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 Untouchable, by John Banville

This 1997 novel is the first Banville I have read, and I now understand why he is so admired. He is a beautiful stylist, with an admirable ability to explore the sensibility of his characters. What is striking also is that he has written here a penetrating novel about a spy, the repercussions of being a spy, with no details about his actual spying.

Banville was clearly inspired by the treachery of Burgess and McLean, and the later exposure of Anthony Blunt, the art historian, as the ”fourth man.” His main character is Victor Maskell, the Blunt character, who narrates this story in his old age, knowing that he has been exposed and that he is soon to die of cancer. His story, this novel, recaptures the complicated gamesmanship of those years as a Russian spy. And he himself is literally untouchable, for not only he does not like to be touched, but on a deeper level he perceives himself to have been untouched by British authorities. And on a still deeper level, he is a stoic, one who remains emotionally aloof from his fellow men. His only commitment is to an ideal, a sense of justice that he has identified with Moscow since his student days at Cambridge.

Victor moves among other men who share either his ideals or the sexual and drunken carousing of the late 1930s. Seemingly on a whim, he enters a pro forma marriage and sires two children, only to be seduced and discover that he is gay. Which ironically deepens his character, as he balances his two hidden lives, that of a spy and that of a homosexual. Except, the novel probes his new sexual life more than his life as a spy. His character is further enriched by a Bluntian dedication to art, for his life ambition has been to head an institution that will collect and train others in understanding art. It is another example, indeed, of his commitment to an ideal that is based on an abstraction of life rather then an emotional commitment to life itself.

It is Banville’s portrayal of the escapades of his friends that sustains the reader’s interest across nearly 400 pages. But interest is further piqued by Victor’s brief adventures. He discovers a painting by Pousin that he values more than his family, since it represents the death of the stoic Seneca. He enjoys a junket to Moscow, where he is disillusioned by the life there—even though he retains his Marxist ideology. He is sent to Boulogne by the British army in 1940, and then escapes at Dunkirk. He retrieves a cache of scandalous photographs from a German castle after World War II to save the royal family from blackmail. He drives his two friends, Boy Bannister and Philip MacLeish (stand-ins for Burgess and Maclean), to the ship that will start their flight to Moscow. And all the while, he parties with Waugh-like friends and searches for gay sex in dark bathrooms.

As the novel opens, we know Victor has been exposed as a spy, and the rest of the book is his explanation of how this came about, how very effective he thought he was, and his rationalization regarding the justice of what he has done. But we slowly grasp that he is an unreliable narrator. He is surprised, for example, that after the war Moscow lets him resign as a spy without repercussions. He does not see that this is because he was not that effective. (The reader also wonders, as a result, how effective Victor is as an interpreter of art and as an art historian—even as he boasts of his art knowledge and as Banville enriches his novel by comparing the deception of reality that is art with the deception involved in espionage.)

There is even a kind of surprise ending, in which Victor is revealed to have been a patsy. For he learns that his best friend is also a spy, and this friend has been manipulating his espionage career. I say kind of a surprise, because we have not penetrated into any of these colorful characters (because narrator Victor himself has not) enough to allow this sudden reversal to have the emotional impact the author likely intended. Indeed, that final scene seems in its way artificially created, down to the gun that is never fired and which Banville acknowledges breaks all the rules of conventional drama.

I must note that Patrick McGrath has written an excellent interpretation of this novel in the New York Times: “Banville has explored the various themes suggested by the study of art: the relationship of painting to the real world, the process of restoration, the distinction between the fake and the authentic, the futility of representation, its complementary pleasures and so on…he has woven these ideas into morally complex stories about violence and passion, guilt and redemption.”

This indeed, reflects the richness of this novel. The original Blunt had the perfect profession to inspire Banville’s insight into a world of artifice, a world of shallow surfaces, of originality, of bravado, and a world of deception and self-deception. Not to forget the world of gay men, who are always living a lie, who continually face the possibility of exposure, and who are always looking back over their shoulder.

The key to Victor’s life is why he is a spy. He is writing a memoir in an attempt to figure it out himself. He intends the memoir for his biographer, who has asked him this question. But he never finds the real answer. Is it because he is Irish, and so hates the British? Is it because he resents his father, a Protestant bishop, and the Soviets preach atheism? Is it because he is a stoic, and so does not identify with his impact on others? Is it because he feels superior to others, and spying allows him to justify this? Is it because he likes the game, much as he likes the game of concealing his homosexuality?

We never know the answer, but this only adds to the mysterious richness of the novel. To sum up, this is a brilliant exploration of the game of spying as told by a narrator who is not nearly as clever as he thinks. Indeed, this is why this work is not filled with his exploits as a spy, because he was indeed ineffectual. Instead, it brilliantly portrays the world he thinks he is deceiving, both his friends and the actual spies who float through his shallow world of drunken parties, back room assignations, and subversive meetings.

This novel surely inspires me to read further Banville novels. He offers that perfect blend, for me, of style and sophistication, of introspection and self-deceit, of story subjugated to character. (June, 2014)