No one has captured Dublin of the 1950s, its griminess and narrowness, so well as John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black. I say this as a person who is only a couple of years younger than he and who, for a time, lived up the coast from his childhood home of Wexford and was, like him, brought up to the city on special occasions by train. Like him, too, I later wandered around Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s — the city’s griminess and narrowness intact — eventually living there and (unlike him) working behind the bar of a hotel off Grafton Street, “before,” as he puts it in Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, “that narrow, delicately undulating thoroughfare had been ruined by pedestrianism, one of those words that is as ugly as its meaning.” This elegant little book has brought all this back in the most powerful way, and reading it, I was almost undone by the cruel mystery of time and the loss of that world — damp, dingy, and penitentially cold though it was.
And oppressive. For women, certainly: birth control was prohibited, as, indeed, was a woman being served a pint in Dublin; half pints only for us. More to the point, for Banville and other writers, Ireland was “a hard, mean-spirited place for anyone with artistic ambitions.” Every published word had to be passed by the Censorship of Publications Board, the institutional expression of a general disapprobation of impiety and disgust with matters of the flesh. (He reports one Irish politician declaring righteously that “there had been no sex in Ireland before the coming of television.”) “When,” Banville tells us, “I first visited eastern Europe when the Cold War was extremely warm, I felt immediately and horribly at home: they had the Communist Party invigilating their lives from the cradle to the grave, while we had the Catholic Church doing exactly the same thing.” It is telling, as he notes, that Irish writers “never merely emigrated, they always ‘went into exile.’ ” For all that, Dublin was the place Banville wanted to be. It was, he says, “for me what Moscow was for Irina in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a place of magical promise towards which my starved young soul endlessly yearned.”
Time Pieces is a tribute and guide to Banville’s Dublin and an excursion across the treacherous territory of memory. Now and again he is accompanied by his friend Harry Crosbie, whom he calls Cicero, a font of Dublin arcana. This is the man you want to lead you to the disassembled granite slabs from the walls of the original Abbey Theatre, a building that had previously housed a bank, the Mechanics Institution, and the City Morgue. Or the one to introduce you to Admiral Lord Nelson’s head, unseated from the august shoulders by an IRA bomb in 1966. The great man’s (or, in another view, the flagrant adulterer’s) place was left unoccupied until 2003, when, writes Banville, “the Millennium Spire was driven deep into the heart of the site.” Both Nelson’s head, sadly un-nosed, and the tawdry spire are present among the forty-eight photographs interspersed throughout the pages, all but one by Paul Joyce, the sole exception having been taken by Banville’s son, Benjamin. Among the other photographs is a fine view of Upper Mount Street’s Georgian terraced houses, where Banville lived in a flat for some years. He later spruced up the place and turned it over to Quirke, the gloomy pathologist hero who came into the world in Christine Falls, Benjamin Black’s first novel.
The memoir finds Banville regretting aspects of his early character. He marvels ruefully at his young self: a “prissy and purblind young man,” a snob with nothing to be snobbish about, a resident of one of the greatest cities in the world who cared little about its past, an ungrateful nephew to the aunt with whom he lived on Mount Street and who bequeathed him the flat. I would say such attitudes belong to most young people and may even be a precondition for later wisdom. As the book shows, Banville now celebrates Dublin’s once “shabby splendours” and the relics of its many-layered past. His friend, Cicero, shows him a remnant of the original wallpaper in a decaying Georgian house, some 300 hundred years old, and it transfixes him: “How many strata of time am I spanning here, how many imbricated layers of the past am I standing on?”
The book, which wanders about according to its own compass, is filled with splendid characters and descriptions: The proprietor of what Banville deems to be the best pub in the city, Ryan’s of Parkgate Street, is “tall, sandy-haired, with a limp that made him seem to be poling himself along in an invisible gondola.” In the days when a woman was not allowed in the public bar, he had a contraption set up whereby he could twitch a piece of twine secured to the latch of the snug’s door to open it, in order that her unhallowed self (never unaccompanied by a man, I am sure) could be sequestered there.
The book’s funniest passages concern the author’s doomed passion for a young Protestant woman, which is to say a member of a tribe alien to young Banville. Her name was Stephanie Delahaye, and she lived in Fitzwilliam Square with her well-off parents and five brothers. The youngest was Gervase (“it seemed to me absurd that such a short, stumbling, snotty-nosed creature could boast so heraldic-sounding a name”), and the oldest, “Tiddler,” was “a burly bruiser of twenty or so, with a truly frightening set of teeth . . . resembling, so I thought, some sort of primitive instrument of the Eskimos for trapping fish or fighting off seals.” The father, another bruiser, was a former rugby player, and the mother, called “Mags,” was a tippler whose beverage of choice, gin and Advocaat, had “the colour of beaten egg-yolk and . . . the consistency of phlegm.”
[P]oor half-sozzled Mags . . . confined herself to a continuous soft vague twittering that was not exactly speech, but seemed rather a sort of distracted, incomprehensible disavowal, as if she imagined there were people all round her all the time asking questions she could not answer or even understand. My presence seemed to baffle her, and every time she encountered me she would give a tiny start, which she would hasten to cover up with a remote, faintly pained smile, putting her head to one side in an attitude of apologetic haplessness . . . She rarely addressed me directly, but when she did she would pluck a name for me at random, as if out of a card file in her mind, James, or Joseph, or Gerald, and once even, fantastically, Jasper.
That reminiscence takes on a gothic aspect with the puzzling and sinister presence in the Delahaye home of a tall, thin man dressed all in black, always there when Banville arrives, always departing before him. Who was he? And what was he up to? That — and it’s a good one — you will have to discover for yourself.
Time Pieces is not an intimate memoir but an extremely engaging one and far friendlier than one would expect from this writer whose novels are so chilly. It is also a book to make a trip to Dublin seem imperative, even, I believe, for those who have never been there. Yet.
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