It’s not the best marketing line for a memoir. “It’s rather short on facts about myself,” says John Banville, sphinx-like. He prefers to call it a quasi-memoir. “I’m not interested in myself. As any writer will tell you, we just sit in a room all day, writing. We don’t lead interesting lives . . . All life is going on inside my head, but it’s invisible. Also, I’m not very interesting myself.” As interviews begin, this is also a poor lookout.
John Banville – Wexford native, former journalist and author of some 30 books, including the Man Booker Prize-winning The Sea, under both his own name and that of Benjamin Black – is talking about his latest work, Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir.
It turns out that the “facts” we think we know at the end of the book may not be facts at all. There was Banville’s first proper date, for example: afternoon tea at the fancy cafe of the Grafton Picture House, on Grafton Street in Dublin, “with the first real, as distinct from fantasy”, love of his life. The beloved’s name was Stephanie Delahaye.
Her upper-middle-class Dublin life; her family, raucous and ragged, with its silences and cover-ups; the ghastly brothers’ mimicking of his culchie accent – “I hadn’t thought I had one” – are so richly conveyed that when the relationship ends, predictably, in burning humiliation, the reader’s heart aches for the young Banville.
Is Stephanie Delahaye still around, I ask with appropriate sensitivity, over the bruschetta.
Stephanie, damn it, turns out to be “an amalgam of many people”. Banville is, after all, a renowned fiction writer.
Even so, we know a good deal more about the man at the end of Time Pieces. At its poignant, tender heart a 70-year-old man is making a remorseful and rueful bow to all the loved ones who came a distant second to his writing, to the suburbs and neighbourhoods and humdrum existences he once disdained.
The book, subtitled A Dublin Memoir, weaves his excited, late-life discovery of Dublin city in the company of the developer Harry Crosbie, to whom the book is dedicated, with alternate chapters on his life in literary Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s.
Crosbie, a visionary who at 15 “could spot a Louis XV table at a hundred paces and quote reams of Shakespeare with a truly filthy joke in the next breath”, may well deserve a book to himself.
The images that linger are from the chapters on Banville’s life.
Early on we talk about where his writing talent might have come from.
“Where do any of us come from? I was just a subeditor for a lot of my journalistic career. No little boy ever said to his mammy, ‘Mammy, I want to be a subeditor.’ Everybody drifted.”
In practice this meant earning a living in a noisy, chaotic office while devoting huge amounts of emotional energy to the imaginary world in his mind, living in his head, craving the time and space to be alone with it, straining to get back to it.
The impact on his family’s life can only be guessed at; he needs no nudge from this interviewer to say so.
“It was very hard on them, very hard on the people around me, on my children. I have not been a good father. I don’t think any writer is,” Banville says. “You take so much and suck up so much of the oxygen that it’s very hard on one’s loved ones. I’ve been very lucky that my loved ones put up with me and supported the project. I’m very fortunate.”
A hellish husband, too? “I think so, yeah. I wouldn’t have been able to live with me.”
But would he have done anything differently? “I don’t think so, because it takes so much concentration, and we are cannibals. We’d always sell our children for a phrase.”
Mmm . . . a turn of phrase, perhaps?
“Well, we are ruthless. We’re not nice people. We might be interesting, we might be diverting . . . but mostly it’s just slog. You see, because you have to concentrate so deeply, and have to sink down into yourself as far as you can go, you lose sight of the people around you. The people you are writing about can be more real than the people you live with, which is very cruel on the people you live with.”
But he has been extremely fortunate, he says repeatedly.
“I had my siblings, Vincent and Vonnie, who supported me when I started to write; my loved ones – I have four children now, who are certainly more mature than I am. My youngest daughter is 20, and I have a seven-year-old grandchild. They’re wonderful, fascinating,” he says.
Clearly, he is making up for lost time in his listening.
A later reference to neglected writers such as Elizabeth Bowen – “If she had been a man she’d have been a major writer of the 20th century” – puts him in mind of his youngest daughter again. “She is so furious, indignant, about all this, in a good way – which is the best state for women to be in. If I were a woman I’d be so furious all the time,” he says.
Later on he will be going to dinner with his eldest son, Colm. “What can be more delightful than that, after all the years that I didn’t give him the time I should have given him, that he has forgiven me ? I am very fortunate.”
Still, that sense of his own cruelty and indifference is a recurring theme. It goes all the way back to his youth. Growing up in Wexford town, he had so little interest in the place that he never bothered to learn most of the street names, seeing it as “no more than a staging post on my way elsewhere”.
When he was 15 he had a 17-year-old friend from a well-to-do Wexford family who wore three-piece suits and a watch chain and smoked Passing Clouds cigarettes. One day over coffee at Whites hotel – “the acme of sophistication”, the friend told an astounded Banville that he went wife-swapping in the town.
"I said, 'What?' What's wife-swapping?' I imagined big fat ladies in flowery dresses being brought down to the Bullring and being exchanged for a side of beef or something."
The friend filled him in.
“I said, ‘You are lying. This is absolutely not true’ . . . Now I realise it was true. I missed everything by not looking around me.
“And in a way that’s what this book is about. It’s a kind of an act of atonement for wilful blindness throughout my life. I never looked at anything,” Banville says.
“I was looking past things to what I imagined, or looking past the present to the future, looking past where I was living to where I might be living to where I wanted to live.”
He wasted Wexford, he says.
“It was a fascinating place, and a beautiful place . . . with a world interesting enough to be worthy of an artist’s attention . . . as amply attested to in the work of such Wexford writers as Colm Tóibín, Eoin Colfer and Billy Roche.”
The pages on his parents and their honest, dull, programmed lives, as he perceives them, are a heartbreaking reflection on something precious and irretrievable.
“You see, that generation of lower-middle-class people in Ireland essentially gave up their lives for us. They poured all their ambition into making us have a better life – and they succeeded. And I wish they were back now, so I could thank them.”
His mother in her more exasperated moments, he writes, “would say of her husband that he was born old”. For 40 years he worked in a white-collar job in a large garage that supplied motor parts to much of the county, his days programmed to the minute, beginning with the 20-minute walk to work.
Banville wonders if his father resented the daily round “and how much the monotony of it contributed to a sense in him of lost opportunities, forfeited happiness”.
As for his mother, no need to wonder why she was given to outbursts of frustration and complaint. For her, as for her son, life was always elsewhere.
“She reminds me, as in my Wexford days I used to remind myself, of [the Russian playwright Anton] Chekhov’s Irina, immured in the provinces and yearning for the magic of Moscow.”
She was a good housewife and a devotee of Woman and Woman's Own magazines, which "brought splashes of colour in a drab time". Until one day, in her 40s, she mentioned her reading matter to the priest, whereupon she was ordered to stop buying them under pain of mortal sin. She obeyed.
Banville paints a merciless portrait of himself as a teenager. Doted on and indulged by his mother, he was “wholly obnoxious”, “selfish, discontent, at once detached and demanding, and of a lordly arrogance based on nothing more than my own overblown estimation of what I would one day achieve” .
Then, with casual insouciance, he shook the dust of Wexford off his heels and headed for “what I took to be the dazzlingly bright lights of Dublin”.
As he looks back “at all that I rejected in those early years, I am pierced with what is if not sorrow then something that feels sharply like it. I left a place that I thought harsh and ungenerous, but that in reality was tender.”
But with those determinedly unsentimental eyes, he says he would do the same again.
“I think my life was so different to theirs that I don’t think the gap could ever have been bridged . . . Being sorrowful and being guilty is just luxuriating in self-pity. But, on the other hand, it does make at least known to oneself and to a few people around one how much of a sacrifice they made.”
Then again, when he finally made it to Dublin at the age of 18, in the early 1960s, he had little interest in that either, past or present.
He got lucky by landing a room in his Aunt Nan’s flat on Upper Mount Street, in the heart of his beloved “Baggotonia”, with the dodgy sofa and single-bar electric fire.
And although he describes how Nan, a wonderful cook and housekeeper, had come to Dublin when she was very young, to go into service, and probably lived a lonely life, there is no revisionism, just a characteristic honesty in his admission that he simply was not there for her. And some of that old regret.
“I was too different from her. My life was too dissimilar from hers to have any real communication. We must have talked. But I should have treasured her more when she was there. I suspect I was a little bit more cruel than most people. Just cruel,” he says.
“When I wrote this book, or when I write any book, I was determined to not be sentimental, not to indulge in this rare-auld-times crap that people go on with.”
He goes off into a magnificent riff about the “wonderful day” that people go on about, when “we forget about the rain and the dogshit we stepped in as we were stepping out of the car and the boredom . . . Bits of it were wonderful. Most of it was boring,” he finishes firmly.
In short it is our sacred duty not to sentimentalise, “because that is to falsify, and to falsify, I think, is the deepest injustice you can do, other than harming people willingly”.
Anyway, Aunt Nan died a couple of years later, while he was in Greece, and he seeks forgiveness of her, too. “Forgive me, dear old aunt; forgive the young beast that I was and that I regret to say I have never quite ceased to be – I am old now, or oldening, at least, but one’s inner monster stays forever young.”
Although he took on the lease of the flat it was his sister who cleared out Nan’s things when it should have been him. “I should have been the one to suffer through an emotionally turbulent task. But, no, I was the baby of the family, the charmed one, and must be shielded from life’s more outrageous impositions.”
And in a way he seeks forgiveness of his siblings, too. “They took care of me, looked after me, gave me books to read.”
He was writing versions of James Joyce's Dubliners when he was 12, he says. "And they read my work in the early days, God love them, without laughing . . . They were infinitely kinder to me than I deserved, because I was an awful little shit . . . What kindness. And they didn't ask for thanks."
For a writer in the making and cherished last child, it might be assumed that he went straight to university after St Peter’s College in Wexford. His mother wanted him to go, he says.
“I didn’t want to be dependent for another four years, so I got a job as a clerk in Aer Lingus. It was a job, a boring job, but I was able to travel. ”
Does he regret missing the university years? “I regret it now. I regret missing that three or four years of learning about the world and getting drunk and chasing girls and being irresponsible, learning how to live, learning some of the social skills . . . I got it all from books. I lived in books.”
To illustrate he tells a story that explains much about him. “We used to go and stay with John and Madeline McGahern, and arrived in one day, and there was a new book that I picked up and began to read. Walked in, put the bag down . . . and Madeline said, ‘My God, I’ve never seen anyone who reads like you do.’
“There was only the page. That’s probably why I wasn’t interested in Wexford and not that interested in Dublin . . . That’s not living. I suspect that was a substitute for living. Again, there’s no point in regretting . . . I mean, I do regret it, but I don’t regret it actively.”
In the memoir he wrestles with this early indifference to place. As a writer, he says in his defence, he had always been most concerned not with what people do but with what they are.
“I seek to comfort and perhaps even exonerate myself with the thought that this is what artists do, the imagination being their only true place in which richly to live. But am I convinced?
“Some years ago I was asked to contribute to a collection of six-word ‘stories’ . . . My contribution may seem facetious, but it contains a serious and bitter truth: ‘Should have lived more, written less.’ ”
But we do what we do, he says now.
“It’s foolish to regret the past. We did it. We made our mistakes, committed our crimes, we did out little bit of good. What’s the point of regretting?”
Banville reflects on “the strange contrasts of us as a species” – more a virus, really, he says – and tells a story that perhaps epitomises him.
“I tripped one day and fell in the street, and about six people were around me almost immediately, and I thought they could not have been more kind,” he says. “And my second thought was that in different circumstances they would be herding me into a cattle truck going to a death camp. ”
Really? That’s what you were thinking as people helped you up?
“We are an appalling species. We are capable of the most glorious things. For every Hitler there are two Beethovens, but for every two Beethovens there is a Hitler. So every silver lining has a huge black cloud around it.”
Right now he has managed to brave his fear of flying and is in the US, giving a seminar on Henry James – "the greatest novelist of them all" – at the University of Chicago. It is his ideal world, one where he will teach for a few hours a week, then vanish unimpeded into his head, as he gets on with his sequel to James's The Portrait of a Lady.
“I’ll probably be eviscerated for it, but what do I care? I don’t read the reviews anyway.”
Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir is published by Hachette Books Ireland