’s what makes life interesting. That’s what makes life fascinating! The constant mystery of ourselves and the people around us. How boring would it be if we knew everything about everyone. You can live with somebody for 30 years, and he or she will suddenly say something that will make you think I never knew that about that person! A whole other perspective, as if a door suddenly has opened and here’s a great grand salon in there, with wonderful paintings on the ceiling, gilt and so on, and you didn’t know about it till then. How could that be depressing? That’s fascinating.

Do you think that there’s an element of solipsism to—

There’s an element of solipsism to everything, darling. We are inside ourselves looking out, desperately trying to gather the evidence, trying to crack the code of this strange world that we’re thrown into. We have to be solipsistic, because we are inside ourselves. It doesn’t preclude loving people, or sympathizing with people, or hating people. Or interacting with them, to use that awful term. But we are constantly inside ourselves. Don’t get depressed about that, that’s not depressing either.

It seems to preclude empathy, though, if the self is a prison that is almost unbreachable.

Well I don’t say it’s a prison, or unbreachable. We have to live inside ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be paroled every now and then. We do get out. We do reach through the bars and touch flesh, touch other minds. Of course we do. Life would be intolerable otherwise. But that’s what makes, as I say, what makes life fascinating for me. The effort to get out. The effort to escape and be in the world.

Do you think that literature better enables that escape?

Well, that’s one way. There are many ways. I suppose that the way that we all imagine escape is love, fully love. But… Love is the most solipsistic of all emotions. You manufacture a mirror in place of the other person, and hold it in front of you and say, “Look at me, aren’t I wonderful?” And that lasts for a few months, or a few years. And then it becomes something far more interesting. Where you take the mirror away and look at the person And look, there’s a unique person there. It’s not just me reflected in your eyes that’s interesting, it’s the eyes themselves, and the other things they see.

Do you feel that Alex Cleave will ever have that?

That’s an interesting question. No, I suspect not. I suspect that’s his tragedy. That he wont—he can’t reach the world. He can’t reach sufficiently far in the world. That’s what he keeps trying to do. But I think he is a tragic figure. And, I suppose, limited. A very limited man.

Do you think that you’ll revisit him in a subsequent novel?

I don’t know. I think if I were to write another novel about these people it would be a novel centred on Cass. But that would be very difficult. Very difficult. Because she’s enigmatic, and I think she has to remain enigmatic; if I try to crack that mystery I think…I don’t think it would work. A friend of mine keeps urging me—Because, y’know, she’s been in two other books, she was in Eclipse and she was in Shroud—and an Argentinian friend, a novelist, he says, “You know, you need to write the book of Cass.” But I don’t think I can. So if it’s anybody, it’ll be Cass.

But you’re not specifically planning—

I don’t plan like that. I mean, art is a completely organic business. You throw some seeds on the ground and these green things start to grow. And you follow them. More and more I think it has very little to do with me; it’s to do with the process itself. I just take care of the sentences. The rest looks after itself.

You’ve said in other interviews that you spend between two and five years on a novel. That’s a long germination period, for seeds that look after themselves.

Yes, but look how long it takes an oak to grow. Making sentences is a difficult business. Well, a time consuming business. It is a difficult business, too, and you have to give as much time as you can afford. As much time as you have. So if it takes five years, it takes five years.


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