About The Author
Born in Wexford, John Banville is an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter. He originally intended to be a painter or an architect, but made the decision to travel, particularly to Italy and Greece, instead of attending university, and lived in the United States in the late sixties.
He published a collection of short stories, Long Lankin, in 1970 while he was working as a sub-editor at The Irish Press. He has since written sixteen novels, and also writes crime fiction under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. He has been a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books since 1990.
His fiction includes two trilogies: the 'Revolutions trilogy' (Doctor Copernicus, Kepler and The Newton Letter) focused on great scientific figures in history, while The Book of Evidence, Ghosts and Athena made up an unnamed triptych exploring the power of art. Doctor Copernicus won the James Tait Black Memorial Award and Kepler the Guardian Fiction Prize; The Book of Revolutions was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize.
His 2005 novel, The Sea, in which an art historian tries to come to terms with the deaths throughout his life of the people he loved, won, amongst many other accolades, the 2005 Man Booker Prize. It is the book which perhaps best illustrates the frequent comparisons of his writing with that of Vladimir Nabokov (although Banville cites Henry James as his primary influence).
Also amongst his most admired titles is The Untouchable (1997), written from the point of view of a gay art historian and double agent, was broadly based on the lives of Louis MacNeice and Anthony Blunt.
In 2007 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was honoured with the Franz Kafka Prize in 2011. In 2013 he was awarded the Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Achievement in Irish Literature, and in 2014 he won the Prince of Asturias Award, Spain's most important literary prize.
His latest novel, Mrs Osmond, picks up where Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady left off, and follows Isabel Archer's attempts to come to terms with the death of her beloved cousin and the bitter discovery of her husband's and friend's betrayal of her. Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to John about his desire to write not in the style but in the spirit of Henry James, how Isabel is forced to open her eyes to many layers of reality, and why, despite his original intentions, he left the ending open.
Below that, John shares some of his favourite books, ones which have made a deep impression upon him and to which he frequently returns.
Questions & Answers
You previously took on the world of Raymond Chandler (in The Black-Eyed Blonde, published under your crime pseudonym, Benjamin Black). What is it about taking on other styles’ that appeals to you?
Well, both the Marlowe book and Mrs Osmond were the result of suggestions. It was my agent, the late Ed Victor, who urged me to write The Black-Eyed Blonde -- the title is from typewritten list of possible titles drawn up by Chandler himself, which Ed had in his possession -- while years ago my wife had pointed out the fact that The Portrait of a Lady really was crying out for a second volume. But I wrote both books firstly out of admiration for Chandler and for James, and secondly, I suppose, just to see if they could be done.
Was the starting point a curiosity about what happened to Isabel Archer or was it wanting to engage with Henry James’ very distinctive voice?
The starting point was my wife urging me to write the book. This was some years ago, and I thought, no, I would feel like a jackal feeding on the carcase of a lion. But then, last year, the notion came back to me, and needing, I suppose, to take the road not taken, I set off on a venture down Henry James Boulevard. And yes, of course, like all readers of The Portrait, I have always wondered what would happen after Isabel, at the end of the book, was kissed by Caspar Goodwood – that kiss like a flash of lightning! - and fled Gardencourt, determined, as James had it, to ‘affront her fate’, and return to Italy, and her dreadful husband.
His voice is so distinctive in fact, did that make your task easier or harder?
That’s an interesting question, and one that, oddly, hadn’t occurred to me before. I’m not sure how to answer it. Certainly James’s voice is distinctive – inimitable, I might once have said – but it is very subtle, and very beautiful, and immensely rich. It’s a truism, of course, that the more highly developed a prose style is, the more easily it’s mimicked. But I hope I haven’t been a mere mimic – my intention from the start was to write not in the style but in the spirit of HJ.
What rules did you set yourself?
The only rule any writer ever sets himself or herself: to write to the best of one’s ability, and produce a good book. We writers are simple creatures, at heart, and only require of ourselves absolute mastery. . .
Does it concern you that readers and reviewers might be so preoccupied with how good a job of emulation you’ve done that they overlook the subtleties of plot and character, the huge imaginative leap it takes to produce any novel?
You’ve made a very good point. Yes, that was my worry all along, and it still is my worry: that I should be regarded as little more than a highly practised parrot. But what would be the point of merely parroting a great writer, and a great novel? I wished to add to and amplify the already intricate plot of The Portrait. Whether I’ve succeeded is not for me to say.
You’ve left the ending open – as indeed did Henry James – was that in homage to the Master?
Not at all. In fact, I had intended to make a much more definite ending, but when it came to the point I realised that I must leave Isabel’s future open. Life hasn’t got a neat plot – why should a novel? All the world lies before the former Mrs Osmond, and she is by now a far wiser woman. She will do wonders, I have no doubt of it.
In developing the character of Isabel, were you keen to add your own interpretation of her desires and motivations, or stay as close as possible to what James tells us directly about her? For example, your Isabel appears to have more initiative, to be less passive, but how far is that a sign of growing maturity?
Isabel, ‘my’ Isabel, is more forceful and determined because she has been so deeply wounded – cast your mind back to the horrors that were piled upon her in the closing chapters of The Portrait – and has been strengthened by her sufferings. She has gone through a purifying fire, and emerged as tempered steel. Now she is off into the world, this time not only to affront her fate, but to fulfil it. Who, I wonder, will write the third volume of her adventures?
Did you feel you were taking a risk introducing a gay character even though it allows a very James-ian moment in which Isabel ‘saw; she saw.’?
You mean Pansy Osmond, I take it? Is she gay? The only evidence we have for it comes from the Countess Gemini, who is a hardly the most dependable of witnesses, and is a great mischief-maker besides. Perhaps Pansy went through a 'gay phase' in the convent, but that's not so uncommon. In the world of Henry James -- a world I barged my way into for the year in which I was writing the novel -- few things are definite, and all knowledge is tentative and liable to revision. Perhaps one day I'll write a short story, or even a novella, following Pansy's adventures. The important thing to note about my version of her is that at the end she shows herself at last to be the daughter of her parents. In James's own version of her she was a harmless little nobody; I've put some spirit into her, I hope.
When Isabel invites Staines, her servant, to dine with her in a short but very richly nuanced scene, how far is she being naïve about social conventions and the feelings of her maid, and how far is she genuinely trying to follow her own mores?
Isabel has entered a new realm, after the revelations made to her at the end of The Portrait. Until she herself was made to suffer she might not have noticed the weeping man outside Paddington station. And perhaps, before now, she hasn't really noticed Staines as a full human being. I hope part of the pleasure readers will derive from Mrs Osmond will be the spectacle of Isabel being forced to open her eyes to many layers of reality she hasn't been aware of, or has ignored, until now.
There are some really strong characters: the acerbic Mrs Touchett; the scheming Madame Merle, Gilbert Osmond of course, and others. Who was the most fun to write?
I think I most enjoyed writing the opening chapters of Part II, when we hear Gilbert Osmond and his sister, the Countess Gemini, dealing with each other out of sight of society, and with the gloves off. Here are two people who have no illusions about the world or about each other. Sad to say, in fiction it's always exciting to see people behaving as their true selves dictate.
Do you have plans to take on any other classic writers?
No, I don't think so. But who knows, perhaps someone will come along with another suggestion? For now, I want to get back to being John Banville -- whoever he is.