Of all the great contemporary Irish writers John Banville would once have seemed the least likely to write a memoir.
His novels have their own strange gravity, from which their creator seems as carefully distanced as James Joyce’s ideal: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
Autobiography is inevitable, but in Banville's case memory has always been sublimated into the pure invention of his chiselled prose. And if Banville is an unlikely memoirist, Dublin seems an even more unlikely setting. As he remarks in Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, Joyce's imaginative hold on the city was so great that "the place was of no use to me as a backdrop for my fiction" until the late birth of his alter ego Benjamin Black. So the appearance of this utterly delightful book, called a memoir in its title but, perhaps more accurately, a "quasi-memoir" in the body of the text, is an unexpected windfall.
It is not, admittedly, a memoir of the usual egocentric sort in which the author’s experiences and acquaintances are reconstituted for the reader’s consumption, introspection is indulged and old scores are settled. Banville is not in the business of holding a mirror up to his own face and seeing the fairest of them all.
Rather, he allows himself to be glimpsed in a glass darkly. Literally so – the two images of self-reflection in the book are sinister and distorted.
On the early-morning train to Dublin for one of the annual trips that marked his childhood birthdays the window is a “black glass mirror in which I could study my menacingly shadowed reflection”. Later, when he settles in his maiden aunt’s flat on Upper Mount Street, there is an ornate old looking glass “in the dim and stippled depths of which my reflection would loom with a curiously malignant, Jack the Ripperish aspect”.
Paul Joyce’s fine, mostly black-and-white photographs, largely treating Dublin as Eugène Atget treated Paris – as a built landscape seemingly indifferent to its unseen inhabitants – picks up these hints. Banville appears on the cover and in three pictures inside, but in each case we see only the back of his head. There is to be no facetime here. The author is no longer invisible or indifferent. His presence is discreet, controlled, at times ghostly. The impression is not so much of a writer haunted by memory as of one choosing to haunt moments of his own past. It is as if the past is real and solid and the present-day author is a wraith moving through it.
Time Pieces, indeed, is less a summoning of memories than an exploration of the way memory is stitched in to the present: "Let us say, the present is where we live, while the past is where we dream. Yet if it is a dream, it is substantial, and sustaining. The past buoys us up, a tethered and ever-expanding hot-air balloon."
The expected elements of a memoir are not absent, but they are carefully refracted through the prism of Dublin itself and its own history.
There are moments of self-revelation and tantalising glimpses of the literary world against which the 18-year-old Banville pressed his nose when he came to the city from his native Wexford.
WB Yeats’s daughter, Anne, lives above the Mount Street flat he shares with his aunt, and Anne's mother – Yeats’s widow, George – is memorably encapsulated. Thomas Kinsella is seen walking along Baggot Street in his Civil Service suit, eating an ice cream. Patrick Kavanagh sits regularly on the steps of the Mount Street house, staring gloomily at the offices of Dolmen Press across the street.
Yet Banville artfully holds the reader at one remove by splicing his direct memories of Dublin in his childhood and early manhood into what is almost, at times, a conventional travelogue. He draws skillfully on Maurice Craig's masterly Dublin 1660-1860 and on Christine Casey's The Buildings of Ireland: Dublin to retell the histories of many of the city's landmark edifices. He digresses happily into anecdotes of Dublin wit – one small story about a clash between a bus conductor and an "epicene" passenger is howlingly funny. He drives around with his friend Harry Crosbie (thinly disguised as "Cicero") to see the city's hidden oddities, from the head of Nelson's exploded statue to the doorway of the original, burnt-out Abbey Theatre to the lost docks of Ringsend.
But most readers are likely to be more interested in what the book tells us about Banville than what it says about Dublin. What he tells us is that he was “a prissy and purblind young man . . . a snob with nothing to be snobbish about”. Yet beneath the purblind snob there must have been an artist in the making, one who was forging (sometimes in spite of himself) human connections and storing in his brain cells people, places, atmospheres. For there are marvellous passages of magical evocation here. Those childhood train trips are recalled with wonder and a spooky clarity. A brief encounter with a young prostitute is recalled with moving compassion. The family of his (unrequited) love Stephanie, the Delahayes, are conjured with a comic vividness, as exuberant and hilarious as anything in Dickens.
And, of course, there are the words. Banville is the greatest living master of simile and metaphor in prose, and Time Pieces is a trove of arresting imagery, from the lushly poetic to the luridly absurd. There are cups of tea "the colour of tree trunks sunk for centuries in swamp-water". The female shop assistants in Clerys "were brisk and competent in a martyred sort of way, like an order of secular nuns". The rain makes the bricks of Georgian houses "glitter like the flanks of a galloping racehorse". In every pub "a solid cube of tobacco smoke stood in the air and filled the room, cobweb-coloured, thick and unmoving". Thomas Delahaye, Stephanie's (very) big brother, has teeth like "some sort of primitive implement of the Eskimos for trapping fish or fighting off seals".
It is in such images that we see how memory (which is, after all, mostly a repository of the banal and the mundane) is transformed by art into something rich and strange. Or, as Banville puts it more eloquently in this enthralling book, “It is out of such moments, commonplace yet plangent, that the past, the longed-for past, assembles itself”.
Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist. He edited Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks, which has just been published by the Royal Irish Academy