Ancient Light – John Banville

Memory, regret, and obsession are the somewhat familiar themes of John Banville’s impressive but ultimately unsatisfactory novel Ancient Light. Aged theatre actor Alexander Cleave recalls an affair with the mother of his best friend as a self-absorbed fifteen-year old in small-town 1950s Ireland whilst being haunted in the present by his daughter’s suicide in Liguria ten years earlier and his role in a new film as a shifting and abusive writer. As Cleave and Mrs Gray carry on, despite his adolescent tantrums, the silvered light that permeates his recollections stands in contrast to the darker, outwardly more confused, present, peopled as it is by women who appear maternal, daughterly, or opaque. This is fitting as a central theme of Ancient Light is surrogacy: the film star Dawn Devonport seems to fill the daughter-shaped hole in his life; and, of course, Mrs Gray is alarmingly maternal like a son much of the time, fussing over his appearance, forbidding him from smoking, and encouraging him to work harder at school. Banville focuses this tension between Mrs Gray’s real son and her lover effectively in the following fluid passage:

 I was outraged, outraged to see the two of them together there, she with her hand resting so lightly on his shoulder, in the midst of all that homeliness, that shared, familiar world, while I stood by as if forgotten. Whatever liberties Mrs Gray might grant me I would never be as near to her as Billy was at that moment, as he always had been and always would be, at every moment. I could only get into her from the outside, but he, he had sprung from a seed and grown inside her, and even after he had shouldered his brute way out of her he was still flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood.

Certain moments recall the feverish illicit summer of The Go-Between. Fittingly for an actor, Cleave’s recollection renders everything more theatrical, more composed, than we might believe them to have been. Characters appear and disappear in narratively convenient way, and, as in The Go-Between, the weather is apparently compliant in its atmospheric duties. This penetration of perception by desire and belief is highlighted by Cleave’s conviction that a regularly rehabilitated tramp he sees wandering the streets near his home must have a daughter looking after him. Cleave sees women behind everything, mothers and daughters.

Mrs Gray explains the meaning of ‘ancient light’ during a pause in proceedings: ‘the sky must be visible at the top of a window viewed from the base of the opposite wall, if memory serves…’ More specifically, ancient light is the right to light derived from long usage of a window: Cleave clings – note the name – to his memories, and should perhaps be allowed to, from sheer habit of recollection. This layer of memory-inflected interpretation is re-enforced by Banville in an episode with a mysterious stranger; an episode which might make more sense in the light of the previous novels in which Cleave appears; I’m not sure it entirely works here:

 Now he was speaking of the ancient light of galaxies that travels for a million – a billion – at trillion! – miles to reach us. ‘Even here,’ he said, ‘at this table, the light that is the image of my eyes takes time, a tiny time, infinitesimal, yet time, to reach your eyes, and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past.

The twin poles of Ancient Light, the binary stars perhaps, are flesh and light: light absorbed by flesh, giving weight to the pervasive medium of perception; and flesh mercilessly revealed by the light of memory, of film, of the everyday, and of age. Cleave’s adolescent naivety dissolves in the substance of an older women:

 Those eyelids in particular I loved, carven shells of veined, translucent marble, always cool, always deliciously damp when I touched my lips to them. The milky backs of her knees too were peculiarly cherishable. I even prized the shiny mother-of-pearl stretch-marks on her belly.

In film flesh and personality are composed of frames of light moving so fast we cannot see the gaps. Cleave’s desire is to conjure, compress, and reintegrate those flickering fragments into a smooth 24 frames per second projection of his life. He wants to summon up an image of the past, of his affair and his daughter’s death, yet the need to understand is what engages the imagination, which invents at will and in subordination to the will. The limits of that understanding are brought home by Banville to great effect towards the end of the novel, casting Cleave’s recollection and his young self in a new light yet again.

 I feel that not only my actor self but my self self is made into a thing of fragments and disjointure, not only in the brief intervals when I am before the camera but even when I have stepped out of my role – my part – and reassumed my real, my supposedly real, identity.

In a recent NYR Blog Tim Parks identified the ‘chattering mind’ as the main protagonist of Twenthieth Century literature: the mind ceaselessly seeking to understand itself, its relation to the world,to others, a ‘monstrously heightened consciousness’. Banville’s minds don’t chatter, they glide and ramify, they are discursive rather than jagged in their search for self-understanding; they don’t shatter, except by implication, and even then they do so with grace and poetry. Sometimes this is the problem with Banville’s work. In Ancient Light Cleave’s thought is too smooth, too beautiful. I have trouble believing it to be his voice. I have no trouble believing it to be Banville’s. It is beautiful, it is consummately controlled, but it is not authentic. This did not seem to be a problem in The Sea, a book in which memory and its faithful handmaiden imagination also loom large. Max Morden’s voice in that book, though as lingeringly self-involved, is more plausible than Cleave’s rumination on film-making and identity.

There are moments of great beauty in Ancient Light. It is vintage Banville, but perhaps too vintage. These themes feel overfamiliar and, on this occasion, his undoubted literary weight renders Cleave top-heavy. I would still heartily recommend it. After all, it is perhaps because I expect so much of Banville that I felt slightly let down, despite the fact that I could read such sentences forever.

Amazon: Ancient Light

Dubliners – James Joyce (Penguin English Library, 26th July)

A very nice cover indeed.

Nearly a hundred years since it was first published in 1914 this collection of fifteen stories or ‘epiphanies’ remains powerful. In each Joyce depicts some aspect of damaged humanity as the collection moves towards its powerful consummation in ‘The Dead’.  As the excellent, if severe, essay by J.I.M. Steward emphasises Joyce’s style is one of ‘scrupulous meanness’: he spares no one their sorrow, be they temperate and kind or coarse, ignorant, and drunk. All are caught in the social and political paralysis that so exercised Joyce and which is foreshadowed in the form of a stroke victim on the very first page. A kind, trusting, and generous but ugly woman destined to be an old maid is loved by all but meets with misfortune in a harsh city full of men who do not desire her in ‘Clay’. In ‘Eveline’ a girl wrestles with the possibility of love and obligations owed to the living and the dead and ultimately falls backward into the dark. It opens thus,

She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.

Joyce’s language is so precise and pared back, and yet so dense and resonant and rhythmic that it is a joy to read despite its lapsarian tone. Decline, decay, angst, and exhaustion are all contained in three taut sentences.

A sudden loss of innocence, a moment when the world opens out – never for the better – for a character or the reader is characteristic of each story. In ‘An Encounter’ a young boy sheds his innocence when approached by an old but impotent pervert. The story is full of play and of freedom until the old man becomes too free and frightens the boy away, his world changed. Indeed, the structure of the whole collection is one of maturation: youth, maturity, and middle age, and the shadow of death, with that shade extending back to pall each person occupying Dubliners’ pages. Joyce everywhere implies that religion is no protection against this decline even when it serves as a useful tool for an ‘us and them’ mentality. Priests come off badly throughout: in ‘The Sisters’ an elderly priest dies having lost his faculties and perhaps his integrity, a symbol of the Church in Ireland; in ‘Grace’ an unsympathetically portrayed Jesuit preaches to a gathering of businessmen, reducing a deeply human parable to a symbol of profit and loss for the consumption of a corrupt class. Poverty and shallowness of sentiment run throughout, particularly in the consecutive stories ‘A Painful Case’ and ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ wherein want of feeling is explored to the full and loneliness and regret tinge the latter story’s mercenary canvassers’ apathy and idealisation of the past.

Throughout drink and perceived injustice lead to resentment and violence of feeling and action. In ‘Counterparts’ a resentful clerk seethes with a sense of emasculation at the hands of his diminutive but dominating employer. He metes out an unwarranted beating to his son whose plaintive cries serve only to emphasise the irrelevance of religion and the lost world Joyce feels Dublin and Ireland has become.

The boy uttered a squeal of pain as the stick cut his thigh. He clasped his hands together in the air and his voice shook with fright.

“O, pa!” he cried. “Don’t beat me, pa! And I’ll… I’ll say a Hail Mary for you…. I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me…. I’ll say a Hail Mary….”

Undoubtedly the most powerful story in Dubliners is The Dead’, at least in part because it draws in the threads of those which precede it, the shadows of those who have gone before hovering over a middle-class gathering in every sense. Memory, loss, age, and crude but sincere sentiment surround a highly literate but alienated school-teacher who comes to understand his isolation from his wife of many years. The final passage of ‘The Dead’ in which this realisation comes emerges from Joyce’s naturalism and consummates the social dissection of the whole in a symbolic identification of the human condition.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Buy Dubliners

Amazon: Dubliners (Penguin English Library)

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Friday Poem: Peat

The Aeolian Revue has published another one of my poems. Go and have a look at their other writers too.

This poem was written a couple of years ago in a small cottage in Baltimore on the South coast of Ireland. We used peat in the cast iron stove.


A slow burn bound in black

giving nothing away

save the stains on hands


anything you care

to name

nameless as flame is

as flames are


collapsing compressed bricks

processed as wild is

by staining hands and anything

we care to claim