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Ancient Light by John Banville

In Ancient Light, John Banville returns to themes explored in his earlier Booker prize winning novel The Sea: the remembered past and its ability to shape our destinies.

Alexander Cleave, a stage actor,  looks back to one year during his schoolboy days when he had an affair with his best friend’s mother, a woman 20 years his senior.  After their first encounter in the laundry room of her house, the pair graduate to sexual trysts on the back seat of her car and then to a mouldy mattress in a run down cottage. So infatuated is Alexander with Mrs Gray that he spies on her when she takes family trips to the cinema or the seaside, jealous of any time she spends away from him.  He wants to possess her fully.  Years later when the mature Alexander reflects on these times he recalls them as moments of  bliss punctuated by tantrums and petulant behaviour as he sought to bend her to his will.

I should confess that sulking was my chief weapon against her, nasty little tyke that I was and I employed it with the skill and niceness of judgement that only a boy as heartless as I would have been capable of. She would resist me for as long as she was able, as I fumed in silence with my arms calmed across my chest and my chin jammed on my collar-bone and my lower lip stuck out for a good inch, but always it was she who gave in, in the end. 

Trying to make sense of his younger self, the mature Alexander doesn’t seek to excuse his petulant behaviour. He accepts also that his memory of certain facts is hazy – he constantly jumbles up the times and the seasons when certain events took place for example.  He’s not even certain that his recollection of the first time he saw Mrs Gray is accurate. He remembers seeing a woman freewheel towards him down the hill from the church. As she nears him, the wind catches her skirt and exposes her bare skin all the way to the waist, a sight that of course causes a frisson of excitement for the teenage boy. Alexander recalls how he felt at the time and remembers in detail what the cyclist wore but he cannot conjure up her facial features. 

Is he lying to himself or simply being selective about what he will remember? Memory is, after all, he explains, an artificial construct.

Images from the far past crowd into my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions,” he declares as the novel begins. “The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage – and what is a life but a gradual shipwreck – may take on an aspect of inevitability when I put them on display in their glass showcases, but they are random; representative, perhaps, perhaps compellingly so, but random nevertheless.

That relationship is not the only aspect of his life causing Alexander to ruminate about the past. He is grieving for the death of his daughter Catherine (Cass) some years earlier. Though we learn she had suffered a form of mental illness, her suicide off the Italian coast still perplexes him. Why was she in Italy? Who was the father of her unborn child? Who is the person called Svidrigailov that was with his daughter when she died? An opportunity to answer those questions arrives when Alexander is given a film role in a biopic about Axel Vander, a famous, now dead, academic who led a double life. Alexander begins to suspect there is a connection between Axel Vander and Cass. He gets his chance to uncover the truth when Dawn Deveonport, the female lead in the film, suffers a mental breakdown. Alexander, who has become a bit of a father figure for her,  spirits her away from the media frenzy and the anguish of the film’s producers. Guess where they go? – yep, to Italy to a spot a short distance across the water from where his daughter’s body was found.

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John Banville in conversation at Hay Literary Festival 2013

If you’re thinking this sounds a bit of a convoluted plot relying heavily on coincidences, then you’re not far off the mark. But I forgave Banville for this because Ancient Light is written so beautifully, almost poetically  with its use of rhythm, imagery and allusion.  He delights in descriptions about the landscape and the weather: rain “sizzles through the leaves”; the sky  “was the colour of wetted jute” while a late-autumn afternoon is marked by “scrapings of cloud like bits of crinkled gold leaf.”

Banville sketches characters deftly even when he gives them little more than walk on parts. Dawn Devonport  begins as a Marilyn Monroe type figure, a much feted starlet who captivates by making each person feel they’ve been singled out for her special attention. Alexander however sees beneath the veneer to a vulnerable young girl unable to cope with the recent death of her father, a girl in fact much like his own beloved daughter. More notable is Billie Stryker, ostensibly the film’s researcher, whose “sad and sweetly” demeanour lulls Alexander into revelations about his life. “There must be more to her than meets the eye” he concludes after their first meeting.

In fact the same thing could be said for many of the characters in a novel which is in essence about the way people lie to others and themselves about who they are. Nothing is as it seems at first glance. One of the recurring ideas of the novel is the effect of light on perception – Alexander for example recollects one day how he saw Mrs Gray reflected in two mirrors simultaneously, the resulting image turned into fragments of the whole. In another scene he lies on his bed and through a tiny crack in the curtains sees an upside -down projection of the secret. What enables him to ‘see’ himself, to understand his actions and make sense of the fragments and distortions, is an ancient light that comes from distant galleries, taking billions of miles to reach earth.  But the same light also provides a form of consolation by the end of the novel, seeming to “shake  within itself even as it strengthened, … as if some radiant being were advancing.”

Footnotes

The Book: Ancient Light by John Banville was published in 2012 by Viking. It’s a sequel to Eclipse and Shroud which all feature Alexander Cleave. I haven’t read either of the two earlier novels but didnt feel I was at a disadvantage as a result – Ancient Light to me was easily able to stand on its own merit.

The Author: John Banville comes from Wexford in Ireland. In addition to more than 10 novels written under the name of John Banville, he also writes a crime fiction series in the persona of Benjamin Black. At the Hay Festival in 2013 he explained that he adopts completely different writing practices for each persona. As John Banville he writes long hand with fountain pen and agonises over each word (the process is a long and protracted one he revealed). As Benjamin Black he uses a typewriter.

Why I read this book: I loved reading The Sea (see my review here) and enjoyed the talk Banville gave at the Hay Festival. Signed copies of Ancient Light were available at the festival and I couldn’t resist buying. Reading Ireland 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging was the prompt I needed to get it out of the bookcase.

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