Thursday, March 04, 2021

Time Pieces by John Banville

We read books for odd and idiosyncratic reasons, so we shouldn't be surprised that they get written the same way.

I came to Time Pieces, a miscellaneous memoir of novelist John Banville's life in the city of Dublin, because I've read a few of Banville's novels - not as many as I'd like, and not in a while - and middle-aged men like me find it easier to get through short books and non-fiction.

Why did Banville write it? My guess is that he had a couple of slightly overlapping requests for essays: parts of Time Pieces originally appeared in books called City Parks and Sons + Fathers. Working writers follow their heads, and look for ways to turn what they've already written into books: I think he did something like that.

So he realized he was writing multiple pieces about Dublin, and leaned into it. Time Pieces has seven chapters, or essays - they're all pretty separate. They're all about Dublin; some about his memories of the place and the later ones about wandering about it, in recent years, with a man he calls Cicero and might actually be named that. They're all discursive; they're all short; they're all as much about memory as about the thing remembered. Banville was about seventy when he wrote these pieces; there's a lot of looking back at that age.

Time Pieces is a short book: even shorter than it looks, since fifty-three of its two-hundred-odd pages are taken up by quiet classy photographs by Paul Joyce rather than Banville's words. The photographs were, as far as I can tell, mostly chosen to accompany the words, but not taken because of the words. There are a few photos of the back of Banville's head, such as the cover, but most of them are landscapes and still lifes. It's possible that Joyce wandered around Dublin after reading the manuscript and snapped pictures of all the appropriate things, but it seems more that Banville wanted Joyce for a mood, and the mood was already present in his past work.

Banville was not a Dublin boy: he makes that clear at the outset. He was born and grew up in Wexford; Dublin was the big city he got to occasionally as a boy and escaped to when he grew up. (And, before long, escaped on to other places, which he is never clear about here.) This is not a memoir in any conventional sense. Each essay is about an element of Dublin, a place or a time or a concern, and Banville brings in some personal details while waxing rhapsodic about those things, but he's writing about Dublin here, not himself.

And he's writing, I think mostly, for people who know the city decently well: this is an insider's reminiscences. He's a fine writer, and Joyce's photos are pretty if awfully minor-feeling. Time Pieces is a small thing at its core, the kind of book that sells best at a history centre in the place it celebrates. It's really just for huge fans of Dublin or Banville or, preferably, both.

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