My parents had not met Mr and Mrs Grace, nor would they. People in a proper house did not mix with people from the chalets, and we would not expect to mix with them. We did not drink gin, or have people down for the weekend, or leave touring maps of France insouciantly on show in the back windows of our motor cars – few in the Field even had a motor car. The social structure of our summer world was as fixed and hard of climbing as a ziggurat.

I have this sad memory of my dad deciding to take the family on a spontaneous holiday to Connemara in Co. Mayo. No bookings were made and as far as we could tell there was no real plan either. We were just packed into the car and set off on the road. During the trip he began to tell us stories of his first trip out west, after he had left school I believe, the friendships he had made and the strange characters he had encountered. We even travelled out to the same B&B he had stayed in as a lad. Dad left us in the car to arrange for our rooms. My mother was very quiet, which of course only added to the tension.

When dad emerged he looked defeated. The landlady had not even remembered him. There were no rooms available for a family. We wound up staying in a cramped single room in Salt Hill just outside the centre of Galway city for a few days and then retreated to Dublin.

Memory can be a treacherous thing you see. The narrator of John Banville‘s novel, Max Morden, wrestles with the memories of his youth, that he tries to return to in order to have some small reprieve from the pain of the present. They often cheat him though, his recollection of events stopping and starting as he is forced to correct himself. So much of what he remembers is lost to the intense fog of emotion that he endured as a teenager, his infatuation with the Grace family still felt intensely after all these years.

The narration itself is not neatly stacked between the present and the past. Often his memories will be spurred on by an unexpected association with his present-day musings, and vice versa. Max himself is yet another one of Banville’s dissolute academics, men of letters, outsiders (Kepler; Mefisto) – whose minds are occupied and overcome by abstract thoughts that have shoved out any chance of seizing happiness in the moment.

As such the story yo-yos between his current life as a grief-stricken widower, alienated from his only daughter and frustrated with his progress on an artistic treatise on Pierre Bonnard; and his memories of the Grace clan, bound up with feelings of class envy and arousal for the women of that family. He is a man haunted, emotionally stunted by the experience, his numbed (and courtesy of a prodigious consumption of alcohol, even more numbed) reaction to his wife’s death the result of his failure to face the events of his past. His creative failure reflects the lack he feels within him:

I was trying to write my will on a machine that was lacking the word I. The letter I, that is, small and large.

The Graces themselves are an unusual family, even allowing for their social superiority to Max and his former friends from The Field (whom he quickly abandons for the company of the Grace children). The son and daughter, Myles and Chloe, shared everything, a result of the boy being a mute. His sister shares with him the experiences of someone who can communicate with this outside world. They are like twins, separate from everyone. Carlo Grace, the father, is a loud and gregarious sort, with a conspiratorial sense of humour that strikes Max the child instantly as ‘masonic’, even ‘satanic’. Mrs Grace, or Connie Grace as Max comes to think of her in the throes of his passion, becomes his fixation, with the disapproving gaze of au pair Rose acting as a barrier against the boy’s desires.

Max’s pursuit of higher learning as an adult can be seen as an attempt to raise himself to the social station of the Graces (there but for the Grace of God…), but it is also an escape from the tragedy that befalls them.

Brutally honest, a fine addition to the canon of this most European of Irish writers.


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