Ancient Light, by John Banville

I loved the writing in this 2012 novel, its texture, its rhythm, its metaphors, its precise capture of a mood, a character, a scene. That is what remains with me. Banville is a true stylist.

He is also here a provocative story-teller, but not truly a convincing one. This is the story of one Alexander Cleave, a moderately successful, but unfullfilled actor of about sixty who recalls an affair he had when he was fifteen with the mother of Billy Gray, his best friend. That summer comes to mind when he is unexpectly asked to play the lead role in a movie about a famous but notorious poet, Axel Vander.

Alex’s life has revolved around four women, the Mrs. Gray of his youth, his wife Lydia of whom we know little, his dead daughter Cass for whom he and his wife grieve, and the glamorous actress Dawn Devonport who plays opposite him in the movie. While this seems to be primarily a memory novel, it is divided between his youthful passion and the reactions of Alex today. And it is the ending that seems intended to move us.

However, I was not moved. The irony of the surprise ending was for me not only a letdown, but seemed to be contrived by the author to make a psychological point. That is, the ending was intended to capture the tricks that our memory can play on us. And the revelation that we do not always play the role in other’s lives that we think we do.

What the novel does achieve is the innocence of the passion that Alex recalls in his youth. Without once describing the details of the boy’s sexual arousal, Banville makes clear that passion. And also makes clear the mature perspective Mrs. Gray has regarding their affair. We witness the boy’s emotional twists and turns, and her aloof manner that so frustrates him even as she allows her body to satisfy him.

The portrait of Alex as a mature actor also succeeds. He is both an acute observer of the theatrical world, but even more he truly reacts to that world as an actor does. For example, he describes his profession as “this absurd trade in which I have spent my life pretending to be other people, above all pretending not to be myself.” He wonders, too, how his middling stage career has resulted in being chosen for this lead role in a major movie. (We will learn later that the explanation lies more with Banville than with the fictional movie’s producer.) Indeed, the author’s description of the premilinaries of script reading and rehearsal are so effective I had wanted to follow Alex onto the set for an actual scene or two.

But what matters more seems to be how the star actress becomes to him so suggestive of his daughter, who died mysteriously, perhaps a suicide, years ago in Italy. And in his effort to atone for the guilt he feels for her death, Alex takes the actress Dawn to Italy to visit the site of her death. In fact, as they enter an Italian hotel, one scene captured for me Banville’s brilliant, evocative style:

“How she managed to make her way through the lobby’s crepuscular gloom with those sunglasses I do not know—they are unsettingly suggestive of an insect’s evilly gleaming, prismatic eyes—but she crossed to the desk ahead of me at a rapid, crispy crickling pace and plonked her handbag down beside the nippled brass bell and took up a sideways pose, presenting her also magnificent profile to the already undone fellow behind the desk….I wonder if these seemingly effortless effects that she pulls off have to be calculated anew each time, or are they finished and perfected by now, a part of her repertoire, her armory?”

The novel ends with the arrival of dawn, the slow emerging of the light of a new day. (Let’s not forget the name of our glamorous actress, who will help shed new light for Alex.) I wonder if this scene inspired the title, or the title inspired this final scene. But it only works for me as a title if it is intended to suggest the new light that the ending casts on the fifteen year-old boy’s ancient affair. And, indeed, this seems to be the case, according to New York Times Book Reviewer Christopher Benfey. He cites Alex recalling “the ancient light of galaxies that travel a million—a billion—a trillion— miles to reach us.” That “everywhere we look, we are looking into the past.” On the other hand, it becomes unclear what is the central event of this novel. Is it Alex’s affair as a fifteen-year-old that he sees in a new light, or is it the death of his daughter Cass, which prompts the movie interest and the visit to Italy?

I say this because of what I also learned from Benfey. That Alex has appeared in two other Banville novels, Eclipse and Shroud. And the latter deals with Cass and her relationship with the poet Axel Vander, the man that Alex (note the anagram) is portraying in the movie in this work. This key link in the two time frames is, however, only implied in this novel. As if Banville thinks it is more effective, more evocative, to suggest rather than to convey. Yes, to the acutely perceptive reader, perhaps, but not to the general reader, I believe, like myself.

And this still leaves me with determining which of the two events in Alex’s life is the subject of this novel. And I don’t mean the movie. How is that youthful romance at fifteen intended to reverberate in the death of his daughter Cass, as if she is also a innocent victim of a mature lover—when we do not know the details of the daughter’s fate? Is there to be another novel in this series, as suggested by Alex in the final pages when he commissions publicist Billie Stryker to learn about Vander’s final days. Assuming they were with his daughter, are we to see different events or simply to have a different perspective on those events that occurred in Shroud?

There are certain commonalities in the three Banville novels I have commented on so far. Each represents a narrator looking back on his past. Each learns how his memory has not reflected the reality of that past. And each reality concerns the sexual life of the narrator. And yet, each novel is different, just as each encourages me to look forward to reading more of Banville’s work. Not least because of that rich style. (January, 2016)

The Love of My Youth, by Mary Gordon

This 2011 work begins as a wonderful novel. Miranda and Adam, now close to sixty, were lovers forty years ago. Then they separated, marrying others and raising children. Now, both are visiting Rome and have been brought back together by a friend, whereupon they immediately relate to one another. And to their past together.

The wonder comes from their mutual doubt, their mutual worry. Can they cross together that forty-year chasm? Are they even now being disloyal to their current spouses? Can they get over the hurt that their separation caused? Where should this re-discovered relationship now go? What of the integrity they have stood for all their lives?

Simultaneously, they are living today, and they are living forty years ago, living one life externally and one life internally. It is a wonderful juxtaposition, caught by an author who is mature herself and understands exactly how one’s mind and one’s emotions might react to such circumstances. Some readers might even be intrigued by another question: will they or won’t they? The reader who knows Mary Gordon, however, will expect something more.

Then the novel shifts gears. Adam persuades Miranda to meet with him for an hour or two every day so he can show her, and help her better appreciate, the sights of Rome, a city with its own memorable past. It is really, of course, because he is still intrigued by her; and, despite each of their current marriages, he wishes to explore the possibilities that have arisen from their meeting.

Whereupon, each time this couple meets, they banter about Rome’s history and art and the people they encounter on the street, and the reader receives mini-portraits of moments in Rome’s past. It is continually interesting banter, even as the couple deliberately avoids any personal conversation about their own past, not least because of their own existing marriages. And yet…that past is always in the air. But the result, even so, is a lack of drama. Because their relationship never advances, because they seek to avoid at all costs what in today’s literary world might seem to be an inevitable outcome.

Meanwhile, author Gordon interrupts the daily Roman tour to flash back to the past when Adam and Miranda were lovers. Not how they became lovers, because there was no drama there, simply an immediate realization by both. Instead, it is how they accommodated their love to each other’s careers, his as a promising student pianist that required long hours of private study and hers as an advocate for social causes that required being with people, whether working for the World Health Organization, especially in India, or for Planned Parenthood while living with Adam in Boston.

And again, there is little drama in the past, for their love enables them to adapt to each other’s needs. And while there are continual reminders that they will eventually separate, there are few clues regarding why. So we continue to absorb this beautifully told tale, wondering what will happen in Rome today, wondering how this author will resolve their situation, and also wondering what could have so abruptly torn them apart, could have destroyed that deep, passionate love forty years ago.

And we do find out, of course. The final flashback reveals why they separated. It is well-told, but a bit melodramatic, and also rather ordinary, as we learn why Miranda has never wanted to voice the name Beverly. Then we return to Rome, and Adam and Miranda decide where to go from here in a moment of mutual introspection that is entirely in character. Indeed, there is a beautiful, suggestive ending in the penultimate chapter, and one wonders why this novel still goes on. Did the publisher, the editor, the author, find it too inconclusive? I did not. But that appears to be the case, for the final chapter makes absolutely clear their future relationship.

What has begun as a highly promising novel of two married people, now quite mature and encountering their first love of long ago, turns into merely a successful work of former lovers touring Rome. It is a tender work, and vergers on being emotionally moving. It is satisfying as well, but it is not a great work. Perhaps because the couple spends too much time avoiding issues, avoiding whether they are still open to love, and avoiding a discussion of the responsibility for their separation. The latter, perhaps, because it would negate the suspense of the reader finding out why. For a story that is occurring so deeply inside these characters, in fact, this novel is much too concerned with surface events.

In her Times, review, however, Liesl Schillinger suggests an appropriate metaphor for their tour through the streets of Rome. She compares the centuries-old stone architecture of that city with the “entombed emotions” of Miranda, “as she retraces old ground with the man who hurt her more deeply that any man could hurt her thereafter.”

One should note that this begins as Adam’s story, as he establishes his pursuit. Because, we later learn, he has felt a sense of guilt for their youthful break-up. But then, this becomes more of Miranda’s tale, reflecting her viewpoint, as is perhaps natural for a female author. But despite this propensity, at key moments Gordon delves with equal insight into Adam’s heart and mind, into his doubts about right and wrong, both then and now, and his sensitive reserve. With the end result being a finely balanced presentation of this mutual revisiting of the past—a result that is fully satisfying, even as one is aware of its missed potential. This would perhaps entail a deeper exploration of their consciences.

Mary Gordon’s novels will always be on my reading list. And while there was no need for the characters’ spiritual life in this tale, it might nevertheless have helped here, and its return to her work would revive my interest even more. (April, 2015)