John Banville: Using words to paint pictures of "magical" Prague

Irish writer John Banville

In Czech Books this week, we look at award-winnning Irish writer John Banville's relationship with Prague, a city which features in a number of his books, including his personal travelogue Prague Pictures and the historical novel Kepler, which is set in Prague during the reign of Emperor Rudolph II.

"Much has been written on the beauty of Prague, but I am not sure that beauty is the right word to apply to this mysterious, jumbled, fantastical, absurd city on the Vltava, one of Europe's three capitals of magic - the other two being Turin and Lyon. There is loveliness here, of course, but a loveliness that is excitingly tainted. In his book Magica Praha, that ecstatic paean of amor urbi, Angelo Maria Ripellino figures the city as a temptress, a wanton, a shee devil. 'The antiquary coquetry with which she pretends to be nothing more than a still life, a silent sucession of glories long since past, a dead landscape in a glass ball, only increases her sorcery. She slyly works her way into the soul with spells and enigmas to which she alone holds the key."

This is an edited extract from John Banville's 2003 book Prague Pictures, a lively non-fictional account of his experiences of the Czech capital city, which he has been visiting regularly since the 1980s. John Banville is arguably Ireland's greatest living novelist. Besides winning last year's Man Booker Prize with The Sea, he has also written a number of critically acclaimed novels such as The Book of Evidence, a psychological fiction which was also nominated for the Booker Prize, and a number of award-winning books exploring the lives of eminent scientists and scientific ideas such as Dr Copernicus and Kepler. The latter novel about the pioneering German astronomer Johann Kepler is a literary tour de force, which vividly recreates the intellectual and social milieu of Rudolphine Prague where Kepler made his most famous discoveries. In Kepler, Banville's achievement in capturing the atmosphere of Prague is all the more remarkable considering the fact that he wrote the book before he actually made his first trip to Prague in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War. Since then he has been back to the Czech Republic on a number of occasions, and these journeys provided him with much of the material for his Prague Pictures. I spoke with John Banville in Dublin recently and started by asking what inspired him to write Kepler and produce such a detailed depiction of Prague in the 17th century.

But then I decided that it would be better to invent the details of these place. And then - as I think I said in Prague Pictures - I was surprised when I eventually went to Prague to see how closely I had got the place. But then, you know, the older I get the more I realise that the world is not as varied as we thought it was when we were young. Most places are much alike. But Prague is a strange city, as we know. It's one of the three great magic capitals of the world along with Lyon and Turin."'Never again will I write this kind of book.' But then I remembered Kepler's life. He's a very sympathetic and interesting character. And I thought I should write a book about him as well, or at least a novel based on his life. And I thought about going to see the places where Kepler was born and lived.

What makes you categorise Prague in this way?

Maybe it has something to do with Prague's traffic system. There also those strange little side streets and strange areas. Prague does stay in the mind; it does stay in the memory. It has a peculiar power, which is not quite healthy. There's something slightly off about the place. But that's one of the main reasons I like it."

Given the range of preoccupations and inspirations that are apparent in your books, you have been described as more of a European writer than an Irish one. In term of influences and people you have read, it is obvious from Prague Pictures that you heave read Jaroslav Seifer and you also frequently quote Milan Kundera in reference to what he calls "the passion of the mind." Are there any other Czech writers who have shown up on your literary radar?

"Oh, I'm terribly ignorant of Czech literature. It's disgraceful really. It's a disgrace how little of it is translated in the West, especially among the English-speaking West. We just don't care about literatures outside the Anglophone world. That's my excuse for saying I don't know as much about Czech literature as I should do. But, of course, we know Svejk, which is not as funny a book as many people find it. I don't think it's terribly funny. And we know Karel Capek who invented robots. But these are the easy ones. I don't know the writers that I should know."

You mention the lack of translations of staples of Czech literature. I was just thinking of looking at it from another angle. To the best of my knowledge only The Book of Evidence and The Sea have been translated into Czech. I was wondering, perhaps because you are often said to make rather dense use of English, if this is not an impediment to the translation of your novels...

Prague does stay in the mind; it does stay in the memory.

"Oh yeah. My books must be an absolute nightmare to translate. I wouldn't do it. I had a couple of them in Japanese some years ago and my wife met a Japanese woman who said that she had read the books. And she asked her what the translations were like. This woman said they were the worst translation she had ever read in her life. She said she didn't recognise the books when she finally read them in English. We have no control over these things. My books have very dense language and very allusive, so they are very difficult to translate."

I wonder if you sometimes feel some trepidation about what your translated work might end up as?

"One has so many worries that that's pretty far down the scale, but yes I would of course worry. I always remember how a novel written by John Braine in the 1950s about working-class life in England, which was called Room at the Top, which was translated into Swedish as The Attic! So in many ways (my work) is a hostage to fortune."

You mention in Prague Pictures how you went to Prague in the 1980s towards the end of the Cold War. You've since been back on a number of occasions. Are there any changes that have struck you each time you have returned?

The city of Kafka, Capek and Ripellino, who wrote the wonderful Magica Praha, which is one of the best things ever written about any city. The place that he conjures up is I think still there. As to how long it will last I don't know. When I was there in the early 1990s, they were building a McDonalds near the Charles Bridge. Everybody was expressing great outrage about it, but I thought to myself, 'Well, why not?' The kids were thrilled with themselves. And I thought, you know, 'Why shouldn't they have Levis? Why shouldn't they have hamburgers?' Why should this be exclusive to the West? Why should this be exclusive to Eastern Europe? Or rather what we used to call Eastern Europe. As a friend of mine once said 'Where does Eastern Europe start? Does it start at Prague? Or Vienna? Or Paris?' Of course, he was right to rebuke me about that. There is just Europe and there always was. The Soviet Bloc was a completely false border, which cut down the middle of Europe. So I don't see why the young in Prague or Budapest or Warsaw shouldn't be allowed to go to hell in a handcart if they want to. They do it everywhere else and they have great fun doing so. And then they get older and - let's say wiser. Or they certainly change, as they will in Prague as well. It's a kind of sentimentality. It's a kind of nostalgia for a fake version of Prague or Budapest or Warsaw, which we in the Western capitals harbour. It's stupid and it's very unfair. One of the things that has kept Eastern Europe being Eastern Europe and behind the walls that the Societ Union had put up is our sentimental notion that people from Prague, Budapest and Warsaw were somehow ennobled by their suffering.

Charles Bridge
But suffering doesn't ennoble. Suffering is just painful. That's all. I think a lot of sentimentality went into our view of what we used to call Eastern Europe. And I'm glad that's over."

Speaking of suffering, at the risk of sounding flippant, you had some very colourful things to say in Prague Pictures about Czech cuisine...

"I hesitate to talk about Czech food. The Czech Republic - and Prague in particular - is very, very beautiful. The people are very sweet, wonderfully cultured, very friendly, bit my God how they eat that food I do not know. It is surely the most disgusting cuisine in the world. At least I find it so. But then the opposite of this is that the last time I was there I went to a very fancy, extremely expensive French restaurant in Mala Strana and it was just awful. It was just as pretentious and bad as any fake French restaurant anywhere else in the world. So that reconciled me a bit to Czech food. One can eat badly anywhere. I'm doing my best to not be too rude about it, but oh my God that Czech food..."

Dumplings, in particular, seemed to catch your imagination...

I suppose this is peasant food. You know, the workers in the fields needed these heavy dumplings and things to eat, but God don't offer them to me..."

Finally, do you still maintain any links with Prague and the Czech Republic?

"I have a friend there, whom I've kind of lost touch with, which I regret. One of the problems at my stage of life is that I travel so much and I meet so many people that you just can't keep up. You almost can't afford to make friends now in the cities that one goes to. Nevertheless, it's not a pose on my part, but I do have a tiny little glow somewhere inside of me that is almost a kind of sorrow for Prague. I miss it in a way that I don't miss anywhere else in the world. I've only ever felt this way about cities that I've fallen in love in. People say you can only come to know a city if you fall in love with somebody from that place, and I've done that in a few cities around the world. Unfortunately that never happened to me in Prague - after all Czech women are so beautiful... It didn't happen to me there, but I still feel that same kind of sorrow. I can't think of another word for it, even though sorrow is a very big word. But I do still have that little pilot light of longing for the city on the Vltava."