John Banville

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John Banville
John Banville 7.jpg
Banville in Sarzana (2010)
Born William John Banville
(1945-12-08) 8 December 1945 (age 76)
Wexford, Ireland
Pen name Benjamin Black
Occupation Novelist
Nationality Irish
Notable works Birchwood,
Doctor Copernicus,
The Newton Letter,
The Book of Evidence,
The Untouchable,
The Sea,
The Infinities,
Ancient Light
Notable awards James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Man Booker Prize
Franz Kafka Prize
Irish PEN Award
Austrian State Prize for European Literature
Prince of Asturias Awards

William John Banville (born 8 December 1945), who writes as John Banville and sometimes as Benjamin Black, is an Irish novelist, adapter of dramas, and screenwriter.[1] Recognised for his precise, cold, forensic prose style, Nabokovian inventiveness, and for the dark humour of his generally arch narrators, Banville is considered to be "one of the most imaginative literary novelists writing in the English language today."[2] He has been described as "the heir to Proust, via Nabokov."[3]

Banville has received numerous awards in his career. His novel The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Guinness Peat Aviation award in 1989. His fourteenth novel, The Sea, won the Booker Prize in 2005. In 2011, Banville was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize, while 2013 brought both the Irish PEN Award and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. In 2014 he won the Prince of Asturias Award in Letters.[4] He is considered a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.[5][6] Banville's stated ambition is to give his prose "the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has".[7]

He has published a number of crime novels as Benjamin Black, most featuring Quirke, an Irish pathologist based in Dublin.


William John Banville was born to Agnes (née Doran) and Martin Banville, a garage clerk, in Wexford, Ireland. He is the youngest of three siblings; his older brother Vincent is also a novelist and has written under the name Vincent Lawrence as well as his own. His sister Anne Veronica "Vonnie" Banville-Evans[8] has written both a children's novel and a memoir[9] of growing up in Wexford.

Banville was educated at CBS Primary, Wexford, a Christian Brothers school, and at St Peter's College, Wexford. Despite having intended to be a painter and an architect, he did not attend university.[10] Banville has described this as "A great mistake. I should have gone. I regret not taking that four years of getting drunk and falling in love. But I wanted to get away from my family. I wanted to be free."[11] Alternately he has stated that college would have had little benefit for him: "I don't think I would have learned much more, and 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 by my lecturers."[12] After school he worked as a clerk at Aer Lingus, which allowed him to travel at deeply discounted rates. He took advantage of this to travel in Greece and Italy. He lived in the United States during 1968 and 1969. On his return to Ireland, he became a sub-editor at The Irish Press, rising eventually to the position of chief sub-editor.

Since 1990, Banville has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. After The Irish Press collapsed in 1995,[13] he became a sub-editor at The Irish Times. He was appointed literary editor in 1998. The Irish Times, too, suffered severe financial problems, and Banville was offered the choice of taking a redundancy package or working as a features department sub-editor. He left.


Banville published his first book, a collection of short stories titled Long Lankin, in 1970. He has disowned his first published novel, Nightspawn, describing it as "crotchety, posturing, absurdly pretentious".[14]

Banville has written three trilogies: the first, The Revolutions Trilogy, focused on great men of science and consisted of Dr. Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981), and The Newton Letter (1982). He said he became interested in Kepler and other men of science after reading Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers.[15] He realized that, like him, scientists were trying to impose order in their work.[15]

The second trilogy, sometimes referred to collectively as Frames, consists of The Book of Evidence (1989), with several of its characters being featured in Ghosts (1993); Athena (1995) is the third to feature an unreliable narrator and explore the power of works of art.

The third trilogy comprises Eclipse, Shroud and Ancient Light, all of which concern the characters Alexander and Cass Cleave.

Beginning with Christine Falls, published in 2006, Banville has written crime fiction under the pen name Benjamin Black. He writes his Benjamin Black crime fiction much more quickly than he composes his literary novels.[16] He appreciates his work as Black as a craft, while as Banville he is an artist. He considers crime writing, in his own words, as being "cheap fiction".[citation needed] In a July 2008 interview with Juan José Delaney in an Argentine paper, La Nacíón, Banville was asked if his books had been translated into Irish. He replied that nobody would translate them and that he was often referred to pejoratively as a West Brit.[17]

Banville is highly scathing of all of his work, stating of his books: "I hate them all ... I loathe them. They're all a standing embarrassment."[10] Instead of dwelling on the past he is continually looking forward, "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."[11] He does not read reviews of his work as he already knows – "better than any reviewer" – the places in which its faults lie.[18]


Banville is considered by critics as a master stylist of English, and his writing has been described as perfectly crafted, beautiful, dazzling.[20] David Mehegan of the Boston Globe calls him "one of the great stylists writing in English today", Don DeLillo describes his work as "dangerous and clear-running prose", Val Nolan in The Sunday Business Post calls his style "lyrical, fastidious, and occasionally hilarious";[21] The Observer described The Book of Evidence as "flawlessly flowing prose whose lyricism, patrician irony and aching sense of loss are reminiscent of Lolita." Banville has said that he is "trying to blend poetry and fiction into some new form".[11] He is known for his dark humour, and sharp, wintery wit.[22]

In four of Banville's novels (and one as Benjamin Black), he has used the trope of a character's eyes darting back and forth "like a spectator at a tennis match".[23]


Banville said in an interview with The Paris Review that he liked Vladimir Nabokov's style; however, he went on, "But I always thought there was something odd about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Then I read an interview in which he admitted he was tone deaf."[12] He is highly influenced by Heinrich von Kleist, having written adaptations of three of his plays (including Amphitryon) and having used Amphitryon as a basis for his novel The Infinities.[citation needed]

Banville has said that he imitated James Joyce as a boy: "After I'd read the Dubliners, and was struck at the way Joyce wrote about real life, I immediately started writing bad imitations of the Dubliners."[11] However, The Guardian reports: "Banville himself has acknowledged that all Irish writers are followers of either Joyce or Beckett – and he places himself in the Beckett camp."[22] He has also acknowledged other influences. During a 2011 interview on The Charlie Rose Show, Rose asked, "The guiding light has always been Henry James?" and Banville replied, "I think so, I mean people say, you know, I've been influenced by Beckett or Nabokov but it's always been Henry James [...] so I would follow him, I would be a Jamesian."[24]

Private life

Banville married American textile artist Janet Dunham, and their two sons are now adults. They met during his visit to San Francisco in 1968 where she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Dunham described him during the writing process as being like "a murderer who's just come back from a particularly bloody killing".[25] They have separated.

Banville lives with Patricia Quinn, former head of the Arts Council of Ireland. They have two daughters together.

Banville has a strong interest in animal rights, and is often featured in Irish media speaking out against vivisection in Irish university research.[citation needed]

In 2011, he offered to donate his brain to The Little Museum of Dublin "so visitors could marvel at how small it was".[26]

Awards and honours

Year Prize Work Ref(s)
1973 Allied Irish Banks' Prize Birchwood [27]
1973 Arts Council Macaulay Fellowship Birchwood [27]
1975 American Ireland Fund Literary Award Doctor Copernicus [27]
1976 James Tait Black Memorial Prize Doctor Copernicus [27]
1981 Guardian Fiction Prize Kepler [27]
Allied Irish Bank Fiction Prize Kepler
American-Irish Foundation Award Birchwood
1984 Elected to the Irish arts association, Aosdána [28]
1989 Guinness Peat Aviation Award The Book of Evidence [27]
Booker Prize, shortlist The Book of Evidence [27]
1991 Premio Ennio Flaiano The Book of Evidence [29]
1997 Lannan Literary Award for Fiction The Untouchable [27][30]
2003 Premio Nonino [29]
2005 Booker Prize The Sea [27]
2006 Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year The Sea
2006 British Book Awards Author of the Year, shortlist The Sea [27]
2007 Royal Society of Literature Fellowship
Prix Madeleine Zepter
Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences [31]
2009 Honorary Patronage of the University Philosophical Society at TCD
2010 Irish Book Awards, Irish Book of the Decade, shortlist The Sea [27]
2011 Franz Kafka Prize [32]
2012 Irish Book Awards, Novel category Ancient Light [33]
2013 Irish PEN Award [34]
2013 Austrian State Prize for European Literature [35]
2013 Irish Book Awards (Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award) [36]
2014 Prince of Asturias Award for Literature [37]

Booker Prize, 2005

Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005, after having been on the short list in 1989. His later work was contending with novels by Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Ali Smith, Sebastian Barry and Zadie Smith.[25] The judges vote was split between Banville and Ishiguro, and Chairman of Judges John Sutherland cast the winning vote in favour of Banville.[25]

Earlier that year Sutherland had written approvingly of Ian McEwan's novel Saturday. Banville strongly criticized the work in the The New York Review of Books. Banville later admitted that, upon reading Sutherland's letter in response to his review, he had thought: "[W]ell, I can kiss the Booker goodbye. I have not been the most popular person in London literary circles over the past half-year. And I think it was very large of Sutherland to cast the winning vote in my favour."[25]

Banville was noted for having written a letter in 1981 to The Guardian requesting that the Booker Prize, for which he was "runner-up to the shortlist of contenders", be given to him so that he could use the money to buy every copy of the longlisted books in Ireland and donate them to libraries, "thus ensuring that the books not only are bought but also read — surely a unique occurrence."[38][39]

When his The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize, Banville said a friend, whom he described as "a gentleman of the turf", instructed him "to bet on the other five shortlistees, saying it was a sure thing, since if I won the prize I would have the prize-money, and if I lost one of the others would win . . .But the thing baffled me and I never placed the bets. I doubt I'll be visiting Ladbrokes any time soon".[5]

Kafka Prize, 2011

In 2011, Banville was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize.[40] Marcel Reich-Ranicki and John Calder featured on the jury.[41] Banville described the award as "one of the ones one really wants to get. It's an old style prize and as an old codger it's perfect for me ... I've been wrestling with Kafka since I was an adolescent" and said his bronze statuette trophy "will glare at me from the mantelpiece".[42]

List of works

Short story collection
  • Long Lankin (1970; revised ed.1984)
John Banville talks about The Infinities on Bookbits radio.
  • The Broken Jug: After Heinrich von Kleist (1994)
  • Seachange (performed 1994 in the Focus Theatre, Dublin; unpublished)
  • Dublin 1742 (performed 2002 in The Ark, Dublin; a play for 9- to 14-year-olds; unpublished)
  • God's Gift: A Version of Amphitryon by Heinrich von Kleist (2000)
  • Love in the Wars (adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, 2005)
  • Conversation in the Mountains (radio play, forthcoming 2008)
  • Prague Pictures: Portrait of a City (2003)
As "Benjamin Black"
  • Quirke series
    1. Christine Falls (2006)
    2. The Silver Swan (2007)
    3. Elegy for April (2010)
    4. A Death in Summer (2011)
    5. Vengeance (2012)
    6. Holy Orders (2013)
    7. Even the Dead (2015)
  • The Lemur (2008, previously serialised in The New York Times)
  • The Black-Eyed Blonde, a Phillip Marlowe novel (2014).[43]
Year Title Reference
1984 Reflections (Adaptation of The Newton Letter for TV) [44]
1994 Seascapes (TV Film) [45]
1999 The Last September [22]
2011 Albert Nobbs [46]
2013 The Sea [47]


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  24. "John Banville Full Interview on Charlie Rose". Public Broadcasting Service. 14 July 2011. Rose: "The guiding light has always been Henry James?" Banville: "I think so, I mean people say, you know, I've been influenced by Beckett or Nabokov but it's always been Henry James. I think that James was the great Modernist. You know there were two directions for Modernism to go – there was a Jamesian way or there was the way of the avante garde, with Joyce and so forth. Joyce was far more exciting than Henry James – and, in a way, easier to read. "Ulysses" is easier to read than Henry James's late novels but James was catching something, especially in those last three or four novels. He was catching, actually, what it feels like to be conscious – to be a conscious being in the world. That seemed to be an extraordinary step forward. He took the big Victorian novel – the novel of manners, the novel of ideas, the novel of social awareness – and he turned it into an extraordinarily fine art form, so I would follow him; I would be a Jamesian."<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  36. Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Guts’ named novel of the year Irish Times, 2013-11-27.
  37. Manrique Sabogal, Winston (6 June 2014). "John Banville, Príncipe de Asturias de las Letras". El País. Retrieved 6 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  43. Williams, Tom (27 May 2013). "The Black-Eyed Blonde – Benjamin Black's new Philip Marlowe novel". Tom Williams' Blog: A blog by a biographer of Raymond Chandler and literary agent.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  44. Reflections (1984) Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: 2012-03-01.
  45. Seascape (TV 1994) Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: 2012-03-01.
  46. Albert Nobbs (2011) Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: 2012-03-01.
  47. The Sea, Based on the novel by John Banville Independent Film Company. Retrieved: 2012-03-01.

Further reading

  • John Banville by John Kenny; Irish Academic Press (2009); ISBN 978-0-7165-2901-9
  • John Banville, a critical study by Joseph McMinn; Gill and MacMillan; ISBN 0-7171-1803-7
  • The Supreme Fictions of John Banville by Joseph McMinn; (October 1999); Manchester University Press; ISBN 0-7190-5397-8
  • John Banville: A Critical Introduction by Rüdiger Imhoff (October 1998) Irish American Book Co; ISBN 0-86327-582-6
  • John Banville: Exploring Fictions by Derek Hand; (June 2002); Liffey Press; ISBN 1-904148-04-2
  • Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies: Special Issue John Banville Edited by Derek Hand; (June 2006)
  • Irish Writers on Writing featuring John Banville. Edited by Eavan Boland (Trinity University Press, 2007).

External links

Benjamin Black