John Banville, Birchwood (1973; Panther Edn. 1984) - Extracts

OPENING: 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 1 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 1 played in the last battle. [11]; I am not saying that I have no opinions, I have, but I keep them to myself, for reasons not entirely clear. [16]

ENDING: Spring has come again, St. Brigid’s day, right on time. The harmony of the seasons mocks me. I spend hours watching the sky, the lake, the enormous sea. This world. I feel that if I could understand it I might then begin to understand the creatures who inhabit it. But I do not understand it. I find the world always odd, but odder still, I suppose, is the fact that I find it so, for what are the eternal verities by which I measure these temporal aberrations? intimations abound, but they are felt only, and words fail to transfix them. Anyway, some secrets are not be disclosed under pain of who knows what retribution, and whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must be silent. [175; END]

Memory & Imagination: And since all thinking is in a sense remembering, what, for instance, did I do in the womb, swimming there in those dim red waters with my past time still all before me? Intimations survive. Often a sound heard throbbing at dusk from the far side of the hill seems an echo of the wallop of their bellies as they coupled, heedless of their little mistakes already coming between them. This is nothing. In my time I have gone down twice to the same river. When I opened the shutters in the summerhouse by the lake a trembling disc of sunlight settled on the charred circle on the floor where Granny Godkin exploded. They must mean something, these extraordinary moments when the pig finds the truffle embedded in the muck. [11]; These things, these madeleines, I gathered anew, compared them to my memories of them, added them to the mosaic, like an archaeologist mapping a buried empire. Still it eluded me, the thing-in-itself, and it was not until I ventured into the attics and the cellars, my favourite haunts, the forgotten corners, that the past at last blossomed in the present. … I paused … by the potted plant …and the years were as nothing. [13]; search for time misplaced [13] listening to some mysterious music [13]; Forgetting all I know, I try to describe these things, and only then do I realise, yet again, that the past is incommunicable. [29]; Such scenes as this I see, or imagine I see, no difference, through a glass sharply. The light is lucid, steady, and does not glance in spikes or stars from bright things, but shines in cool cubes, planes and violet lines and lines within planes, as light trapped in polished crystal will shine. Indeed, now that I think of it, I feel it is not a glass through which I see, but rather a gathering of perfect prisms. There is hardly any sound, except for now and then a faint ringing chime, or a distant twittering, strange, unsettling. Outside my memories, this silence and harmony, this brilliance I find again in that second silent world which exists, independent, ordered by unknown laws, in the depths of mirrors. This is how I remember such scenes. If I provide something otherwise than this, be assured I am inventing. [37]; Listen, Listen, if I know my world, which is doubtful, but if I do, I know it is chaotic, mean and vicious, Whitehall’s cast in the wrong moulds, a fair conception gone awry, in short an awful place, and yet, and yet a place capable of glory in those rare moments when a little light breaks forth, and something is note explained, not forgiven, but merely illuminated. [33]; [...] I saw something else, namely that this was how I lived, glancing every now and ten out of darkness and catching sly time in the act, but such glimpses were rare and brief and of hardly any consequence, for time, time would go on anyway, without my vigilance [p.43]; The past comes back transformed only to startle us with its steadfastness. It is our fractioned vision which has transformed it. My broken kingdom all was changed and yet was as it always was. [p.165.]

Love & Sexuality: Thus, always, I am surprised at the difference between the way things are and the way, before I find them, I expect them to be. For example, the vagina I had imagined as a nice neat hole, situated at the front, rather like a second navel, but less murky, a bright star to the navel’s surly moon. Judge then of my surprise and some fright when, in the evening wood, tumbling with Rosie through the lush wet grass, I fingered her furry damp secret and found it not so much a hole as a wound, underneath, uncomfortably close to that other baleful orifice. That was how it was, coming home, always the unexpected. [13]; her delicate gash [13]; [woman:] a kind of obese skeleton, a fine wire frame hung with pendulous fleshfruit, awkward, [13] clumsy, frail in spite of its bulk, a motiveless wallowing juggernaut. [14]; the tyranny of the cunt, and its corollary, the womb. [17]; To live with one stricken by such a sickness is to experience compassion first and sympathy, then irritation, resentment, and finally a pity which is indistinguishable form revulsion. Romantic! [Beatrice & Joseph, 17]; They grappled awkwardly in a stunned silence, he teetch clattering against his. he pushed her away, startled by her ferocity, his hat fell off, he snatched it up, flashed his fierce cold grin with that gold tooth gleaming in it, turned quickly and stalked off through the trees. She found herself shivering, and notice for the first time the bitter white cold in the air. He did not look back. The hoarfrost crackled under her slippers as she walked back to the house that was changed now beyond all recognition. / They were married in the spring. [18]; Cotter’s place [...] He was long gone now, and in what had been his kitchen, among the ferns that flourished there, a woman’s pale hands clutched and loosed in languorous spasms a pale white arse bare below a hiked-up shirttail. She cried oout softly under his thrusts, and, as I watched, a delivate arc of briar beside them, caught by a stray breexze, sprang up suddenly into the air, where two butterflies were gravely dancing. Lift your head! Look! The mirror’s pale, unwavering, utterly silent gaze sent something like a deep black note booming through the wood’s limpid song, and I felt, what shall I say, that I had discovered something awful and exquisite, of immense, unshakeable calm. [32]; O, I am not saying that I discovered love, or what they call the facts of life, for I no more understood what I had seen than I understood Mamm’s tears, no, all I had found was the notion of - I shall call it harmony. How would I explain, I do not understand it, but it was as if in the deep wood’s gloom I had recognised, in me all along, waiting, an empty place where I could put the most disparate things and they would hang together, not very elegantly, perhaps, or comfortably, but yet together, singing like seraphs. [33]; the sudden charges we made at each other across the distance that separated us, only to be jerked back by our congenital coldness from the final contact, that squelch slap a human creature experiences when it surrenders to another. [53].

Birchwood (Big House): The window panes were smashed … shards of shattered glass retained wedges of a stylised blue sky. The chairs crouched in menacing immobility. All things, pretending to be dead. … How blue the water was, how yellow the sun. I was not weeping for those who were gone. People are easy to replace, thanks to their infamous proclivity. I wept for what was there and yet not there. For Birchwood. [12]; I have come into my inheritance [14]; baroque madhouse [15]; there is nothing that will keep the Irish in their place like a well-appointed mansion [p.49]; Birchwood always took itself too seriously, turning its face away from the endless intricate farce being enacted under its roof, but on its good days, whenone was willing to accept it on its own terms, it was magnificent. [70]; All that blood! that slaughter! and for what? For the same reason that Papa released his father into the birch wood to die, that Granny Godkin tormented poor mad Beatrice, that Beatrice made Martha believe that Michael was in the burning shed, the same reason that brought about all their absurd tragedies, the reason which does not have a name. [p.174] I showed him the narrow back stairs which crept down surreptitiously, under bald linoleum, to a gloomy subterrranean vault wedged between two doors, a rickety one botled against the creeping green damp of the backyard, and another, panelled with green glass, opening on a potted palm and three deep st eps which led, presto!, into the front hall. We examined the muddy paintings in the library, the bust of an unidentified Greek, the complicated affair of rods and knobs by which the French windows were locked. [41].

Family & Tradition: LAWLESSES, Though she cared nothing for our history, that glorious record of death and treacher of which the Godkins were so proud, it was that very history which made her life difficult. She was a Lawless, and for such a sin there was no forgiveness. [15]. GODKINS: However, there is always justice of a kind, and while the Lawlesses grew solid and sane the Gokdins were stalked by an insatiable and glittering madness born, I suspect, of the need to hate something worthy of their hatred, a part the Lawlesses could no longer play. I am thinking of Simon goodkin furiously dying with his teeth sunk in birchbark, of my mother screaming in the attic [16]; the family’s congenital craziness [17]; [Joseph] set himself to fall in love with Beatrice [...; 16] did not succeed in loving her, but married her all the same. [17]; the old harridan [Granny] only one of us he loved, I hope that is the word [17]; what she found fascinating in him, did she but know, was the mute but savage anguish that hounded him all his life, which, in order to live with it, he transformed into fury or passion, brooding melancholy, visible pain [17]; Granny […] or my father [...] those who vibrate in the mind like unavoidable stars [27] as if indeed she never existed, not what we call existing. [27]; And Martha’s lover? Rumour had an inspired farrago of a story, according to which the leader of the Magic Circus, the travelling troupe of shams whcih had laid siege to our house, one Prospero by name, a magician apparently, had with Aunt Martha’s enthusiastic cooperation conjured upon the makings of that homunculus that stood beside me now gaping at its mother. [...; 40] ] the story had one point in its favour, that is, it held that the invasion by the circus was nothing more, or less, than Prospero’s effort to claim his son and heir. I shall say nothing people must have their myths [..] I shall say nothing. [41]; [A]ll my loved ones [74]; I can never think of that ghastly day [on which Granny Godkin died] without suspecting that somewhere inside me some cruel little brute, a manikin [sic] in my mirror, is bent double with laughter. Granny! Forgive me [77]; And what a mixed relief it must have been to discover that Beatrice was barren, for by the time that fact became plain Martha had come up trumps with her two-card trick. [p.172]

Class & Religion: Class sat silent and immovable between us [Gabriel and Rosie] like a large black bird [70]; [Martha] denounced from the popish pulpit in a veiled though obvious reference to bad companions [40]; the peasants were a tricky lot, they died by the score, thereby forcing the authorities across the sea to send in a relief shipment of six sacks of Indian corn. [15]; bled white by agents and gombeen men [15]; The land had been hacked into tiny holdings where the tenants were strangling the soil to death in their frantic efforts to meet the rents and feed their annually expanding families. [...; Gabriel Godkin] broke up the smallholdings, and evicted those who would not or could not fall in with his plans [...] turned the estate into a huge collective farm ruled by his own ruthless though not unbenign despotism. While the tenantshated him for the loss of what they considered theirs, their own tiny plots, they relinquished their dignity, became serfs, and when their fellows in other parts were on their knees, cropping the grass, their own bellies were, in not full, at least not empty either. [16]; I do not speak the language of this wild country [p.174]

Blue things: blue bowl of sky [12] We imagine that we remember things as they were, while in fact all we carry into the future are fragments which reconstruct a wholly illusory past. […] I had dreamed of the house so often on my travels that now it refused to be real, even while I stood among its ruins. It was not Birchwood for which I had dreamed, but a dream of Birchwood, woven out of bits and scraps. [12]; butterflies … small blues … It was in summer that I came into my kingdom [30]; “Ever seen juggling?” / He [Michael] began to juggle. At first it went clumsily […] but then all abruptly changed […], a rhythm appeared, one could almost hear it, like th eairy beat of a bird’s wing, and in his hand he spun a trembling blue hoop of ligt. His uplifted face gleamed fro the effort of concentration as he leaned this way and that, following a sudden dip of the clock, the wayway flight of the ball, and I found myself thinking of air and angels, of silence, of translucent planes of plae blue glass in space gliding through illusory, gelaming and perfect combinations. My puzzle seemed a paltry thing compared to this beauty, this, this harmony. [43; cf. softly falling through the air, 65]; in the blue … spire of air .. pale blue air [266].

Gabriel: Spring. [23] Perceive the scene, how, how shal I say, how the day quivers between silence and that spring song, such moments are rare, when it seems, in spite of all, that it might be possible to forgive the world for all that it is not. Granny came across the lawn [...] / “Tinkers!” she cried. “you let them in!” That day was so to be forever famous in the history of Birchwood, and justly so. An invasion, no less” Grany Godkin’s shoulder was dislocated by the shotgun she fired off at the invaders. Granda Godkin locked himself into a lavatory, where he was fond hours after the battle sitting paralysed on the bowl and frothing at the mouth. Aa policeman’s skull was split by an ashplant. beatrice laughed and laughed. And I was born. / Pappa hacking home [24] … in an upstairs window a naked child … another cry, weaker than the first … [25]; Violets and cowshit, my life has been ever thus. [132]; I was now midway upon my journey, stumbling in darkness, and the day came when I could no longer ignore the fact that the darkness was of my own making. [138]; Listen, listen to me, I have seen worse, I have seen more terrible than this [Famine funeral] [p.151]; [Michael:] Yes, he was my brother, my twin, I had always known it, but would not admit it, until now, when th admitting made me want to murder him. But the nine long months we had spent together in marthas wom counted for something in the end. [p.168].

Grail & Girl: ‘O but I so wanted to keep that withered wizard, with his cloak and is black hate, stumping on ahead of me always with his stick and his calw and his piercing eyees, leading me slowly towards that rosy grail. Now the white landscape was empty.’ (p.172.) ‘There is no girl. There never was. I suppose I always knew that, in my heart […] No Prospero either, there never is .[…] Perhaps it is better thus, I said, and added faintly, I might find other creatures to inhabit it [the empty landscape]. And I did, so became my own Prospero and yours.’ (p.172.)

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