Finding a Jamesian tone and digging down
Interview of John Banville with Hedwig Schwall, Dublin, 29 September 2017.
HS: Good to see you - and congratulations on your new novel. Over the years you have been saying you admired Henry James and when I read Mrs Osmond I thought you do write on the same wavelength, even though the narrative is vintage Banville. Did you actually try to imitate James' style, or did you just let yourself sink into the Jamesian atmosphere?
JB: I didn’t want to imitate James, but I did want to write in the spirit of The Portrait of a Lady. I couldn’t have written this book in twenty-first century English—it simply wouldn't have worked. I expected it to be a very difficult task, but it proved surprisingly . . . I won’t say easy – writing fiction is never easy – but I did find a ‘tone’, a Jamesian tone, very quickly. That was a surprise, and a delight.
HS: James’ heroine seems to have imbued a few Nietzschean values, like her hunger for life and her embracing of her fate; it is even in the quote from James that you chose as the motto for your own book: “Deep in her soul—deeper than any appetite for renunciation—was the sense that life would be her business for a long time to come”. The Nietzschean spirit must have helped to feel at ease with James’s Isabel?
JB: Well, Nietzsche is my philosopher—is my poet. I can find few things in his work, and I’ve read most of it, that I disagree with. Except, of course, his attitude to women. But I wouldn’t have thought of Mrs Osmond as a Nietzschean work. Yet I suppose Isabel’s determination to affirm life is a Nietzschean urge.
HS: That and his lack of humour at times - as in Zarathustra?
JB: I've never managed to get to the end Zarathustra—it makes me giggle helplessly. This is a serious admission for a confirmed Nietzschean to make, but there it is. The Genealogy of Morals, The Gaya Scienzia, Daybreak, even that last one that his awful sister compiled—The Will to Power, is that it?—these are superb and astonishing works—truly revolutionary. His writings are full of humour, but it's humour of a very dark, harsh variety. He didn’t have enough experience of actual human beings—he had no friends, to speak of, except Paul Ree, for a while, and the extraordinary Lou Andreas Salome, also for a while. One of the saddest things I read of him was a report by someone staying in the same pensione that he was in, in Genoa or Turin, I can’t remember, who was going out to dinner and saw him playing the piano in the parlour, all alone—improvising, I imagine—and when the person came back from dinner, there he was, still playing, still alone. If he had found someone to love, it’s possible we wouldn't have the philosophy. And what a loss that would be, not only to philosophy but to literature in general. He writes so beautifully: even in translation, Nietzsche's writing is so beautiful. But I doubt Henry James ever read a word he wrote.
HS: Both you and James often let Isabel use the word “happy” and “happiness” in a sense which does not necessarily mean pleasant; it can imply suffering, but only the kind which makes someone stronger, more resilient. Is this what you understand under Amor fati?
JB: Yes, of course, Nietzsche is always in favour of life, messy, coarse, undecided life, against the naysayers. There a wonderful poem by Constantine Cavafi based on that passage in Antony and Cleopatra, when Antony hears the god—Dionysus?—abandoning him and his fallen fortunes. He hears in the street the departing music and revels as the god and his retinue leave, but the poet urges him to be strong, to be valorous, and not to feel sorry for himself. ‘Say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.’ And of course in this instance, ‘Alexandria’ represents all that has made Antony’s life sweet up to now. Lawrence Durrell, of all people, put Cavafy as a character in his Alexandria Quartet. Cavafy is a wonderful poet, too little known. As to amor fati, that’s what James was speaking of when he described Isabel as a young woman determined to ‘affront her fate’.
HS: Usually your protagonists are very narcissistic men, now you pick a lady who James has fitted out with an intelligent and enterprising spirit, even with a lot of empathy, at times.
JB: James makes it very clear that she's not the high intellectual that she thinks she is. And he doesn't make her altruistic, really, though she has a ‘good heart’. If you read her very closely in the Portrait, she's selfish, self-willed, almost a monster of ego, though not at the level of Madame Merle or Gilbert Osmond, of course; being young, she just wishes to have her own way, and sees no reason why she shouldn’t. In her eager youthfulness she reminds me of myself when I was young—she reminds me of all of us, when we were young. She knows her own mind, she knows what she wants and how to go about getting it—or imagines she does; but she learns the error of her ways, of her wishes, and of her will. Incidentally, it’s one of the ironies of the Portrait that many readers mistakenly believe James is writing about a young, untried American girl being set upon and maimed by nasty Europeans. But all the main players in the Portrait are Americans. Madame Merle is American, born in Brooklyn; Gilbert Osmond is from Baltimore—Baltimore!—Caspar Goodwood is a New Englander; Henrietta Stackpole is quintessentially the ‘new’ American female; and the Touchett family, who might be said to be the ones who initially set in train Isabel’s disaster, they’re American also. The only character of consequence who is European is Lord Warburton, but really, he’s not of much consequence, except to spin the plot along. I think the Isabel of the Portrait is different to my Isabel. Mine is wiser and sadder, and older, even, in a way—though she’s not yet thirty, if my calculations are correct. I suspect that in the second half of the Portrait James forgot just how young she still was, and presents her as almost middle-aged, as una grande signora. I had to make her young again, but toughened by all the horrors she has been through, very recently—in Mrs Osmond, it’s only a matter of weeks since she learned of how she was betrayed by Mme Merle and her husband.
HS: Is Goodwood corrupted by Europe? In James he seems to be the perfect foil to Lord Warburton; the Lord practising his charm in panelled rooms and oak-studded landscapes, while Goodwood is feverishly steaming back and forth over the ocean, crossing Europe in what seems a perfect train system, being the dynamic suitor. In your sequel neither reappear on the stage, except in reflections
JB: Goodwood is utterly incorruptible, which is one of the reasons Isabel finds him so boring. But then Warburton is hardly the firebrand he considers himself to be, and he too bores our heroine. I see Goodwood and Warburton as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, one in Boston, the other in the Home Counties. For Isabel it is easy to withstand Lord Warburton’s blandishments: his grand title, his houses and castles, his thousands of acres. She just had to take one look at his sweet, mousey sisters—very minor characters with whom nevertheless James has splendid, subtle fun—to say to herself, I'm not marrying into this. But she knows she doesn’t want Goodwood, either, his uprightness, his decency, his awkward ardour, his stiff New England values. All the same, it is he, at the very end of the Portrait, who awakens Isabel to that Nietzschean sense of life and its possibilities—raw, coarse, fleshly life—when he seizes her in his arms in the twilit arbour at Gardencourt and kisses her as she has never been kissed before. If I were to criticise Mrs Osmond—and God knows I have many critical things I could say of it, as of all my novels—I would deplore the fact that I didn’t allow her to follow up on this erotic awakening. Perhaps someone else will do so—a woman?—in a sequel to my sequel. And so ad infinitum.
HS: But in James she seems to genuinely like the Warburton sisters.
JB: She may like them but she does not want that existence for herself. She says to herself, do I want to become like this—contained, trammelled, ‘held down’ by convention? And that's what Warburton would have expected of her, and Goodwood too. Neither of them can offer her the freedom she so desires and considers her due. One of the things James understood very clearly was that men, when they are wooing women, say, Oh, of course, you'll have your freedom. But when they marry they say, no, you’ll have babies. Goodwood and Warburton would have set out just as determinedly as Gilbert Osmond did to break her spirit, even though their methods would have been softer and subtler.
HS: Your Isabel is, I think, the first feminist in your novels. Via the Misses Stackpole (who takes her time to get married) and Janeway she finds her way (a distracted one) to contribute to the New Women’s cause.
JB: She takes out the money as a gesture of liberation; she loses it because, subconsciously, she despises mere ‘filthy lucre’. She has come to understand that all her troubles had their origin in money. When she's made the gesture of withdrawing a satchel of cash, what good is it to her? It's just money, and, inevitably, she mislays it. And then she thinks, I know what I'll do, I'll give it to ‘the cause’—even though she is not quite sure yet what the cause is. I like Miss Janeway, for all her coldness and calculation. I say of her at one point, that she would lay waste of the world in order to further the cause. Janeway is a fanatic. And Isabel likes this. She has been taken in by people who behaved ‘nicely’ and pretended to be civilised, but Miss Janeway doesn't pretend to be anything other than ruthless. So Isabel sees a way in which to take action, to ‘affront her fate’, if only in terms of cash.
HS: Did you check on the legal rules of that period? Could she keep her own money?
JB: Of course not. This is fiction!
HS: When Isabel learns that Miss Janeway is dying and she decides to stay with the lady in her final struggle she wonders “Her end will mark, for me, a beginning … does that seem like my old selfishness asserting itself again?” She is rather harsh on herself here.
JB: Isabel is self-willed, as we’ve observed. When Janeway’s nephew tells her he wants to start up a newspaper, she’s perfectly aware that she is being approached for money, yet again. And maybe she will give him the money—who knows?—but she will make sure that it is she who will run the newspaper. She will be the editor, not him. My original idea was that she was going to meet the nephew, they would fall in love—he would have been a more acceptable, a more malleable, Caspar Goodwood, though not as handsome, which perhaps Isabel would have been glad of, handsome men being more persuasive. In that version, Myles Devenish would have said, I want to see this ‘New World’, and Isabel would suddenly have realised that was what she also wanted—to return home—and they would have gone off together; they would, like Huck Finn, have ‘lit out for the territory’. . . but then I thought better of it. The book had to end in ambiguity.
HS: James’ Portrait ends with the sentence that Isabel now knows that her way will be straight back.  Your Isabel does not go straight home but passes by Paris where she is invited to a palace full of Watteau-like rococo-decorations out of which, suddenly, Madame Merle steps forth. In this episode your Isabel becomes one of your typical heroes who finds her usual perspective inverted: the world was not just a scene to watch but she has been watched by the world. Is that what triggers her revenge?
JB: Isabel’s not knowing how she was used, how she was ‘made a convenience of’, as she says, must have had something in it of wilful ignorance. Everybody else would have known what was going on, especially in a city like Rome, James’s Rome, where there's nothing people don't know about. Yet Isabel is appalled when it occurs to her, in Mrs Osmond, that her blindness was known to all. Equally, Mme Merle is afraid of being exposed—it’s one thing for people to know and keep quiet, but quite another that her wickedness should be talked about openly in salons halfway across Europe and even in America. I think there is a question of gender here. I suspect women worry more about being disgraced in public than men do; women don't think of infidelity in graphic terms. A man would not so much care about people knowing, he would be more turned in on himself. The real torment for a man is imagining the two of them together. That is the absolute agony—think of Othello.
In my book Isabel is facing up to her mistakes. In her meeting with Miss Janeway she begins slowly to realise how she might establish her freedom, and the first step in the process is to mislay the bag of money, which perhaps subconsciously she meant to do from the start. She has made her gesture to the cause—the freeing of womankind—and now she turns her mind to Mme Merle and Osmond, and how she might exact from them a reckoning—not revenge; I don’t see her as a vengeful character. There used to be an extraordinarily cruel method of execution, whereby a person was strapped face to face with a corpse and then thrown into a dungeon—imagine the fiendish mind that thought that up! It’s a version of this punishment that Isabel wreaks upon Merle and Osmond: she has bound this man, who has never learned how to live, to this woman who had the misfortune, long ago, to meet and fall in love with him, and was thereby infected with the bacillus of his deathliness. They are a pair of corpses, and Isabel has lashed them together. Can you imagine them fighting over the palazzo?
HS: Sartre’s Huits clos would be a bit like that: people stuck together who make each other face the mistakes of their past.
JB: I read that play when I was about fifteen. I remember thinking, life can't be like this. But of course it can.
HS: You say Merle was “infected with … his deathliness” – could one say that Osmond is the death drive, der Geist der stets verneint?
JB: I'm not a Freudian, I never was a Freudian, and I never will be. I don't believe that all of our unconscious life is directed by sex. But I would agree that it is to a large extent directed by the death drive, or at least by our abiding consciousness of the fact of death. Paradoxically, however, I think it is this very knowledge that gives life its sweetness—the knowledge that all this, that’s here, for us, will end, makes it so painfully precious. But Gilbert Osmond is the very spirit of death-in-life. He is the spirit of negation. It was quite a feat of James to convince us that Isabel would be capable of marrying such a man—he's not even convincingly charming. He is a dried-out, sterile dilettante, as Ralph Touchett assures Isabel; but what Ralph sees as desiccation of the spirit, Isabel takes for greatness. I've known people like this, people who would regard it vulgar to write a book, or paint an original picture. One of the most wonderful scenes in the Portrait is the one in which we see Osmond for the last time, when Isabel is leaving to go to Ralph Touchett who is dying. What is Osmond doing? He is making a copy of a painting of a coin. He's not even painting the coin itself, he's making a copy of a painting of a coin. He is one of the living dead, like the ghost Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw. James knew about these people, how they feed on other people's lives, how they take away people’s freedom, which he considered a very great sin.
HS: You made it very clear in this book.
JB: Henry James makes it clear.
HS: But your Isabel suddenly realizes that it is purely her narcissism which makes her fall in love with Osmond: “it had not been Osmond she had fallen in love with, when she was young, but herself, through him”, a recognition which she thinks has “a universal application”. 
JB: Well, all my protagonists in all my books are mistaken about most things, and this is true also of Isabel in the Portrait. James makes Isabel go through the fires of hell at the end of the novel—most of the action in his book takes place in the last thirty or forty pages, when she learns so many terrible things. But in my version, it is not the fires of hell she endures, but an alchemical fire.
Isabel liked to be flattered, to be attended to, and Madame Merle was the perfect mirror for her. They went on a Grand Tour together, yet in all those months together Isabel never once saw the real Madame Merle. She saw what she wanted to see, and only later, after the crisis at the end of the Portrait, she realizes she has been willfully ignorant. Love is always narcissistic. We all look into the eyes of the beloved and we think, how wonderful I am, how beautiful I am, how altogether bewitching! We thrive, the ego thrives, when we look the beloved in the eyes and see ourselves reflected there. That's what love is for. It's not love for the other person, it's love for yourself. It doesn’t last, of course, or last in an entirely different form. There should be a term for it, maybe something like ‘passionate friendship’. That’s the best we can hope for, and we should be glad of it.
HS: The theatre metaphor is pretty basic in your work, it is omnipresent. Madame Merle fits the bill, she even fits in the Watteau-like scenes of Isabel’s visit to Paris. Is she a nineteenth- century Madame de Merteuil?
JB: Certainly, though I’m not sure Mme Merle is as clever or expertly manipulative as Mme de Merteuil. But Merle is the perfect actress, the expert in the theatre of life. Osmond is not, he is too egotistical to be a good actor, but he can keep up pretences when he needs to. Both Merle and Osmond are poor, and poverty is destructive of the spirit. A friend and I once agreed to agree that money is the root of all happiness. And the lack of it, Henry James and I would add, is the root of much unhappiness, and ruthlessness, and cruelty.
HS: But what about Ralph’s role in this theatre? He is rich and uses his money for an experiment. He tweaks things a bit and then sits back – yet, in your version, not quite, as “the intensest living Ralph had done he had done through her, by way of a passionate vicariousness, watching in smiling wonderment from his seat at the ringside”.
JB: There is an argument to be made that he is the one who inadvertently almost destroyed Isabel’s life, by arranging secretly for her to have half of his inheritance. Ralph has manipulated her life in just the same way that Madame Merle did. Or maybe not exactly the same way; he does it for amusement, because he's dying, and is desperate to see Isabel live as fully as he’s incapable of doing. Madame Merle too is desperate, but desperate for life, and the things of life that money can bring—for instance, a dowry for Pansy. All these people act out of desperation in one form or another. Gilbert Osmond is not young any more, he has no money, he has an expensive daughter who's getting bigger all the time, and he has to buy new clothes for her. What's he going to do? He's desperate. And then comes Madame Merle to say to him, Look! I’ve found an heiress for you.
What I love about the Portrait is the intricacy of it, and the relentlessness; it digs down and down, and then down deeper again, and there are still more intricacies. What was the motive of this person, what was the motive of that person? James was a Freud before Freud; he was a greater psychologist than Freud.
HS: He certainly is more literary. Coming back to the cast of characters in this book, you definitely give Pansy a twist.
JB: I never believed in Henry James' portrait of Pansy. Her father is Gilbert Osmond, her mother is Madame Merle, but she is this little angel? No! At the end of Mrs Osmond, Isabel comes into a room and sees her from behind and thinks at first it is Madame Merle. And when Pansy is leaving, she looks at Isabel through half-closed eyes, just as Osmond does. For the first time it strikes that Pansy is the daughter of a pair of monsters. You could write a novel about Pansy's future life, but it wouldn't be a very pleasant novel. And the Countess Gemini, of course, is a wonderful character, one of the best and most entertaining in the novel.
HS: I had a good laugh when her “comely calf” has been appreciated “in more than one bedchamber”. You really pick up on the comic aspect, especially in Warburton, “he of the half-dozen castles and the myriads of acres”, presented together with Goodwood as “not as a comic duo in a slapstick show, but like the mechanical figures in a medieval clock tower”. Where the comic aspect remains somehow subdued in James, you seem to relish in it.
JB: Yes, I suppose there is some humour there. But James is funny, too, in his sly fashion. We have to read him in our time, but if we were reading him in his time, we would see the humour much more plainly than we see it now, because we live in a time in which there is nothing you cannot say. No words are banned any more, whereas in James’s day, novelists had to resort to euphemism. Though James does have the odd bit of indecent fun—recall Mrs ‘Condrip’ in The Ambassadors, and in the same novel the grossly named Mamie Pocock. Oh yes, James wasn’t as pure of mind as he pretended.
HS: Talking about names: in your book Isabel’s servant, Staines, not only gets a name but a vital role as well. And Staines has always understood Pansy, better than her mother.
JB: Servants know everything; they watch everything, they see everything. When their employers and their guests are at table, they are standing behind them, listening to everything that is being said. James, in his lordly fashion, never took any notice of the servants. Do you know Henry Green’s novel Loving? It's about the lives of servants in a big house in Ireland in 1941, during the war; it's beautiful, a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Green’s people seem simple, but of course they aren’t at all—they’re every bit as complicated as their ‘betters’. I like Staines; she’s comic, but endearing and, I hope, real.
HS: She reminds me a bit of Billie Stryker in Ancient Light, who gets on well with Lydia, Alex’ wife. Likewise, Staines gets on well with Lydia Touchett.
JB: As people do. My aristocratic friend Beatrice von Rezzori, who lives in Tuscany, gets on with the servants: it's the middle class that she disdains. Beatrice and the servants speak the same language. They are, Beatrice included, primitive. In the same way, it’s not surprising that Staines and Mrs Touchett get along well. Mrs Touchett seems another monster, but as we learn in Mrs Osmond, she has had a hard life. She too was once betrayed.
HS: And suddenly, in Banvillean fashion, there's a half-brother.
JB: But doesn't it explain the mystery of the marriage between her and the ‘wonderful’ Daniel Touchett? As my wife Janet would say, the wonderful man turned out to be just a man.
HS: I understand you wrote Mrs Osmond on Janet’s suggestion?
JB: Yes, it was Janet who urged me, years ago, to ‘complete’ The Portrait of a Lady. At the time I didn’t think I could do it.
HS: Your Lydia Touchett reveals a few things but so does Staines. Why does Staines speak up so late?
JB: She didn't reveal the things she knows earlier because it’s not the place of servants to speak up; and besides, it just would have been too hurtful to Isabel to know the truth, and Staines loves Isabel and tries to keep her from harm and pain. It's when she comes to understand that Isabel is in danger of being betrayed again, of getting into the clutches of Madame Merle again, that she decides it's time to ‘tell all’. I imagine you’ve known marriages in which the husband or wife was having an affair; did you go straight away to one or the other and say, You know what…? That's another of James' great themes: do not interfere in other people's lives. Let them make their mistakes.
HS: There is the scene in the beginning and the ending of your book about the man in Paddington Station who is visibly in despair. He is the opposite of Merle’s smoothness. Why is this scene so important to you, that it marks the start and end of your book?
JB: Because I saw him one day, a red-haired man on a street corner weeping helplessly, and the image stayed with me so vividly that I knew I had to use it. He seemed to me the perfect ‘objective correlative’ for Isabel’s inner agony, this man suffering helplessly in public. She feels for him, and with him. As she says, ‘Why don't we all stand on street corners weeping?’ And in the end the great test of the shallow young man Myles Devenish is for Isabel to ask him, ‘What would you have done?’ Isabel still feels she should have done something; the weeping man seemed to offer her a task, and she shirked it. And so, with his bland reply to her question, Devenish fails the test. So Isabel, I assume, is going to turn down the offer—of love?—that he seems to be tentatively offering her. She won’t fall for another Gilbert Osmond, even one as pleasant and attractive as Devenish, but will find a way actually to do things, to take action.
HS: It must have been great fun for you to write this book, with a complicated heroine who travels all over Europe towards your favourite country: Italy, to find there one of your favourite dark characters, Osmond.
JB: Italy is the country where people know how to live. They have figured out the food, the wine, the weather, the passion. Life is exquisite there. Italy is the most beautiful country in the world. The first time I visited Rome, when I was eighteen, I arrived at night, and in the morning I stepped out of the pensione and opened a map, and two men—they both looked like Federico Fellini—were passing by, and one of them, seeing me with the map, stopped and with a sweeping gesture said, Issa Roma! I knew nothing about the world, but Rome, Italy, set about teaching me. In a bar I stood at a very small marble table—I can see it still—and all I had was a glass of Frascati and a piece of Parmesan cheese, and I thought, ‘This is the world,’ while Ireland was diminishing to a tiny green spot way off in the distance.
HS: This brings us back to the Europe-America thing. Whereas James merely says his Isabel is a great reader, you specify that she reads Emerson, Hegel, and Maistre…
JB: She reads Emerson because she is from the same part of the world, and, of course, everybody was reading Emerson in those days: he was the Sage of Concord. Yet one of the big moral problems for American intellectuals in those days was, what to do about the wilderness? Out there, in the ‘territory’, was slavery, and the slaughter of the American Indians. Emerson never once mentioned, to my memory, the aboriginal American people. He says a few things about black people, but not to much effect. His kind of intellectual just wasn’t interested; their gaze was still turned eastwards, towards Europe. Emerson’s great essay ‘The American Scholar’ is the second American Constitution. In it he declares to his fellow Americans, ‘We no longer owe anything to Europe, we are a new thing, we are a new phenomenon’. Anybody who wants to understand America has to read ‘The American Scholar’ and its sister piece, ‘Self-Reliance’. So Isabel is a product of that intellectual world, and when we meet her first, in the Portrait, there she is, diligently reading philosophy—but in translation, as James slyly informs us.
HS: You are a very European writer – with Kleist as one of your major heroes. I loved the passage in The Infinities where someone says “it was the poet Goethe – entirely forgotten now but in his time there were those who would have ranked him above the sublime Kleist !” 
JB: I have the highest admiration for Kleist, and I pay due homage to him in The Infinities, the book of mine that displeases me least. In it, lightness and weight are evenly balanced, as always in Kleist. There is far more of him in that book than there is of The Tempest, or of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
HS: In Mrs Osmond too, Shakespeare pops up but in a negative way, as Isabel feels she cannot present Merle as Lady Macbeth, “thrusting incarnadined hands towards a cold heaven”, as life is more complicated than a play.
JB: One of my favourite lines, that, though it borrows shamelessly not only from Macbeth but also from Yeats’s poem ‘The Cold Heaven’. But my favourite little joke, or perhaps it’s more a knowing nudge, occurs when Isabel confronts Madame Merle with the full extent of her and Osmond’s deceit, and I write of Merle’s gaze being ‘fixed upon a mote in the middle distance’. As I’m sure you know, Max Beerbohm wrote a famous parody of Henry James called “The Mote in The Middle Distance”.
HS: I also liked the joke where Isabel, at the start of your novel, finds herself in London being watched by a man who feels her eye on him, while she feels “held … in the unblinking beam of those preternaturally wide-open … organs”, feeling “reassessed” by “the portraitist” … looking to see how his composition had weathered with the years, and what time had done to the quality of the pigment.”
JB: Yes, I thought it only right that old HJ should make a fleeting appearance, like Hitchcock in his films.
HS: Yeats too seems an undercurrent in your writing, in this novel and others. I think of the opening of Mefisto, where there are overtones of ‘Leda and the Swan’.
JB: He is one of my great influences! Nobody ever picks up on that, for some reason. He is a wonderful poet, the greatest of the twentieth century, without doubt. Of course, like all poets he writes lines that sound splendid but mean nothing.
HS: Yet they are so rich and striking that they ring true.
JB: They are true, and they are great, but they have no literal meaning. It’s not a fault, just an effect of the musicality of poetry.
HS: To write as poetically as you do, with structures rather than plots, it sounds like a novel for you is like a painting, a composition?
JB: When I go to my room and start work, more often than not I have no idea what is going to appear on the page. I act out of sheer desperation. And every morning it is the same: I don’t know how I managed to write yesterday, how I will write today. It all seems an utter impossibility. Then another version of me takes over, and I’m off. Writing is done in the dark, and one must never leave the darkness out. The writer must follow instincts, even into the deepest blackness. Those are the moments that are most worthwhile, when you lose yourself, when you trust the medium itself. And gradually you see patterns emerging and they fall into place and you hone them. Art is a thing of beauty but made from a mess.
HS: The rag and bone shop of the heart?
JB: Yes. Old W.B. again.
HS: I was hoping that some painters would find their way into this novel. James himself mentions a Bonington that Isabel is paying attention to; in your version this painter becomes part of the next scheme to “sell” Pansy off, but he is also paired with Turner. What do you like about them?
JB: Bonington is a wonderful painter; he is not a great painter, but a wonderful miniaturist. Turner I admire, but I wouldn’t go further than that. I mean, he’s not great as Piero della Francesca is, as Bonnard is, as Velasquez is. The world of painting is so wide—let’s not venture into it, we’d get lost.
HS: A last question maybe? James writes psychological novels, yours seem more mythological: instead of explaining people you describe atmospheric shifts ascribing them to fauns or other funny divine forms – metaphors for poetry, as in The Infinities? In Mrs Osmond I found only few and slight mythological presences. Does that mean you want to move more into psychology?
JB: Mrs Osmond is a ‘one-off’, not to be repeated. I wanted to see if I could write a ‘psychological’ novel, just for the interest of it. As I said earlier, I was writing in the spirit of HJ, not of JB. The latter writes of a non-existent world, where the gods still rule, which is a parallel to ours. I’ve said it before, and it’s true: I’m not interested in what people do, only in what they are. You know that wonderful, seemingly enigmatic but, to me, entirely congenial outburst of Kafka’s in the so-called Zürau Aphorisms? ‘Never again psychology!’ he cries. I’m going to have that carved in marble and fixed to the wall above my desk . . .
HS: To then translate the mud you mentioned earlier into marble? There’s alchemical fire for you. Many thanks indeed for your generous sharing of time and ideas.
 John Banville, Mrs Osmond. London: Viking/Penguin, 2017; motto.
 When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
 Mrs Osmond, chapter 34, 374.
 “She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path”.
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, www.gutenberg.org, produced by Eve Sobol and David Widger; December 1, 2008; EBook #2833, Volume 2, chapter 55.
 Chapter 28, 279.
 Chapter 1, 5.
 For the full passage : “she was gracefully endowed in her lower extremities, being possessed in particular of a comely calf, as she had been gallantly assured on more than one occasion, and in more than one bedchamber” (Chapter 20, 202).
 Chapter 16, 154.
 Chapter 9, 94.
 The Infinities 161.
 … surging in frantic ardour towards the burning town, the white room and Castor dead. (John Banville. Mefisto. London: Minerva, 1993; 3)
 In this last question I am referring to passages such as “with the garden all around them, two wild things, nymph and faun, struggling in the midst of subdued nature, like an old master’s illustration of a moment out of Ovid” (John Banville, Eclipse, London: Picador, 2000, 164);
“There is a multi-coloured patch in my memory of the moment, a shimmer of variegated brightness where her hands hover. Let me linger here with her a little while, before Rose appears, and Myles and Chloe return from wherever they are, and her goatish husband comes clattering on to the scene; she will be displaced soon enough from the throbbing centre of my attentions” (John Banville. The Sea. London: Picador, 2005; 86); in The Infinities one of my favourite sentences is when Helen, actress who has to impersonate Alcmene in Amphitryon, “walks from the room … and what she takes to be Roddy’s eyes on her is in fact my dad [Hermes’ father, Zeus] shambling eagerly in her warm wake”. (John Banville, The Infinities. London: Picador, 2009. 193)
“In the course of these somewhat aimless animadversions, an observer of the pair of friends as they circumambulated the dusty perimeter of the little pleasure garden might have been forgiven for thinking that one of them, namely Miss Stackpole, had herself drifted into that very state of unappreciated potential upon which Isabel had just been musing. However, such an assumption, on the part of a speculative faun, say, peeping out from his hiding place among the verdure skirting the path, would have been mistaken” (Mrs Osmond, chapter 13, 128).