Time Pieces
A Dublin Memoir
By John Banville
Knopf. 224 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Tom Deignan

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In 2005, Irish writer John Banville told University of Philadelphia creative writing students: "The writing of fiction is far more than the telling of stories. It is an ancient, an elemental, urge which springs, like the dream, from a desperate imperative to encode and preserve things that are buried in us deep beyond words."

Over the course of a career now in its fifth decade, Banville has pursued this "desperate imperative" in dazzling literary novels, such as 2005's Booker Prize-winning The Sea, and, most recently, Mrs. Osmond, his playful sequel to Henry James' classic Portrait of a Lady.

As though such brainy fare were not enough, he's also written a series of excellent Dublin crime novels under the name Benjamin Black.

Now - for those without the cash on hand to visit Ireland's capital for St. Patrick's Day - Banville offers an offbeat but wonderful book titled Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir.

This breezy volume is both personal and historical. And though it can easily be read over a weekend, it spans the centuries and provides valuable insights not only into this ancient, shape-shifting city, but also into Banville's life and work.

"As a writer in the making, the fact was that Joyce had seized upon [Dublin] ... and in doing so had used it up," Banville notes of the great Irish writer. (Joyce once claimed that if Ireland's capital were wiped out, it could be precisely reconstructed using his own fiction.)

Banville was raised in Wexford, outside Dublin, and his birthday, Dec. 8, is also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, "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."

Thus, Banville begins a touching meditation on not just his own younger days, but also youth itself. And memory. Fans of Banville will notice his, shall we say, casual approach to the past. ("I recall, or am convinced I recall" begins a typical look back.) Particularly touching is Banville's portrait of his parents, which is almost weary, until there is a magical shift to poignancy without a trace of mawkishness.

Banville also offers up a brief, at times hilarious, portrait of himself as an artist as a young man - awkward and desperately in love, "a snob with nothing to be snobbish about." He wades into the more treacherous waters of Ireland's recent past, bluntly comparing the tyrannical Communist regimes of eastern Europe to Ireland's "Catholic Church doing exactly the same thing."

But neither does Banville romanticize Ireland's "ultra-nationalist ideologues," such as the band of rebels who, in 1966, blew up the famous pillar of British Admiral Horatio Nelson that once presided over O'Connell Street.

Even Dublin's 1960s literary heroes - Brendan Behan, Flann O'Brien, Patrick Kavanagh - are presented in elegiac, rather than heroic, fashion. There is also a touching lunch with Seamus Heaney, but no less touching is Banville's trip to Iveagh Gardens park with his 16-year-old daughter, and a chance meeting with his middle-aged son in Mulligan's Pub on Poolbeg Street.

"He is on his way home from work," Banville writes, "and has stopped in for a pint, just like my father used to do, all those years ago, in another world, in another age."

For better or worse, this being John Banville, we come across words like execrated and epicene. And though Banville offers up some straightforward history, it would have been interesting to hear more about how this most Irish of places is actually entirely different from the rest of Ireland.

Nevertheless, when you are done with Time Pieces, you will know Dublin - and John Banville - a whole lot better, and will want to learn even more.

Tom Deignan, a columnist for the Irish Voice newspaper, contributed to the new book "Nine Irish Lives: The Fighters, Thinkers, and Artists Who Helped Build America" (Algonquin).