John Banville’s mesmerizing new novel, Ancient Light, is the latest installment of a trilogy, which began in 2000 with the publication of Eclipse, a book much praised for the beauty of its prose. The elderly protagonist of that book, Alexander Cleave, returns here in the form of a fifteen year old boy who falls in love with the mother of a childhood friend. “Billy Gray was my best friend,” he informs us in the straightforward first sentence of the novel, “and I fell in love with his mother.”
Obsessed with his childhood, the protagonist of the first book, Eclipse, suffers from a strange type of melancholia which employs him with psychic powers. A retired actor, Alex sees ghosts from his past. As he recollects scenes from his childhood, family members and old acquaintances materialize before his eyes. Alex has a psychologically disturbed daughter, Cass, who commits suicide at the end of Eclipse. She takes the lead role in Shroud where she investigates the past of a shady character called Axel Vandel, a philosopher who narrates the second book in which they become lovers. At the beginning of Shroud, Cass makes the disturbing discovery that Axel had long been an impostor, à la Tom Ripley, having taken over the identity of an old friend during the turbulent post-war years in Europe.
Alex’s childhood affair is intensely experienced and sensuously recollected. Having spied on Mrs Gray in her bedroom during one of his visits to Billy’s house, Alex is amazed to discover her waiting in her station wagon outside a tennis club a week later. She lets him inside before giving him a kiss he had not been able to forget ever since:
She switched off the engine. Birdsong invaded the silence. With her hands still resting on the steering wheel she leaned forwards to peer up through the slanted windscreen into the tracery of ivory and brown branches above us. ‘Would you like to kiss me?’ she asked, still with her eye canted upwards.
Mrs Gray’s question seems “less an invitation than a general enquiry, something she was simply curious to know.” They then turn their heads
at the same moment and she set a fist down between us on the soft seat to brace herself and with one shoulder lifted she advanced her face, tilted sideways at a slight angle, her eyes closed, and I kissed her.
Her lips are “as brittle as a beetle’s wing” but it is the fist that lingers in the memory long after finishing the novel.
Thanks to scenes like this, Banville renders the past so beautifully that it eclipses the present, making it seem pale and insignificant compared to Alex’s childhood experiences. Decades after retiring from theatre, Alex is offered to play the role of Axel for a film project based on a book written by a certain “JB”, the “biographer” of the late Axel Vandel.
While Alex makes a return to sets with this new film (which has an extremely Proustian title, “The
Invention of the Past”) his mind constantly visits his childhood memories. The ghost of his daughter Cass, whose death had always remained a mystery for him, wanders in the book and the film: thanks to this strange constellation of fact and fiction, Alex finds himself well-placed to investigate his life and finally get to its disturbing truths.
In England, where Ancient Light was published in July, some critics argued that Alex’s adventures in the present time of the narrative failed to equal the beauty of his childhood memories. I beg to differ: the discrepancy between past and future is what this book is all about. It is necessary for the success of the book that Alex’s experiences in film sets must be uglier and more superficial compared to his affair with Mrs Gray which comes to an abrupt end midway through the novel. Banville combines two stories masterfully; while Alex’s new experiences lay the foundations of a fourth book, his recollections throw light on the character of Gray and her family, about whose tragic secrets Alex had been childishly ignorant.
At the end of Ancient Light it becomes clear that the title of Alex’s film project, The Invention of the Past, can serve as a subtitle to the Cleave trilogy. It is thanks to the inventive gifts of its writer that this book can render imperfect experiences of a teenager’s distant memories so perfectly.
This essay was published in PANK on November 27, 2012.