John Banville has long been one of my favorite writers, both as a literary novelist and writing the Quirke mystery novels under the pen name Benjamin Black. Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, his latest, is a treat both for lovers of that city and those who are strangers to it. Banville enchants with a love letter to his adopted hometown, opens us up to the beauty in the everyday and reflects movingly on the passage of time.
Since I also recently wrote glowingly of Annie Ernaux’s memoir The Years, I probably have to own up to the fact that at this stage of life, fond remembrance has its appeal. No doubt there’s a lot more milage behind than in front.
Banville opens the book describing how as a boy his birthday treat was a train trip from his home in rural Wexford to Dublin. During the journey, the magic that was Dublin began to work on him as the young Banville imagined himself a spy on board the Orient Express, “bound on a top secret mission to the dusky and dangerous East…. Dublin was 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.”
He ruminates on the thorny question of when the past becomes the past:
How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off there mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness? After all, the resplendent vision we carry with us his memory was once merely the present, dull and workaday and wholly unremarkable…. What is the magic that is worked upon experience when it is consigned to the laboratory of the past, therefore to be shaped and burnished to a finished radiance?
In a similar vein, he states that childhood is a source of inspiration for artists because it contains the crucial element of mystery. And how, sadly, growing up is “a process of turning the mysterious into the mundane. We cease to be amazed by things—the sky, the turning of the seasons, love, other people—only because we have have grown accustomed to them.”
Banville’s guide to the “hidden city” is called Cicero; his real identity is undoubtedly Harry Crosbie, one of the prime movers in the redevelopment of Dublin’s docklands, to whom he dedicates the memoir. And oh what a tour it is! With the happy accompaniment of Paul Joyce’s gorgeous mostly black and white photographs, we revel in the beauty of the cobblestones and the scale of the “elephantine” palms of the Botanic Gardens—“They are not disproportionate to us; more it is we who are disproportionate to them, a pair of Lilliuputians confronted by a crowd of Gullivers, planted there in the sand with their hairy thick old socks around their ankles.” Even the sounds come alive—“the din of Grafton Street outside, where sunlight rolls its golden hoops among the busy legs of passers-by,” the sound from an open garret window “of a woman lost in the ecstasy of love-making, her cries like a series of increasingly fast, increasingly tightening tiny needle stiches in the sharply etched air.”
There’s so much more—the great story of a retired priest’s comment on James Joyce (don’t skip the footnotes!), the priceless description of Banville’s first girlfriend’s family (shades of Annie Hall), but I’ll let you discover the beauty of this book on your own. It’s a treasure, so much so that even the paper it’s written on feels smoother and more elegant than normal.
Amy Bloom’s White Houses is a novel told from the point of view of Eleanor Roosevelt’s intimate companion Lorena Hickok. Hickok, a poor girl from an abusive childhood in South Dakota, grows up to be a prominent journalist who find her way into Washington’s inner circle and, in Bloom’s telling, into the First Lady’s bed.
And it’s very juicy, with delectable tidbits about Franklin D’s open affair with Missy LeHand, Eleanor’s cousin Parker Fiske’s self-hating homosexuality, and lots more family and White House deceit and disfunction.
Because this is Amy Bloom, Hickok’s voice rings true, as does her passion for Eleanor. What could, in less sure hands, have been a tawdry, salacious story has depth and heart. It’s a poignant story told by a very good storyteller.