John Banville Confronts Benjamin Black
I find him living-I was about to write holed up-in an anonymous apartment building just across the river from Temple Bar, that God's little acre laughingly known as Dublin's Latin Quarter, and such landmarks as the Clarence Hotel, owned by Bono. This is a version of modern-day, tigerish Ireland I would not have associated him with. The quay on which his apartment building stands is named Bachelor's Walk, which conjures swaggering Regency rakes, and this is a bit better, though not quite it, either. Fog, coal grit, whiskey fumes and stale cigarette smoke, these are the atmospherics of Benjamin Black's Dublin.
He buzzes me in through the front door and I climb three silent flights of stairs. The silence tells me this is a childless establishment. Children do not figure in BB's world except as victims, rejects, pawns in an appalling power-game. But immediately I have to make an adjustment: BB is not Quirke, the troubled and troubling hero of BB's first novel, Christine Falls. For all I know BB may be a pipesmoking family man in carpet slippers and a Fair Isle jumper.
He is not.
The apartment is small, and would be neat except for the books crowding everywhere. The window of the room that is his study looks into a courtyard with grass and not quite authentic-looking trees. 'When I came here the building was brand-new and I was one of the first tenants. In that apartment opposite'—he points—'there was a girl who used to wander about her room naked in the mornings. She must have thought there was no one living on this side. I'm surprised she didn't spot my bloodshot eye at the window. Or maybe she was an exhibitionist and happy to be watched.'
We are, of course, coevals, BB and I. How to describe him? Nowhere near as big as Quirke, the bull-man whom no woman can resist. As he crosses between me and the window—he is rarely still, preferring I suppose to make a moving target—he seems to me peculiarly blurred. He is less himself than the shadow of someone else. Does this explain the unease I sense in him? He avoids my eye; I suspect he avoids everyone's eye.
How did he come to conceive Christine Falls?
'About three years ago I began to read Georges Simenon—not the Maigret books, a single one of which I've yet to read, but what he called his romans durs, his hard novels, such as Dirty Snow, Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Tropic Moon. And I was bowled over. These are masterpieces of what one might ill-advisedly call existential fiction, and far better, less self-consciously literary, than anything by Sartre or even Camus. I thought, if this kind of thing can be achieved in simple language and direct, lightweight narrative, then I want to try it myself.'
Christine Falls is set in the early 1950s, partly in Dublin and partly on the coast south of Boston. Why the period? 'The 1950s fascinates me. It was a remarkable time, here and in America, paranoid, guilt-ridden, beset by fear and loathing, and still shuddering in the after-effects of the war. A perfect period for a novel, if you incline towards a dark view of human beings.' Which he does? He gives me a smile in which I can detect no trace of humour. 'What do you think?'
Well, I think the people in his novel are not quite as awful as he seems to want us to think they are. They have their demons, their bad dreams, their frightful secrets, but there is detectable in all of them, even the villainous ones such as Andy Stafford, a bittersweet sense of yearning for things they have lost or never had in the first place. He considers this in silence 'for a long moment', to use one of his own formulations. I wish he would not insist on standing there with his back to the window, keeping the light behind him, for I have yet to get a clear look at him; it is intentional, I know, this evasiveness.
He asks what I thought of Christine Falls, and I am so surprised by the question, the blunt directness of it, that at first I am not sure whether he means the novel or the character it is named after—a second's reflection tells me it is hardly the latter, since Christine Falls only appears in the flesh in the form of a corpse. I stammer the usual flattering banalities—now who is being evasive?—but he waves a hand impatiently. 'No, I mean what do you think of it?'
It is surprisingly hard to find an answer. I tell him it is not the kind of book I normally read, although I, too, have read Simenon, and James M. Cain and Richard Stark, all of whom I know are his exemplars. 'It seems to me,' I venture cautiously, 'the kind of book in which the reader must supply a lot of the characters' motivations. That is'—his gaze is steady, but is it blank or hostile?—'you supply information, speculation, surmises, but in the end they are all ciphers, especially Quirke.'
He nods. 'So they are, ciphers all. Just like folks.' He turns completely now, to face the window, and stands with his hands in his pockets, gazing out; no naked maiden flits by any window opposite. 'You see, that's the difference between you and me,' he says. 'You devote pages to speculating on why this or that character did this or that action, without ever, of course, coming up with an answer or the shade of an answer. That's your brand of phenomenology, if you'll permit me one of the big words you're always being berated for using. My way is by way of action. What my people do is what they are. You know that one of yours, The Book of Evidence? That title would have been better used by me. Your books think: mine look, look and report. Right?'
But mine report, too, or better say, they bear witness. All we can know is the surface of things, and things includes people. I know all about the resistance of the phenomena. The thing-in-itself is not— He turns, lifting a resistant hand. 'Whoa, brother,' he says, almost laughing, 'no need to travel all the way to Königsberg!' For a moment I am baffled, then I see: Königsberg, home of Kant, hunter of the thing-in-itself; he is trying to out-clever me. As if he has read my mind he says, 'I'm a simple man, or try to be. I've discovered, late on in life, greatly to my surprise, that human beings interest me, enough to make me want to write about them.' Stung, I wonder aloud if the people I write about are entirely lacking in human traits? 'Oh, they're human, all right,' he answers, '—or humanish, anyway. But that's not their point.'
What is their point, then? Again that toothed, feral smile. 'You tell me.'
'Look,' I say, 'I came here to talk about Christine Falls, about Quirke—about you.'
He shakes his head. 'No, you didn't.'
'You came here to talk to yourself. You've done a grand job of it. Now, how about a drink?'