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)