At the start of his new memoir, John Banville mentions that he’s now a septuagenarian. No fanfare, just a statement of fact.
As he moves deeper into the book, though, the Irish novelist is alternately sardonic and solemn when discussing his age. At one point, he jokes that he’s in his “perilous seventies.” Later, he reckons that he’s “in the late autumn of life — or is it early winter?”
For the record, Banville turned 72 in December. He’s by no means a fossil. But in “Time Pieces,” a collection of his Dublin-centric memories, he’s at his most wistful. In the last chapter, Banville mentions a friend who “was touched with a tender melancholy, a kind of shadowed sweetness.” The same can be said of this elegant book.
Booker Prize-winning author of “The Sea” and the Benjamin Black mystery series, Banville grew up in a town south of the capital. In the 1950s, his mother and sister marked his birthday by taking him to Dublin every Dec. 8. After disembarking from the train, “bedraggled after the journey, drenched with rain and smelling like sheep,” the trio would buy John “a ten-and-sixpenny wristwatch.” Then they’d repair to an ice cream parlor, which was “as colourful as California.”
Banville wasn’t yet 20 when he moved to his aunt’s apartment in Dublin. The place had plenty of character — ancient wood flooring, carved molding, “a sideboard the size of a hippopotamus” — and would inspire some of his subsequent fiction: “When in my Benjamin Black crime novels I gave that … flat to my protagonist Quirke, I smartened it up considerably.”
Inarguably one of his country’s finest novelists — “The Untouchable,” “Eclipse” and “Shroud,” published in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are narrative and stylistic masterworks — Banville is unconcerned with reliving professional triumphs. The recollections on display in “Time Pieces” are episodic and very personal. Accompanied by Paul Joyce’s cityscape photos, the text blends dreamlike recollections with wry character sketches and glimpses of civic strife.
Although he devotes an abundance of maudlin, occasionally flabby pages to a single short-lived courtship, most of Banville’s anecdotes are quite vivid. “In March 1966,” he writes, “in the small hours of the morning, I was jolted out of sleep by a distant thud” that shook the panes of his bedroom window. The IRA had blown up Nelson’s Pillar, a large stone landmark.
Meanwhile, thanks to Banville’s brief portraits of old friends, this can be a funny book. Dining with an aged journalist, Banville asks about his health: “He shook his head ruefully. ‘I’m like the Census,’ he said, ‘broken down by age, sex and religion.’ ”
Twenty-five years after he published a novel titled “Ghosts,” Banville has given us another book populated by spirits. His parents died more than three decades ago, he says, but maybe they’re not entirely gone. One day, he noticed that his daughter’s gait — “she walks rapidly, favouring her left side and turning her left foot outwards a little” — was a lot like his late father’s.
“It is in the forms of the living that the dead most convincingly haunt us.”
Kevin Canfield is a New York City-based writer and critic.
By: John Banville.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 212 pages, $26.95.