John Banville’s first sentence in “Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir” sets the tone — and limits — of his new book.
“Dublin was never my Dublin, which made it all the more alluring,” he writes, and with that is off on a rich, idiosyncratic tour of the Irish capital. It’s the furthest thing from a guidebook. Rather than packing it for a trip, savor it at home with a dark brown ale.
Banville grew up in Wexford, a couple hours south of Dublin. The highlight of his youth was the Dec. 8 (Banville’s birthday) train trip to Dublin for shopping and Christmas lights. That the city in the poverty-stricken 1950s was “mostly a grey and graceless place” made no difference. In his imagination, it was the shining city on the hill, what, he writes, “Moscow was for Irina in Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters,’ a place of magical promise towards which my starved soul endlessly yearned.”
On the train trip home, he pressed his face against the window so that his mother and sister can’t see his tears of sadness on leaving Dublin.
Banville is guided on his tour by a friend he has dubbed Cicero, who along with a deep knowledge of Dublin history happens to have a vintage MG roadster to get around in.
They journey to many of the streets, libraries, theaters and pubs that Banville (and, presumably, Wilde, Joyce and Beckett) inhabited as a young man, allowing Banville to reflect on experience, the past and his art.
“When does the past become the past?” he writes. “How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, luminous glow that is the mark of true pastness?”
Banville’s novels under his name have won the U.K.’s top fiction awards, and he used ’50s Dublin as the setting for his noirish Quirke novels written under the name Benjamin Black. Banville’s fiction skills are evident in his account of his first love. “Ah, Stephanie, I have only to close my eyes ...,” he writes of the affair that turned out to be one-sided. His description of her well-to-do Protestant family (Banville being Catholic, the descriptor is relevant) is a hilarious interlude. Stephanie’s five brothers might be generously described as boisterous. Malignant might be a better word.
As with any book of memories, it must include their unpleasant companion, regret. Banville, he’s had a few. Addressing his departed aunt, with whom he lived on first moving to Dublin but whose death he ignored, he writes:
“Forgive me, dear old aunt; forgive the young beast that I was, and that I regret to say I have never quite ceased to be — I am old now, or oldening, at least, but one’s inner monster stays forever young.”
That kind of introspection is rare in this book. It’s about Dublin. Of the book’s 49 striking photographs taken by Paul Joyce, only a few include Banville. He’s facing away from the camera in all of them.