Last night, John Banville visited 192 Books in New York City to read from his new novel, Ancient Light, published this month by Knopf. The seats of the small and beautiful bookstore were mostly filled with elderly Irish-looking people, all wide grins and red hair. Banville entered scarfed and subdued, telling the crowd he was “the sick man of Europe,” and assuring that what he had wasn’t communicable. He read from Ancient Light for a short while, his sentences precise as they are sophisticated. The reading was followed by a treasure: Banville’s answers to the crowd’s questions about the author’s writing process.
The author explained that as he grows older, he is finding that he has little to do with the writing process. “I just do the sentences,” he said.
There were several questions about Banville’s earlier works, Doctor Copernicus, Kepler, and The Newton Letter, with one person asking why Banville wrote these seminal works. Banville dismissed the works as youthful “foolishness,” saying they were a waste of time, and that he had long ago abandoned the notion of being “a novelist of ideas.”
“When I was younger,” he said, “I thought I was the one in control.” Much older, he now understands that “it’s not what one does, it’s what’s being done to one.”
As if understanding long-pondered issues for the first time, Banville continued to reflect upon the crowd’s questions: “When I was young, I believed that with age comes wisdom. It doesn’t. With age comes confusion. I feel confused. It’s a good place for a writer to be. To be confused is to be creative.”
Alongside Ancient Light, 192 also displayed Benjamin Black books for sale, and audience members prompted Banville to speak about the “certain leakage between Banville and Black,” Banville’s alter-ego, who publishes thriller novels. Banville explained that what he does as Black is a craft, not art; a craft can be finished, while art can only be abandoned. Banville writes with a fountain pen on hand-bound notebooks made especially for him. Black writes on a screen. Banville is lost with himself. Black knows exactly where he is.
After some time, Banville alluded to Kafka, joking that the question and answer session was like the trial.
“I can give plausible answers,” the author said with tired sincerity. “They might be the right answers, but I just don’t know.”