"John Banville is one of the greatest masters of the English language.”
"Birchwood represents a watershed in contemporary Irish writing..”
I am therefore I think. So starts John Banville’s 1973 novel Birchwood, a novel that centers around Gabriel Godkin and his return to his dilapidated family estate. After years away, Gabriel returns to a house filled with memories and despair. Delving deep into family/i>/i>/i>
An early classic from the Man Booker-prize winning author of The Sea.
I am therefore I think. So starts John Banville’s 1973 novel Birchwood, a novel that centers around Gabriel Godkin and his return to his dilapidated family estate. After years away, Gabriel returns to a house filled with memories and despair. Delving deep into family secrets—a cold father, a tortured mother, an insane grandmother—Gabriel also recalls his first encounters with love and loss. At once a novel of a family, of isolation, and of a blighted Ireland, Birchwood is a remarkable and complex story about the end of innocence for one boy and his country, told in the brilliantly styled prose of one of our most essential writers.
"John Banville is one of the greatest masters of the English language.”
"Birchwood represents a watershed in contemporary Irish writing..”
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.
The name is Godkin, Gabriel. I feel I have already lived for a century and more. This can only be an advantage. Am I mad, starting again, and like this ? I have seen terrible things. It amazes me that I was allowed to survive to tell ofthem. Mad indeed.
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 a 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.
I have begun to work on the house. Not that it is in need of repair, no. I swept away the broken glass, dead flowers, the other unnameable things. You would think I expect guests, which is a laugh. I fail to discern a defensible reason for my labours, but there must be one, I suppose, buried somewhere. It gives me something to do in these long dog days. At night I write, when Sirius rises in icy silence. The past is poised around me. I imagine an arrow whistling through the darkness.
I arrived in the spring. It was a glassy green morning, chill and bright. The sacks of the cart were wet, that smell stayed with me, and the smell of the horses too, big dull brown brutes stamping and pawing the road, throwing up their heads, their eyes flashing. The leaves of the trees in the wood sparkled, scarves of mist drifted among the branches. I looked down on the broken fountain, at last year's leaves sunk in the dead water. The windows of the house were blinded with light. Shadow and sunshine swept the garden, a bird whistled suddenly, piercingly, and in the surface of the pool below me a white cloud sailed into a blue bowl of sky.
The library is a long narrow room. Its dusty book-lined walls give way at the south end with a hint of gaiety to the white French windows that look across the lawn into the wood. Blackbirds hunted outside on the grass that day, thrushes too, frenetic little creatures with battle cries no bigger than themselves. There was a smell of lupins and, faintly, the sea. The windowpanes were smashed, withered leaves littered the carpet. The shards of shattered glass retained wedges of a stylised blue sky. The chairs crouched in menacing immobility. All these things, pretending to be dead. From the landing I looked down over the lake and the fields to the distant sea. How blue the water was, how yellow was the sun. A butterfly flickered across the garden. I strained to catch the tiny clatter such awkward wings should make. My fists were wet with tears. 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.
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. That first death we witness will always be a murmur of voices down a corridor and a clock falling silent in the darkened room, the end of love is forever two spent cigarettes in a saucer and a white door closing. 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 of which I had dreamed, but a dream of Birchwood, woven out of bits and scraps. On bright summer mornings the rooms were alive with a kind of quick silent suspense, the toys and teacups of the night before exactly as they were left and yet utterly changed. A moorhen's panic-stricken flight across the surface of the lake at evening seemed to crack the landscape in half. When the wind blew from the east the chimneys sang. 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, that 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 on the back stairs at twilight, by the potted palm before the door with the green glass panels, and the years were as nothing.
In this search for time misplaced I had great hopes for the photograph, one of the few things I brought away with me. Printed in yellowish brown tints, with a white crease aslant it like a bloodless vein, it was of a young girl dressed in white, standing in a garden, one hand resting lightly on the back of a wrought-iron seat. Mama said it was a picture of her as a child, but I could not believe that. Half of the scene was in sunlight, half in shade, and the girl with her eyes closed leaned from the dark into the light smiling blithely, dreamily, as though she were listening to some mysterious music. No, I knew this girl was someone else, a lost child, misplaced in time, and when I returned the picture had inexplicably altered, and would not fit into the new scheme of things, and I destroyed it.
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 sun 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 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.
Rosie was one thing, with her delicate gash, but that mighty maid whom many years later I met along the road! How she giggled and gasped, and kicked up her legs, trying to shake free from, or gobble up, I could not distinguish, that finger which plugged her so timidly. It must have been that chance encounter which left with me an abiding impression of the female as something like a kind of obese skeleton, a fine wire frame hung with pendulous fleshfruit, awkward, clumsy, frail in spite of its bulk, a motiveless wallowing juggernaut. Ach! In her too I discovered nooks and musty crannies, crevices which reminded me of nothing so much as the backwaters of the house where I had played as a child, that house which now sleeps around me as lightly as a bird while my stealthy pen blackens the pages. I have come into my inheritance. I think of that day high in the window when the tears fell for the first time, and I saw that figure on the lawn looking up at me with amusement and rage, the white knuckles, the eyes, the teeth, the flaming hair, these are the things we remember. Also I recall Silas and his band departing finally, the last caravans trundling down the drive. Did I spy, in the darkness of one of their poky windows, the glint of a merry eye regarding me ? They went away, and when they were gone there was that creature in white, standing under the lilacs with a hand on the back of the seat, leaning into the sunlight, smiling, like one of Botticelli's maidens, and I can be forgiven for wondering if there were shrill trumpets in the distance, sounding their music through the earth and air.
My father is grinning in his grave at the notion of his paltry son fiddling with this, with his, baroque madhouse. Mama in her plot is probably weeping. Birchwood for her was a kind of desert, bleak, magnificent, alien. She would have gladly seen the place collapse some suitably wet Sunday. In spring and summer, snatched from sleep by the raucous chorus of the birds, she would rise at dawn and wander through the corridors and the empty rooms, sighing, softly singing, a bit mad even then. On the day I arrived it was she who saw, through the window above the stove in the cavernous kitchen, Silas and the fat Angel coming up the drive. I wonder what she thought of when she saw them, what pestilence and passion? Though she cared nothing for our history, that glorious record of death and treachery of which the Godkins were so proud, it was that very history which made her life so difficult. She was a Lawless, and for such a sin there was no forgiveness.
The family tree is a curious one, with odd echoes among the branches and many an odd bird whistling in the leaves. For generations the Lawlesses were masters of Birchwood, and then my great-great-grandfather and namesake, Gabriel Godkin, arrived. Where he came from is not known, nor who he was. One day, suddenly, he was here, and nothing was the same again. Joseph Lawless, then squire of the estate, disappeared, died, was murdered, no matter. He is remembered in our annals for his answer to the commissioner who informed him at the height of a potato famine that the tenants of Birchwood were being decimated by starvation. A trick, sir, another of their tricks ! Joseph roared. Indeed he was right, was Joseph, for 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.
The estate was in ruin, bled white by agents and gombeen men. 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. All that was to change. Within six months of the, shall we say the disposal of the master, our Gabriel Godkin married the daughter of the house, Beatrice by name-echo!-and took over Birchwood. He broke up the smallholdings, and evicted those who would or could not fall in with his plans. He turned the estate into a huge collective farm ruled by his own ruthless though not unbenign despotism. While the tenants hated 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, if not full, at least not empty either.
At this point Gabriel's glory fades, he forfeits my interest. In the beginning a dark stranger appearing out of the south, touched with the magic of death and dreams, now he becomes merely another squire and country gent, a name in a parish register, a part of the past. Who was he ? I do not know. I am not saying that I have no opinions, I have, but I keep them to myself, for reasons not entirely clear.
The Lawlesses, Joseph's brothers, fought for Birchwood, and what with the legal tangles, and the peculiarities of the will, not to mention the unshakable faith in perfidy which there was on both sides, the fight was long and dirty in the extreme. Gabriel won, and his fortunes flourished. Demoralised by defeat, the Lawlesses languished. From landed stock to small-town merchants was a short step down. However, there is always justice, of a kind, and while the Lawlesses grew solid and sane the Godkins 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 Godkin furiously dying with his teeth sunk in birchbark, of my mother screaming in the attic. I am thinking of all the waste sad deaths. This violence will be visited on me, in the fullness of time.
John Banville is the author of ten novels, including the Man Booker-prize winning novel The Sea. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
and post it to your social network
See all customer reviews >
One of John Banville's earlier works, portions of it can be recognized in his latter works. This story is about a family and its fall. Gabriel Godkin (the name itself somewhat portent) is the last heir and goes about telling of his childhood fraught with death and deception. He learns a secret; he leaves to discover its true meaning. And then when he returns nothing is the same. Banville has written here a kind of Irish-Gothic book in the vein of Faulkner, though the style is quite different. This younger Banville does not yet have the excess of archaic words nor the multitude of descriptive images. He , it seems, instead to rely on a more story-telling technique to illustrate this tale. But that is not to say that it is vapid and prosaic; they're are certainly moments when a line hits with beauty and power. The character's are quirky and delightful; Banville has written something special that is at once allusive and reminiscent.