BOOKS: Culture That Made Me

John Banville on Joyce, The Sopranos, and the Catechism

John Banville, 76, grew up in Wexford. He is arguably Ireland’s greatest living writer. In 1969, he began working with the Irish Press as a sub-editor, part of a career in newspapers that lasted over 30 years. In 1970, he published his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Long Lankin.

By Richard Fitzpatrick

Banville’s novel The Sea won the Booker Prize in 2005. Other classic novels include Doctor Copernicus (1976), the first of The Revolutions Trilogy, and The Book of Evidence (1989). He has also published crime novels as Benjamin Black. His latest novel The Singularities is published by Knopf.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 

The first book that was a great influence on me – and continues to be – was the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It told us everything. Who made the world. Why did God make the world. Blah blah blah. Things like simony and the difference between concupiscence and lust and so on. Very important things for a boy of seven to know.

Just William 

As a child, I read the Just William books by Richmal Crompton, which were great fun. They were a great lesson because William is completely cynical, a complete opportunist. You can read them as an adult and you see how calculating he is, a sort of proto-capitalist. The atmosphere was wonderful and they’re beautifully written books.

The Sopranos

 James Gandolfini,in The Sopranos.  James Gandolfi in The Sopranos. 

I’ve watched The Sopranos three or four times. It’s an absolute masterpiece. I doubt there’ll be anything better made on television in our time. It’s wonderful. The acting is excellent. The scriptwriting is excellent. The moral ambiguity – here’s this murderer who is very lovable at times but he’s a very wicked man.

There’s a moment where Carmela goes to a Jewish psychiatrist. He said to her: “You’re married to a man with blood-soaked hands. Don’t pretend you don’t know.” She says, “I’m not taking blood money.” Of course, she goes home and sleeps in his house. The moral complexity is marvellous and it’s all done in about 50 minutes.

James Joyce’s Dubliners 

As a teenager, a most influential book was James Joyce’s Dubliners. I read it when I was 13 or 14. I discovered that writing could be about life as I knew it. It didn’t have to be the Wild West or public school boys in England. The book is so beautifully done. It’s almost perfectly achieved. I think it’s Joyce’s best book. He thought so himself.

Late in life, some old pal of his from Dublin called in on him in Paris and said, “You know, Jimmy, I couldn’t read any of those other ones, but I read Dubliners and I thought that was a great book. It’s your best.” Joyce looked over at him and said, “You know. I think you’re right.”

Vladimir Nabokov

I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita when I was about 14, 15. I couldn’t get it at all. Then I read it again later in my teens. I suddenly saw how beautiful it was. Mind you, later on in life when I had an 11-year-old daughter, I wasn’t quite so sure. I like Nabokov to a point. He overwrites. He smacks his lips a bit too much to my taste. Everything has to be beautiful and everything is not beautiful.

Sometimes you have to write badly in order to reflect what you’re writing about, but Nabokov could only write beautifully.

Henry James 

The book that really struck me was Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. I came quite late to Henry James. I didn’t start reading him until the early 1970s. In fact, I first read The Portrait of a Lady in Florence. I didn’t realise I was reading it just around the corner from where he wrote the book. An odd coincidence. He’s the greatest novelist of them all. Look at the number of masterpieces he left.

WB Yeats’ Poetry 

Poetry has been more important to me than prose. Yeats has always been a great sustenance. His heroic stance against the world – he made himself into this figure and maintained that [pose] throughout his life. He said he didn’t care about anything – all that politics was just a way of making poetry.

No artist cares about anything except the work. We pretend to, but we don’t. I admire him immensely. The poetry is really superb, some of the great poetic masterpieces of the twentieth century.


Anton Chekhov was the greatest dramatist. I love the story about Chekhov storming out of a play by Ibsen and saying, “Life is not like this. It’s just not how it is.” For Chekhov, it always has to be real. He catches the inconsequence. Life is not dramatic. Chekhov’s plays are not dramatic in that sense, but they’re very, very true. I saw Cyril Cusack and three of his daughters doing Three Sisters in The Abbey years ago. It was unforgettable.

The great composers

Music is a pure form. It’s not about anything, it’s about itself. I greatly envy that. As a novelist, you have to write about things. In music, a composer is just writing music. Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the greatest artists of all time. I go back to him most often.

There would be days when I feel like listening to Beethoven. Schubert’s Song Cycles are astonishing. I was listening today to some of the songs in Winterreise, that greatest of song cycles.

The Third Man

Orson Welles in The Third Man. Orson Welles in The Third Man.

The greatest mainstream movie of all time is The Third Man. It’s perfectly made and scripted. The acting is superb.

Pierre Bonnard

One of my favourite painters is Pierre Bonnard. He was great. I interviewed Henri Cartier-Bresson once and asked him who was the best painter for him and he said, “Bonnard – he had a lightness of touch.”

Picasso was always complaining about Bonnard and making fun of him. The ones who Picasso attacked – they were the ones who knew something.


As a teenager, I used to go to see the modern Italian and European movies – Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and the French New Wave and so on, but they haven’t lasted. I would still go back to the old black-and-white Hollywood B-movies, which were marvellous. They were made in a few weeks. Many of them were masterpieces. A film like Night and the City, for example, about an American conman hustling in London. Completely immoral. A great movie.

Marlon Brando 

Marlon Brando was the greatest-ever screen actor, but he never worked hard enough. He wasn’t really interested in the work. He was a genius.

Murder Among the Mormons

I watched a three-part documentary called Murder Among the Mormons recently. It’s about a guy who forges books. It’s about a whole world I knew nothing about. It’s just as corrupt and awful as anywhere else. It’s brilli

Leave a Reply