"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Time Pieces

A Dublin Memoir
John Banville


From Chapter 1: About Time

Dublin was never my Dublin, which made it all the more alluring. I was born in Wexford, a small town that was smaller and more remote then, sequestered in its own past. My birthday falls on 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception—I have always taken this as an example of how laughably imprecise in the matter of birth-dates bungling Heaven can be. The eighth used to be both a Holy Day and a public holiday, when people from the provinces flocked to the capital to do their Christmas shopping and marvel at the Christmas lights. So my birthday treat on successive years in the first half of the 1950s was a trip by train to Dublin, a thing I looked forward to for months beforehand—indeed, I suspect I began to look forward to next year's jaunt the moment that year's had ended.

We would leave from the town's North Station in the wintry darkness of early morning. I believe there were still steam trains then, although diesel was the coming thing. How thrilling it was to walk through the sombre, deserted streets, my head still fuzzy from sleep, with the long day's adventure all before me. The train would arrive from Rosslare Harbour, carrying blear-eyed passengers off the overnight ferry from Fishguard in Wales, half of them drunk and the other half still showing the effects of sea-sickness. Away we would chug, the window beside me a black glass mirror in which I could study my menacingly shadowed reflection and imagine myself a confidential agent—as spies used to be called in the espionage novels of a previous age—on board the Orient Express and bound on a top-secret mission to the dusky and dangerous East.

We would have been somewhere in the approaches to Arklow when the dawn came up, turning the frost-white fields to a shade of sharply glistening mica-pink.

Certain moments in certain places, apparently insignificant, imprint themselves on the memory with improbable vividness and clarity—improbable because, so clear and so vivid are they, the suspicion arises that one's fancy must have made them up: that one must, in a word, have imagined them. Of those December journeys I recall, or am convinced I recall, a certain spot where the train slowed at a river bend—the Avoca river, it must have been—a spot I can still see clearly in my memory's eye, and which I have returned to repeatedly in my novels, as here, for instance, in The Newton Letter:

Beyond the river a flat field ran to the edge of a wooded hill, and at the foot of the hill there was a house, not very big, solitary and square, with a steep roof. I would gaze at that silent house and wonder, in a hunger of curiosity, what lives were lived there. Who stacked that firewood, hung that holly wreath, left those tracks in the hoarfrost on the hill? I can't express the odd aching pleasure of that moment. I knew, of course, that those hidden lives wouldn't be much different from my own. But that was the point. It wasn't the exotic I was after, but the ordinary, that strangest and most elusive of enigmas.
Dublin, of course, was the opposite of ordinary 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. I was luckier than Irina in that the journey from Wexford to Dublin was relatively short, and I got to make it with satisfying frequency. That the city itself, the real Dublin, was, in those poverty-stricken 1950s, mostly a grey and graceless place did not mar my dream of it—and I dreamed of it even when I was present in it, so that mundane reality was being constantly transformed before my eyes into high romance; there is no one more romantic than a small boy, as Robert Louis Stevenson knew better than most.