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This is the first novel I have read by John Banville. (*Pauses to let shocked gasps subside*). It might not have been the best choice to read his latest novel Ancient Light, for reasons I shall come on to. I decided give one of his books a try after enjoying his two little vignettes in the National Portrait Gallery’s art and creative writing project Imagined Lives. I thought they were brilliant – witty, sardonic and with an effortless use of language that took my breath away. So, I felt the need to catch up.
Ancient Light has already garnered some publicity about its subject matter, has even featured on the Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme in an item on writing about sex. Reviews have been carefully phrased. The novel is the third in a loose trilogy, whose protagonist is ageing actor Alex Cleave, the terrifyingly articulate first person narrator of Ancient Light. I got a sense of some meta-fiction happening in this novel: Banville brilliantly writes a brilliant writer – for so literary is the narrator’s style that I feel he can only be crafting his own memoir, shaping his own memories, writing the novella of his young life. Unless, that is, he is the 21st century Ancient Mariner who stoppeth one of three, and, however repelled the listener is, there is nothing to do but stay and listen. The novel harks back to characters and themes already familiar to readers of Eclipse and Shroud. The novel has sufficient back story to stand alone – but choosing the last of a trilogy has left me with the ticklish problem of whether I care enough about the protagonist to go back and read the other two. I’ll come back with an answer at the end.
In this novel, two distinct but intercut stories are being told: Alex Cleave weaves the story of a love affair over a few spring and summer months between his fifteen-year old self and the 35-year old mother of his best friend, drawing on his imperfect memory of fifty years ago; and he tells us about his current life, dominated by aftermath of the suicide of his daughter Cass and its impact on him and his wife, and by his latest acting role in a film of the life of a discredited and fraudulent critic, Axel Vander. In this element of the novel, all things are connected, often to a slightly tiresome degree.
I read the story of the adolescent love affair almost a stand alone novella, and found myself drawn into it by a mixture of fascinated alienation and catharsis. On the face of it, this is a narrative of a transgressive relationship – yet Cleave the narrator yearns to recapture it in all its emotional detail. He has almost total emotional recall, while freely admitting he has lost a grip on facts and chronology at certain points. This element of the story is brilliantly realised, lifting the discourse completely away from judgement and prurience (whereas there will always be the pull of social conditioning on the reader to listen to the inner voice saying ‘but what is going on here? This, I have always believed, should not be taking place.’) It just isn’t asking those questions; the narrator is making no claims of this affair either to make or mar him – he is just striving to express the intensity of it, and the abiding warmth of his recollection of his lover, Mrs Gray. This seems to be his escape from what he sees as the true obscenity of the cutting short of his daughter’s life, and the questions it has left him that will never be answered. But at that rate, the question was always on my mind – did this happen? Could this have happened? How much is it Cleave’s fantasy? There is an answer of sorts at the end, but it might not be the one you want. The language and imagery are rich and gamey, beautiful yet repellent, with its description of encounters (Cleave uses with relish the word ‘assignations’) in the Gray family car and in a squalid ruined cottage in the woods. The writing is sometimes sardonic, sometimes touching, often lyrical and sometimes very funny. There seems to be a hint in the air (how often does a new novel get on the news?) that this novel may be in line for this year’s Bad Sex award – but I wouldn’t award it to this work, in fact, rather the reverse. Set against this, it is a matter of personal taste whether the beauty of the language offsets the repulsion factor that has caused these ripples, and that Banville does not seek either to mitigate or provoke.
On the other hand, I found it hard to engage with Alex Cleave’s current predicament and state of mind. Whether I would have been better off if I’d read the earlier two novels is a moot point. Novels that stand alone all have to have a compressed back story in certain respects – the best novels manage that without one yearning for full disclosure. The problems I had with this story were not related to lack of disclosure, but more to the improbability of the coincidences it presents, and the repellent influence of the dreadful absent eminence gris, Axel Vander. We are asked to believe that Cleave is given the part of Vander to play in a film, and he makes no connection with the fact that Vander is involved somehow in his dead daughter’s story, which didn’t ring true for me. (This is another point at which I wondered if we are supposed to believe that Cleave the narrator is crafting his own literary artefact, disclosing and withholding at will). The characters, including Cleave, are richly drawn and true originals, but none of them really engaged my sympathy (whereas the transgressive Mrs Gray did – oh dear!). Occasionally, a character wanders in with an aura of mystery, makes an impact and then fades out, leaving me wondering if I do need to have read the earlier novels to make sense of it – or if making sense of it is not obligatory.
So, what are my reasons to read it? If you have read Eclipse and Shroud, then you won’t need me to give you any, and you will have been anticipating this publication with some eagerness. If you have not read them, I think this novel can stand alone and the reader either will, or will not feel impelled to go back to the beginning of the trilogy. I have come to the conclusion that I do not. I was simultaneously compelled and repelled by Ancient Light; the pleasures for me lie in Banville’s effortless brilliance with language, the texture and richness of his imagery and his skill in story-telling – when not overindulging in coincidence. He reminded me in this of Sylvia Townsend Warner (this is high praise from me), who also took no pains to sugar coat her narratives, but whose descriptive writing had a crystalline hardness and clarity. But I had to weigh that against the alienation I experienced – not from the subject matter as such, but from the celebration of a sort of ripe, dingy squalor that pervaded it; from the improbability of some of the plotting; and from some rather unsympathetic characters. Not a great reader of literary fiction (I’m afraid I let the Booker shortlist pass me by) I enjoyed many things about this novel, I appreciated it, but I did not love it. But that won’t stop me looking for something to love in Banville’s work, and I shall be moving on to try one of his stand alone works, for certain. His prose has a sort of perfection and is a joy to read.
Oh, and one of the best things about this book is the cover art – brilliantly evocative of the content and the period – I loved it.
John Banville: Ancient Light. London: Viking, 2012. 256pp. Hardback
ISBN 13: 9780670920617
There are Kindle and EPUB DRM editions. UK Paperback will be published in April 2013.