John Banville: On the Undreamed Lives of My Parents
Quiet Lives of Desperation Aren't Always as Desperate as They Look
It was in the early 1960s that I forsook the town of my birth and moved to Dublin. And “forsook” is the appropriate word. During the first 18 years of my life that I spent in Wexford, I treated the place as no more than a staging post on my way elsewhere. I had so little interest in the town that I did not even bother to learn the names of most of the streets. In imaginative terms, this indifference to my birthplace, to its history, and to the complex and subtle life of its people, was not only arrogant but foolish, and wasteful, too. That in my immediate surroundings there was a world interesting enough to be worthy of an artist’s attention—and from earliest days I had no doubt that I was going to be an artist of some kind or other—is amply attested to in the work of such Wexford writers as Colm Tóibín, Eoin Colfer and Billy Roche, all three of whom, and Roche in particular, have made a trove of rich coinage out of what I regarded as base metal, when I deigned to regard it at all.
I might defend myself, indeed I might even deny the need for such a defence, by saying that I have never in my life paid much attention to my surroundings wherever it was I happened to find myself—artistic attention, that is. For good or ill, as a writer I am and always have been most concerned not with what people do—that, as Joyce might say, with typical Joycean disdain, can be left to the journalists—but with what they. Art is a constant effort to strike past the mere daily doings of humankind in order to arrive at, or at least to approach as closely as possible, the essence of what it is, simply, to be. It’s as legitimate for the artist to address the question of being as it is for the philosopher—as Heidegger himself acknowledged when he remarked that in his philosophizing he was seeking only to achieve what Rilke had already done in poetry. No doubt he was thinking of lines such as these, from the ninth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies—in the somewhat antiquated but sympathetic Leishman/Spender translation—which sets out by asking why we should bother to be human and live at all, then ventures this magnificent reply:
. . . because being here is much, and because all this
that’s here, so fleeting, seems to require us and strangely
concerns us. Us the most fleeting of all. Just once,
everything, only for once. Once and no more. And we, too,
once. And never again. But this
having been once, though only once,
having been once on earth—can it ever be cancelled?
Yet when I look back now at all that I rejected in those early years, and ponder the unheeding and heartless manner in which I rejected it, 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, and too engrossed in its own hopes and sorrows to bother much with me.
My parents are first and foremost among all that I put behind me. There they lie, far off among the mirages of memory, like a pair of toppled statues against whom the sands of the years have gathered in drifts, and whose features the winds of time have blurred.
I never saw my father run. As I grow older this remarkable fact strikes me with ever more keenness and force. He must have run, of course, sometimes, on some necessary occasions, but if he did, and if I witnessed him doing so, I have no recollection of it. His life, moving at an even and unruffled pace, was limited on all sides by the circumstances of his time, his class and the age he lived in. There was, really, nowhere that he needed to run to.
To glance back over one’s shoulder at the lives of one’s parents in order to make comparisons with one’s own life is a dizzying exercise. It startles me to realize that when my father was the age that I am now, just embarking upon my perilous seventies, he was already long retired and entering with more or less equanimity into his dotage. My mother was more resistant to the encroachment of age and its attendant enfeeblements—she was in her late fifties when, with a great deal of nerve and no little daring, she purchased her first pair of what in those days were called slacks. My father was thoroughly bemused and, I suspect, more than a little alarmed, too, by such an uncharacteristic gesture towards liberation. But, then, he had always tended to be a stick-in-the-mud, the mud of small-town life out of which my mother never ceased striving to drag him.
A couple of years ago I came across a report of a survey by the British Department of Work and Pensions—there must not have been much news in the papers that day—which found that of the people whose opinions were canvassed, women considered old age to begin at 60, while men, the poor saps, believed it began at 58. Those figures surprised me, given the greatly increased life-span that most of us nowadays can look forward to; but I’m sure they would not have surprised my father, or even my mother.
In her more exasperated moments my mother would say of her husband that he was born old. This was unkind, and not really a fair judgement. What made him seem prematurely elderly was, I think, the narrow range of his expectations. He worked all his life at a white-collar job—though he did wear a brown shop-coat over his suit and shirt and tie—in a large garage that supplied motor parts to much of County Wexford. Ironically, he never learned to drive a car. He was a fast walker, though, and if I concentrate I can hear again the particular clickety-click rhythm of his cleated shoe-heels on the pavement outside our house.
In the morning he would walk to work, which took him some 20 minutes. At lunchtime he would walk home, take a meal, read the newspaper for a quarter of an hour, then walk back to work. Finishing at six, he would cross the road from the garage to his brother’s pub to drink a pint of Guinness before setting off for home and his “tea.” Over nearly 40 years, this schedule did not vary, except in the summer months when the rest of the family moved to the seaside and my father commuted morning and evening by train. At the time I, too, accepted all this as the necessary shape and schedule of his life, but I wonder now how much he resented the daily round, and how much the monotony of it contributed to a sense in him of lost opportunities, forfeited happiness.
But perhaps I am being patronizing by thinking his life monotonous. What for me would have been a killing dullness may for him have been a comfort, and may have seemed preferable to the vain strivings that tormented so many others around him, my mother included. There is a lovely poem by Philip Larkin, the bard of senescence, called “Next, Please,” which begins by lamenting our childish notions of what life surely has in store for us:
Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
For my mother, as for me, life was always elsewhere. She, too, reminds me, as in my Wexford days I used to remind myself, of Chekhov’s Irina, immured in the provinces and yearning for the magic of Moscow. Yet she, too, like my father, was forced to live to a programme. She was a housewife. Housewiving was a job—though she would never have thought of it as any such thing—that she performed diligently and well. She went “down the town” to do the shopping every morning, except on Sundays, when no shops were open. On weekdays there was the grocer’s to be called on, and the greengrocer’s, the butcher’s, the baker’s . . . I wonder how many shopping bags she wore out in her lifetime of “going for the messages.”
I do not have to wonder about my mother’s levels of discontent, as I do about my father’s. Although of necessity stoical in the face of general disappointment, she was given to outbursts of frustration and complaint. She read more widely than my father, and so I suppose she had more of an inkling of what the world of elsewhere had to offer, and of all that she was missing.
She was a devotee of Woman and Woman’s Own. I have no idea what these magazines are like nowadays—I hope they have not given in to the universal obsession with the imaginary lives and dubious loves of soap-opera characters—but at that stage of their existence they concerned themselves mostly with the Royal Family, with knitting patterns, and with recipes for such delights as steak-and-kidney pie and, that ultra-smart staple of the day, prawn cocktail. They were wholly innocent publications, although my sister is adamant that one April Fools’ Day one or other of them ran an article headed: “Knit Yourself a Lovely Dutch Cap.” My mother, I have no doubt, would not have got the joke. Indeed, perhaps no one under my own age would get it now, either.
These two magazines, largely identical in content and tone, were for my mother a splash of colour in a drab time. Then one day in the confessional, being short, I suppose, of peccadilloes to own up to, she mentioned to the priest that she read them—he had probably been probing to know if she was keen on what he would have called “dirty books”—and he promptly ordered her to stop buying them, under pain of mortal sin. I was 15 or so at the time, and argued with her that the priest was a fool and had no idea what Woman and Woman’s Own were like and probably thought them sister publications of such scandal sheets as Titbits or, dear Lord, the News of the World. My argument had no effect. My mother, obedient daughter of the Church that she was, cancelled her subscription to both mags, and so ceased to keep up with the state of health of the Queen’s corgis or the latest thing in Christmas-cake decoration.
My mother must have been in her forties at that time. Can one imagine now a middle-aged woman succumbing to such an absurd and petty commandment, even in Ireland, where even still, among many Catholics, the Church despite all its efforts has not succeeded in discrediting itself entirely? The world of 50 years ago was a very different place from ours.
In my ruminations on the pedestrian pace of my father’s life, it occurred to me to calculate that in the past few years I have made trips to America, North and South, and, in Europe, to Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Greece, as well as Poland and Estonia—there are bound to have been a few other destinations that have slipped my mind—clocking up who knows how many thousands of air miles and, as a consequence, suffering successive onslaughts of jet lag. Such travels would have been beyond not only my father’s but even my mother’s imaginings, and she would be incredulous and bitterly condemnatory of my jadedness and lack of excitement at the prospect of making more journeys in the coming year to other far-flung elsewheres.
When I was young myself I did not think of my parents as being either young or old. To me they seemed, until their final years, to be of an indeterminate age, creatures essentially of a different species, permanent and unchanging, simply there. I do not remember registering signs of their aging, even when I had moved to Dublin and made increasingly infrequent visits “home.” They were, in my view of them, stranded in a timeless zone, preserved in the permafrost of what had already begun to be, for me, the past. Did my mother, like the women in that British survey, think of herself as old when she reached 60? Did my father hear the distant, dark tolling of a funeral bell when he passed 58?
I wonder now increasingly what they made of me. As a little boy I was, I think, not unpleasant—my mother, at any rate, doted on me—but in my teenage years I suspect I must have been 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. Such a trial I must have been, especially to my mother, who, throughout my childhood and adolescence, saw so much more of me, and put up with much more from me, than my father did.
I left home with a cruel insouciance, shaking the dust of Wexford from my heels and heading for what I took to be the dazzlingly bright lights of Dublin. It must have been a wrench for my parents to see me go, so carelessly and with hardly a backward glance. I was the last of their children, and now the household that once had numbered five was reduced to its original two. How lonely my mother must have felt in the middle of weekday afternoons without the prospect of my coming in from school, no matter how surly and uncommunicative a presence I may have been. I imagine her watching the winter darkness approaching across the fields that faced our house and knowing in her heart that she would never now get to see the places of her dreams. She did move to Dublin, she and my father, late in their lives, where they shared a house with my accommodating and endlessly forbearing brother. But it was, by then, too late, I think: Dublin was not Moscow, was not, indeed, the Dublin she had dreamed of, since that Dublin was just that—a dream.
Both my parents were dead before I was 35. I mourned them, of course, but how much of my mourning was for them, and how much of it was in reality a first inkling of my own suddenly all too plausible mortality? In their going they were as considerate and as diffident as they had been in life. My mother fell down dead of a heart attack while feeding the birds in her garden one gloriously golden afternoon in September; a few years later my father faded away quietly in a nursing home. When I heard of his death I remember thinking suddenly: Now I am an orphan. By then I was married with children of my own, and the notion of having been orphaned, although faintly ridiculous, was compelling, too. Something, which I am not so hard-hearted as to call a burden, something had fallen away, like a cliff into the sea, and I was the lighter for it.
My youngest daughter, who is 19 and a last child, as I was, drinks endless cups of tea, just as my mother did. Also, she prefers to walk to wherever she is going, rather than taking a lift or traveling on the bus. One day recently I watched her setting off into the morning’s milky light and thought there was something familiar about her gait—she walks rapidly, favoring her left side and turning her left foot outwards a little at each step. Who was it, I wondered, that walked like that? It was only when I turned aside and caught the quick, syncopated rhythm of her heels on the pavement that I suddenly heard in memory my father’s footsteps. It is in the forms of the living that the dead most convincingly haunt us.
From Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, by John Banville, courtesy Knopf. Copyright 2018, John Banville.