The day after the ceremony in which he was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize in Prague, Irish novelist John Banville came to the Kafka Society’s basement haunts and, against the backdrop of Kafka’s old library, spoke about his work, murderers (and looking like a murderer), Nabokov, and a number of other things.
Below is the first part of a selection of Banville’s talk.
On claims he shows the influence of Nabokov:
“Lots of people tell me I’m influenced by Nabokov. I don’t feel that I am. I think that I write in a particular style which is in a tradition that Nabokov was a part of. There are other writers, like John Updike, that are part of that same tradition. What fascinates me is that no one seems to see that strongest influences, if such a thing as influences are possible, would be Henry James and W.B. Yeats. I feel much more strongly attached to those writers than I do to Nabokov.
But if you want to consider me today’s answer to Nabokov that’s perfectly fine with me. Although I don’t think Nabokov would be very happy with it.”
On the often repeated quote of his wife’s about how he looks like a killer when he is writing:
“My poor wife particularly regrets ever having said that because it keeps being quoted. The occasion arose from a meeting with Cormac McCarthy in Santa Fe. Cormac was supposed to be taking the weekend off, but like all writers thought he could get a bit of writing done in the morning. When he came to lunch he had a dead-eyed expression, the pale features the air of desperation . . that shocked me. And I said to my wife ‘I’m not like that when I’ve been writing, am I?’ and she said ‘Yes, you are. You look exactly like a murderer coming back from a particularly bloody murder.’”
It’s hard work. It takes everything that one has. It takes all one’s concentration. One is left drained at the end of a day’s writing. It’s glorious work and it’s a great privilege to spend one’s life making sentences. If I would be asked what I think is the greatest invention of humankind I would say the sentence. There have been civilizations that didn’t have the wheel but they had to have the sentence.”
Otherwise I might be killing people or . . going into politics. We should keep in mind that the great, great political tyrants of the 20th century – Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot – were all failed artists.
On mixing art and politics:
“You cannot mix art and politics, or social awareness, or morality. Art is amoral. It’s not immoral, it’s just amoral. And all the artist is thinking about is getting the work done as perfectly as he or she thinks possible. Beyond that – social commentary, political analysis – these are perhaps possible for someone but they’re not possible for me. But it seems to me that when you mix art with social commentary you get bad art and bad politics …
I should say that when I say this kind of thing it drives critics a bit crazy because they somehow feel that art is trivial and that it has to be given some kind of weight and seriousness by politics and social commentary. I don’t agree with this.”