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John Banville: 'Many people regard me as a misogynist. I am the opposite of a misogynist'

Considered one of Ireland’s greatest writers, he has penned what he says is a feminist sequel to Henry James’ novel The Portrait of A Lady.

John Banville
John Banville

“I WAS A feminist from the age of about 11. People will chuckle at this – many people regard me as a misogynist. I am the opposite of a misogynist.”

So says John Banville, one of Ireland’s great living writers, above the din of a steam-shooting coffee machine and clattering of cups and saucers in a Dublin hotel bar.

At 71, the Wexford-born writer – who fled Wexford as soon as he could – is reflecting on his long-held thoughts about gender equality. It comes as his latest work, Mrs Osmond, is published: a book which he considers to be a feminist novel.

Surprisingly, Mrs Osmond is a sequel to Henry James’s The Portrait of A Lady, which was serialised by the Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s Magazine from 1880 – 1881 before being published in full in 1881. The novel, about a young woman – Isabel Archer – who finds herself duped into marriage, ends in an open way, making it ripe for a sequel.

But brave are they, the writer who takes it upon themselves to write a sequel to a Henry James book, given that James is considered one of the finest writers in the English language.

“I think Portrait of A Lady is one of the great novels of the 20th century, the great novels. I think Henry James is the greatest novelist of them all,” agrees Banville.

He says he has always loved the book, calling it “a great feminist novel”. “And I’m not sure that Henry James intended that,” he adds of its take on gender politics. “But it is, it’s beautifully written, beautifully plotted – but it’s not finished.”

He indicates that he likes to think his sequel is more overtly feminist. “All the major figures in it are women. I always find women infinitely more interesting than men,” he says. He adds jokingly, an eyebrow raised: “Their minds… as well as other parts of them.”

And so we move onto Banville’s stance as a longtime feminist. ”When I was growing up I felt, I used to see how badly treated women were, and how badly they treated themselves,” he tells me, detailing how confining underwear was one way that he saw women restrict themselves.

‘In the sixties we thought we’d solve it all’

Banville, who has two daughters who are dedicated feminists, describes to me conversations he had as a young man with women about restrictive underwear (he also says that the conical bras worn by women while he was young confused boys about the shape of female bodies).

“And I used to say to them, these things – you’ve got to throw them away. Look at you, you’re absolutely beautiful. And they’d say ‘oh, I’ve fat here’, and I’d say, what’s wrong with fat?”

He feels that today’s generation hasn’t progressed as far as he and his peers had hoped 50 or 60 years ago.

“And I’m appalled now because in the sixties we were we thought we were going to solve it all, we were going to say to women: throw away the girdle, throw away the, you know, be as you are. If you’re fat, you’re fat – so what.

“The difference in beauty between you and whoever – Greta Garbo – is a matter of centimetres, millimetres, so stop worrying. But it was hard to do, because the pressures of society, especially when I was growing up, it was only 20 years after the war, there was still the process of getting women back into the kitchen.”

“And now, I see these 12, 13-year-old girls going around in clothes… they may as well not be wearing them. And girls are being forced back into this… and they would say that they are free, but they’re not.”

Does he think this is driven by what men think, as opposed to individual choice?

“Of course it is, of course it is. But that’s because women are kindhearted. They look at men and they say [sighs] ‘poor fellow’,” says Banville.

Banville tells me that he believes “women are more thoughtful [than men] – not more intellectual, but more thoughtful, which is a better thing”.

It’s better to be thoughtful and to think about things, and you know, a man’s brain is a really well-stocked dishwasher. A woman’s brain is where things have been thrown in, which drives men wild. But women are saying ‘it’ll wash the bloody stuff, why does it all have to be stacked?’ So that’s my homely metaphor, so…

Though some of the above comments wouldn’t quite pass muster with feminists, he clearly considers himself an ally – as I leave, our conversation having again turned to the f-word, he tells me to “keep up the good fight!”.

‘I didn’t feel I was chewing on someone’s corpse’

Lit.cologne - John Banville John Banville in Cologne last year. Source: DPA/PA Images

Back on the topic of Mrs Osmond, Banville says he is aware of how writing the sequel to a James novel might seem a bit foolhardy.

“I suppose people will accuse of me being arrogant and hubristic, and I didn’t see it in that way, I saw it in terms of making a book,” he shrugs.

I wasn’t in competition with Henry James: who would? I didn’t feel that I was walking on somebody’s grave or chewing on somebody’s corpse, I felt that there was a book there to be done, and looking back on it I was foolhardy and stupid. But you know, we only realise risks after we’ve done them.

He wrote a piece for the Guardian saying that writing the book made him “feel like a tourist who takes a stroll in the Alps wearing a pair of silly shoes, and then arrives back at the inn and realises what precipices he’s passed by”.

Having written a lot of books (most of the 15 he has published) about “men in trouble”, he thought he needed a change. But Banville says he expects the reaction to the novel to be negative. “The reception, for instance in England, would be absolutely appalling, I mean I will be eviscerated,” he claims.

When I tell him that, so far, the reviews have been very kind, he looks gently taken aback. “There’ll be a few, there’ll be a few,” he says, stroking the stem of his wine glass.

Banville is not the kind of writer who puts much stock in what reviewers think anyway (ironically, he himself is a noted book reviewer, so it’s not that he looks down on the craft).

ARTS Booker John Banville holds a copy of his book The Sea, which won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2005. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“Look, you couldn’t write a book thinking about what the reviews will be like. You would be crippled,” he says. “I write, as all writers do, for myself, and then the book is finished and it’s published and it becomes available to other people. It’s no longer any concern of mine, it’s gone. And as I always say, one of my books – anybody in the world can read it, except me.”

Banville has commented on this before – the utter impossibility for him of reading his own work. It’s a familiar feeling for writers, but it’s curious, given how lauded his work his. Couldn’t he, you know, pick up the Booker Prize-winning The Sea now and again, give it a read and then pat himself on the back?

“It’s not possible for me to read it because I will bring to it all the baggage that I did when I was writing,” he says of reading a book penned by his own hand.

That said, Mrs Osmond – again – breaks the Banville trend here. “But this one actually, I sat down one evening after a few glasses of wine, and read a couple of chapters to see what would happen,” he says.

To see what his reaction would be?

He shakes his head. “To see what would happen in the action. I had forgotten it.” A laugh.

“Somebody once showed me an examination paper with a piece of anonymous prose, and said, ‘what do you think of that?’. I said I must have read it, it looks familiar. And he said: ‘You wrote it’.”

Banville’s eyes widen in faux-shock. ”I’d forgotten.”

‘A tweet storm or twitter storm’

You won’t be surprised to hear that Banville is not on social media – but there is a parody account in his name on Twitter.

The writer’s son has shown him the account, which Banville declares is “very funny”.

“It’s wonderful. He shows me the choice bits from it,” he says. “It’s very good-natured.”

The Twitter account seems, to Banville, to highlight the disparity between how he sees himself and how the world sees him.

“I have no sense of myself as a figure in the world, I think of myself as anonymous. Always have and always will, I hope,” he says. “The worst thing is a man striding around saying ‘oh yes, my last novel…’.” He mumbles something – all I can make out is one word at the end: “Christ.” He throws his eyes to heaven.

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“I don’t care about what people think, you know. If you cared what people thought about you, you’d go crackers. Don’t you?” I admit that unlike him, I do care quite a bit about what people think. But his approach is refreshing.

“One of the things you discover as you get old is that people care much less about you than you think. They really are just caring about themselves.”

He confides that he once worked with a man who seemed “obsessed” with him – who he says was annoyed by everything Banville did. “And I said to him one day: Look, why don’t you just cultivate indifference, just stop worrying. I’m nobody. Go and live your life.”

He doesn’t care about the “Twitter storm or a Tweeter storm or whatever it is” about comments he made about fatherhood in the Irish Times last year.

His comments – “I have not been a good father. No writer is.” – were so unpopular they drew the ire of The Wire creator David Simon, who tweeted:

“Nonsense,” proclaims Banville of the general furore. He appears more baffled than annoyed about it all, though his attention seemed to be drawn more to his comments in that interview about writers being “cannibals” who would “sell our children for a phrase”.

“I said what was true, I mean artists are – we do cannibalise people around us. People around us if they love us and care for us don’t mind.”

He doesn’t appear to be a fan of social media in general, and the cacophony of voices on sites like Twitter. But he doesn’t consider his own voice any more important than those online.

“There’s a wonderful line in Dostoevsky’s novel Notes from the Underground, the underground man… he says ‘I realise that we underground people must be kept down but someday we will break out and we will talk and talk and talk’. And that’s what’s happened.

Everybody now has a voice. Everybody thinks he or she has something to say that the world must know about. This is nonsense. I don’t have anything to say that the world should know about. I make these books which are not, they’re not me speaking, they are objects that are put in the world. I’ve no opinions that are of interest to anyone.
But why? Why am I more interesting than what my plumber or my brain surgeon thinks?

He says that the “most boring people” he knows are writers. “All they ever talk about is money and how dreadful their publishers are and what their agents are doing to them,” he says drolly.

He compares writers to moles working “underground in the dark, for years and years, and then we finish a book and we get pulled up into the light.”

“We don’t know anything about the world. We can write about the world but we don’t know anything about it,” he says. ”The person you are speaking to is not the person who wrote the book. He ceases to exist when I turn up to the desk.”

“It’s a funny process. I don’t understand it and I don’t want to understand it. It’s eerie, and slightly sick,” he continues, the word ‘sick’ reverberating between us.

Quirke filming Gabriel Byrne (right) during filming of the BBC Crime thriller Quirke in Dublin. Source: Niall Carson

But sick though the writing process might be, it’s his life work. He just can’t help himself. He’s currently working on a radio play, a film script, and an erotic novel under his Benjamin Black pen name (he writes crime novels using this nom de plume). Yet that, to him, is not enough.

“I’m annoyed at myself, I’m not doing anything. I am writing a book of course, but I can’t settle to it. Maybe it’s old age,” he sighs.

But the novel is what he seems most excited about, saying it’s an “erotic mystery set in Venice in 1900″.

“I’ve always wanted to write an erotic novel,” he enthuses (he says he’s particularly inspired by The Story of O, which he and friend Neil Jordan once talked about filming – minus the sex), but adds that the work won’t be out very soon.

“You’ll have to wait for a while.” Worth the wait, of course.

Mrs Osmond by John Banville, published by Viking, is out tomorrow.

Read: ‘I spend my working life sitting behind a desk thinking in the voice of a south Dublin idiot’>

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