Finished Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, John Banville’s recollections of living in Dublin as a young man. It is a poor and shoddy book, failing both as a portrait of the city and as a memoir, or “semi-memoir”, as the author calls it. Banville is a bad writer. Over the years I’ve tried to read his fiction but to no avail. I never got past page 20 of his award-winning (why?) novel The Sea. I had hoped that his non-fiction would be better, but it’s not. My complaints against this book are both substantial and trivial. Let’s deal with the latter first.
Much too frequently I find myself arguing with Banville’s choice of words or phrases; they seem to me either wrong or inaccurate or inappropriate or simply confusing. He consistently misses the mark, and as a reader I find this distracting. Here are just a few instances.
At one point he writes “Here I pause to reflect in wonderment how remarkably things chime with each other…” Let’s ignore the clichéd sentiment for the moment and focus on the language. Why “wonderment”? The word “wonder” will do the job just fine. In fact, is there any real difference between "wonder" and "wonderment"?
Describing the fine December rain in Dublin, he observes “This was not the driving, pounding rain of the provinces, but a special urban variety, its drops as fine and as penetrating as neutrinos, those teeming showers of subatomic, indeed, sub-subatomic, particles that flash through you and me and all things at every instant.” Except that rain doesn’t go through us, it stays largely on our surface, so it’s not really like a neutrino at all, now, is it? Instead he should have written that the rain was “as fine as a shower of sub-subatomic particles” and left it at that. That's more evocative, conjuring up, at least for me, images of the aurora borealis (itself caused by subatomic particles), a sight known to fill a viewer with wonder, if not wonderment.
Elsewhere he writes of Dublin prostitutes “…most of the ‘girls’ prowled the streets for custom…” Why the quote marks around the word “girls”? Were they not girls? Were they boys? Or is he trying to convey that they were not young? Then use the word “women”. Or does he mean that as prostitutes they’re not proper or respectably feminine? It’s not clear. The quote marks are confusing.
“For our next destination,” he tells us at another point, “we shall cross to the north side of the city, and be plunged there into two very different versions of the past, laid layer and layer upon each other in the same house.” Why not just “…laid layer upon layer in the same house”?
Do you see what I’m getting at here? He's verbose, a bit of a windbag, actually. And these little verbal gaffes of his slow down the reader - at least this one. They are like burrs clinging to a walker. The man seems to have difficulty writing a clear and simple sentence.
On a more substantial note, Time Pieces is very digressive. Banville rarely stays on a subject for more than two or three pages at a time. We go from a childhood memory of his and then suddenly he’s writing about issues of Georgian architecture in Dublin, then two pages of literary anecdotes, then onto issues of urban zoning in the 1980s, then onto the girl he had a crush on back in the 1950s, then a story about his aunt, etc. It’s a jumble. If Banville is attempting to replicate the flow of consciousness and memory he doesn't succeed since each little scrap of his memory lacks the vividness to lodge in our own. We’re never anywhere long enough for them to take root and eventually it’s an effort just to keep one’s attention focused on the babble. The book is garrulous; and as is usually the case when stuck with anything garrulous, one is eager to get away.
The other problem with this book is Marcel Proust, who haunts Time Pieces from its beginning. On page six Banville writes:
When does the past become the past? How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness? After all, the resplendent vision we carry with us in memory was once merely the present, dull and workaday and wholly unremarkable, except in those moments when one has just fallen in love, say, or won the lottery, or has been delivered bad news by the doctor. What is the magic that is worked upon experience, when it is consigned to the laboratory of the past, there to be shaped and burnished to a finished radiance?
Ah, the amber glow of memory! It seems there are few memoirists who can escape its enervating charm. Banville is, of course, attempting to evoke the past and its golden sheen the way Proust did. In fact the last chapter of Time Pieces is entitled “Time Regained” which is also the name of the final volume in Proust’s Á la recherche du temps perdu. This will not work. Proust created a whole world - a whole shimmering, radiant world - out of how we experience the past, and since his day any serious memoirist needs to go down a different road, Proust’s way is barred to him. But no matter. Banville is going to try to run blissfully down that already well-trodden road nonetheless. Unfortunately, he just can't pull it off. I'm sure that Banville's memories are magical and numinous things to him - I know mine are to me - but when retailed in this book they are free of resplendence or radiance. Merely saying "There's a glow" is not itself a glow.