Much like his creator, the fictional Dublin pathologist Quirke doesn't care for holidays. Nevertheless, in his latest outing, Quirke finds himself on holiday in Spain with his wife, when he catches sight of a familiar face. This is the starting point of April in Spain, the eighth novel featuring the grumpy pathologist – and the second to be written by John Banville, as opposed to nom-de-plume Benjamin Black. When Quirke’s tormentor-in-chief Banville told Seán Rocks on Arena that holidays seem like the sorts of things that people who don’t like their own lives might enjoy, it sounded like something his creation would say. This surely means that they have something in common, despite the author admitting that he doesn’t like Quirke very much. But back to holidays and a reference to a wonderful postcard from the late Brian Friel:
"You know, holidays are a torment. Brian Friel, many years ago, sent me a postcard. He was on holiday in France. And he said, 'Here for two weeks. One with good behaviour.’ And that’s exactly how I feel about holidays."
Part of the Booker Prize-winner's aversion to holidays might be to do with what he calls the elaborate confidence trick that hotels try to pull on us:
"When you arrive in the hotel room, it’s as if nobody’d ever been there before. But this hotel that I stayed in in San Sebastian has been around since the turn of the century, which means that lots of, as I say in the book, lots of leaky honeymooners and old people shedding their skin, they’ve all slept in the same bed before you, but the confidence trick is, this is that the first time ever."
Hotels are hideous places, Banville tells Seán, and the grander the hotel, the more elaborate the confidence trick is. Mind you, that doesn’t stop him from staying in them. In fact, he loves putting his head on the pillow of a thousand heads. In the new novel, Quirke spends his holiday in the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra – a real hotel, Banville assures Seán –and the name, the London and England Hotel, annoys the detecting pathologist. But then:
"Everything annoys Quirke. Quirke is not happy unless he’s annoyed about something."
This is the reason Banville introduced Detective Inspector St John Strafford in Snow, April in Spain’s predecessor. St John Strafford is a milder version of Quirke, but also, his creator says, an impossibility:
"One of the things that I like about St John Strafford is that he’s a total impossibility. You could not have had a son of the ascendancy as an Inspector in the Garda force in Ireland in the mid-1950s. So, he’s an impossibility, so I like writing about that."
Since he started writing crime novels, Banville says he had the ambition to write a crime novel without a crime in it. With the arrival of April in Spain, he’s done that, although it involved him revisiting some of his previous Quirke books:
"April Latimer in Elegy for April – she's apparently the victim. She’s apparently murdered, but the corpse is not found. So I’ve resurrected her in this book, which means that, retrospectively, I’ve written a crime novel without a crime in it. I’m very proud of that."
He uses the description "crime novel", but Banville detests the whole notion of genre. He told Seán that labels like crime novel or romantic novel are ridiculous. And "literary fiction" is the label that annoys him most:
"Literary fiction is an invention in my time and, you know, I always think of it as set off in a corner of the bookshop with a sign on it saying, ‘Don’t come near this stuff. You don’t want to read this, this is literary fiction.’"
As far as he’s concerned, good fiction happens in any genre, meaning there are good novels and there are bad novels. That’s it. And, no doubt, April in Spain is in the former category.
You can hear Seán’s full conversation with John Banville by going here.
April in Spain by John Banville is published by Faber and Faber.