When “Snow” comes out here next month, though, the cover will say John Banville, not Benjamin Black, in very large letters. Black, Banville said recently, has very graciously allowed himself to be killed off — though he will have to live on in Spain, posing a puzzle to reviewers and bibliographers, because there he’s too big to die.
What happened, Banville says, is that in rereading some of the Black books, he decided they were better than he remembered. “I was surprised and highly gratified to discover that they weren’t bad at all, and in fact might even be quite good,” he explained. “You must understand, I’m one of those writers who dislikes and is shamed by his own work. I am in pursuit of perfection and, as we know, perfection is far beyond the reach of our puny powers. But when I found that I liked the Blacks, I said to myself, ‘Why do I need this rascal anyway?’ So I shut him in a room with a pistol, a phial of sleeping pills and a bottle of Scotch, and that was the end of him. I’ve never been ashamed or felt I had to defend what Black wrote. His books are works of craftsmanship written honestly and without pretension.” He added, with characteristic slyness: “Not that I think pretension necessarily a bad thing in a writer.”
Banville, who is 74, grew up in County Wexford, which he thought boring and provincial. As a boy, he loved visiting an aunt in Dublin, which seemed much more vivid and exciting, and some of that romance lingers on in the Quirke books, in which the city itself — its sights and smells, its atmosphere of secrecy and repression, especially where matters of sex are concerned — is practically a character. He didn’t have to research much, he explained. Most of the details came welling up in his memory.
Banville says he remains fascinated by Ireland in the ’50s — by the way “church and state worked to keep the people safely infantilized, the church through early brainwashing, the state by blanket censorship and official lying.” “Snow,” which is set at a Protestant-owned country estate where a Catholic priest is murdered in embarrassing circumstances, adds to that atmosphere what Banville calls a “peasant’s fascination with the Anglo-Irish as aristocratic class — indeed, as a caste.” He remembers, as a boy, attending a yearly fete held by some local Protestants, with their shabby-genteel tweeds and cut-glass accents. “It was like wandering around in Wonderland,” he said.