This book has very clear echoes of Proust, both in the writing style and in the sense of nostalgia that pervades the story of aristocratic decline. The references are clear and deliberate – in the very first chapter, Banville’s narrator refers to his fragments of memory as “madeleines” and talks of his “search for time misplaced.”
None of this boded very well for the novel – I had Proust on my night-table for ages, but every time I read it I fell asleep so quickly that I seemed to go backwards as much as forwards. And aristocratic decline strikes me as generally a good thing, so I often struggle to feel much sympathy for the lords and ladies forced to survive in only two houses instead of five.
Birchwood, though, I thoroughly enjoyed. While the writing style is reminiscent of Proust in its dreamy beauty, it clips along at a much faster pace, as does the sometimes bizarre plot of childhood resentments, exploding grandmothers, running off to join the circus, searching for a long-lost sister, etc. Also there’s a detachment from the destruction that comes to Birchwood, a sense that it’s inevitable and even deserved, a strong context of the social unrest in Ireland at the time.
The writing was brilliant from the first page to the last, and made me want to read a lot more of Banville’s work. Here’s the first paragraph:
I am, therefore I think. That seems inescapable. In this lawless house I spend the nights poring over my memories, fingering them, like an impotent casanova his old love letters, sniffing the dusty scent of violets. Some of these memories are in a language which I do not understand, the ones that could be headed, the beginning of the old life. They tell the story which I intend to copy here, all of it, if not its meaning, the story of the fall and rise of Birchwood, and of the part Sabatier and I played in the last battle.