John Banville and Benjamin Black: two for the price of one

For over three hundred years English literature has been enriched by a long line of Anglo-Irish writers, starting with Jonathan Swift, running through Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and W. B. Yeats and continuing down to our times with the writer I want to discuss here – John Banville.

William John Banville was born in Wexford in 1945. He is approaching 76 and still writing. Part of his education was with the fearsome Christian Brothers, a Catholic institution later rendered infamous for its abuse of children and its capacity for cover-up. After leaving school, Banville decided not to go to university. “A great mistake. I should have gone…but I wanted to get away from my family.” On the other hand, he said, “I don’t think I would have had the nerve to tackle some of the things I tackled as a young writer if I had been to university – I would have been beaten into submission…” So, eschewing university, he joined Aer Lingus as a clerk (the employee cheap tickets enabling him to travel extensively) then worked as a sub-editor with the Irish Press, and later with the Irish Times.

Banville’s first novel, Nightspawn, was published in 1971, when he was 26. His seventh novel, The Book of Evidence, was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize but lost that year to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. In 2005, Banville’s thirteenth novel, The Sea, did win the Booker, defeating, in neat symmetry, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Some of the Booker committee members disputed the choice of The Sea, and did so publicly. One described Banville’s win as “possibly the most perverse decision in the history of the award”. Banville felt hurt, saying, “If they give me the bloody prize, why can’t they say nice things about me?” In 2019 more hurt came when Banville received a phone call advising that he was to be put forward as that year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The call turned out to be a hoax, which Banville took generously. He told The Irish Times, “I have the distinct impression that I wasn’t the target…I think [the hoaxer] assumed that I would make a big fuss in the newspapers and embarrass the Academy…It has the hallmarks of a man with a grudge, but not a grudge against me.”

In 2005, the year of his Booker triumph, Banville sat down to write a novel in what was then for him a new genre – a mystery/crime novel set in 1950s Dublin. It was entitled Christine Falls, and its chief character was Quirke (no first name given, then or later), a heavy-drinking forensic pathologist attached to the Dublin coroner’s office. Banville chose to publish Christine Falls under the pen name Benjamin Black and under that pseudonym went on to complete six more Quirke novels.

Banville (writing as Banville) is renowned, indeed revered, for his flawless prose, which he is known to write at a painstakingly slow pace. Here are some of the descriptions that critics have applied to it:

“perfectly crafted, beautiful, dazzling…

“dangerous and clear-running prose…

“lyrical, fastidious, and occasionally hilarious…

“flowing prose [with] lyricism, patrician irony and aching sense of loss…”

In interviews and articles Banville contrives to portray Benjamin Black as a distinct person, with a life and faculties of his own. Black, he says, works more quickly than John Banville. Banville has described to the New York Times the start Black made on Christine Falls. “By lunchtime he had 1,500 words — or a week’s worth at [Banville’s] usual pace. He thought to himself, ‘John Banville, you slut,’ but kept going and finished in five or six months. ‘I was a little appalled at the speed with which I got the thing done.’ Perhaps we should not be surprised that, while Banville writes out his novels longhand in bound notebooks, Black uses a computer.

Banville is a startlingly harsh critic of the books published under his own name. In 2009 he told the Irish Examiner, “I hate them all … I loathe them. They’re all a standing embarrassment…you have to crank yourself up every morning and think about all the awful stuff you did yesterday, and how you can compensate for that by doing better today.” Yet, says Banville, the Benjamin Black books aren’t too bad. In interview he admitted, “I was surprised and highly gratified to discover that they weren’t bad at all…”.

For all Black’s success, Banville has now decided to kill him off. “When I found that I liked the Blacks, I said to myself, ‘Why do I need this rascal anyway?’ So I shut him in a room with a pistol, a phial of sleeping pills and a bottle of Scotch, and that was the end of him.” Therein may lie a problem, though. Benjamin Black has a huge following in Spain, so he may have to live on there. On the Costa del Crime, perhaps?

Banville and Black are together prolific, having completed over thirty novels. I turn now to three of them – The Sea (2005), The Infinities (2009), and Snow (2019). All are set in Ireland and all involve dysfunctional Irish families and their interactions with others. Class awareness is a recurring feature, as is Banville’s treatment of Catholic and Protestant lives.

Of the three books, The Sea is arguably the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. Its narrator, Max Morden, is a retired art historian attempting to come to terms with the deaths of people he loved, from childhood through to adulthood. The Sea is set in a well-to-do Irish family home which Max visited as a child and now revisits in his mature years. As he recalls the events of his life, the chronology is comprehensively jumbled up; his memories are repeatedly shot through with grief and innocence. Banville couches Max’s careful ruminations in that delicate, sensitive prose that attracted the majority of the Booker judges. And while commentary weighs more heavily than action in The Sea, the novel’s dénouement – in the literal sense of the word, i.e. un-knotting, in this case of a hidden identity – is eye-opening.

The Infinities deals with the Godley family (Godley and godly having a connection that you soon realise). Again, we are peering into a dysfunctional Irish family. Old Adam, a retired academic mathematician, lies on his deathbed in a coma, while his son, his wife, his daughter and daughter-in-law try, not always successfully, to make sense of old Adam’s life. What sets The Infinities apart is that the narrator is the Greek god Hermes, who, with his father Zeus, manipulates the mortals below. Zeus is an unreconstructed mischief-maker: as young Adam fails to satisfy his wife sexually, Zeus one morning inserts himself – literally – to give her some wholly unaccustomed ecstasy. He does so in the guise of her husband, leaving Helen to hasten to the bathroom, telling the uncomprehending Adam, “I’m sopping”. So we learn that, for all his genteel characters and refined prose, Banville can shock. The Infinities is peppered with comic and erotic moments that require the reader to have a smattering of Greek mythology; a smattering is all that I have, but I coped. In imaginative and technical skill The Infinities is easily the equal of The Sea, but much more light-hearted.

Finally, The Snow, Banville’s latest published novel, which appeared in 2019. In effect, this is Benjamin Black writing as John Banville, and confirms that Banville has (probably) killed Black off. Snow is a murder mystery – and a top class one too. It begins in the Wexford countryside, not too far from Dublin, in the winter of 1957, when snow not only mantles the landscape but cloaks the actions of the main characters. A Catholic priest is found murdered – stabbed in the neck and castrated while still alive – in the house of the upper-class Protestant Osborne family. The senior investigating policeman is St John Strafford, also a comfortably-off Protestant. The Osborne family and the local Catholic working class close ranks against Strafford; and Strafford gets no support from his superior in Dublin, Hackett, a character who also appears in the Quirke novels. Both Hackett and the archbishop of Dublin attempt to persuade Strafford to constrain his search for the killer in order not to embarrass the Catholic church – even though Strafford’s colleague is killed in the search. The Banville-Black hallmarks are all there: nutty family, self-questioning lead character, class awareness, and deception. I won’t say more than that, but it’s a treat. Snow lacks fast action and shoot-outs, and the cars are slow and unreliable, but, my goodness, how it grips you!

If you want an easy entry into Banville’s writing, then Snow is your way in. After that, I suggest, The Sea and then The Infinities. As regards the Benjamin Black novels, start with the first, Christine Falls, and work your way through the rest in any order you like. There are vestigial connections (of character rather than plot) between the Quirke books, but they don’t determine a reading sequence.

Even if you get no further than Snow, you will be well rewarded. Better still if, like me, you deplore the seemingly remorseless decline in the quality of so much written and spoken English in our time, Banville’s work is a restorative like no other.

Bob Young

August 2021

A postscript which I hope may be helpful: if you like to hear the voice of a living writer, Banville may be heard in quite a large number of recorded interviews. The most recent I have found, and the lengthiest (at 55 minutes), is an interview he gave at the Irish Cultural Centre in London, 2020. See: