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

Man Booker longlist Prediction

OK, I’ve given in and made the following rather unsurprising predictions for tomorrow.

  • Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
  • Ancient Light – John Banville
  • Hawthorn and Child – Keith Ridgway
  • Toby’s Room – Pat Barker
  • The Yips – Nicola Barker
  • NW – Zadie Smith
  • Merivel – Rose Tremain
  • The Painter of Silence  – Georgina Harding
  • Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan
  • John Saturnall’s Feast – Lawrence Norfolk
  • Umbrella – Will Self
  • The Land of Decoration – Grace McLeen
  • The Big Music – Kirsty Gunn