A review of mine appeared in The Plain Dealer this Sunday, October 28; here's the link to that review posted on the paper’s website: http://www.cleveland.com/books/index.ssf/2012/11/john_banville_makes_ancient_li.html#incart_flyout_entertainment
My post here offers my fuller, original thoughts at about twice the length of the edited version appearing in the newspaper:
A Healing Light Illuminates
John Banville’s New Novel Ancient Light.
Alex Cleave has turned sixty-five, an age when the siren
song of memory can call with particular urgency. It is a memory of adolescence that
fills the character’s mind in this brilliant new novel by award-winning Irish
writer John Banville. During the summer Alex was fifteen, his best friend’s
mother – Mrs. Gray – seduced him.
The extremity of the subject is complicated in John Banville’s
new novel by telling the story from Alex’s doubly unreliable point of view,
reflecting both the adolescent’s unsteady initiation into sex and the aging
man’s searching yet nostalgic memories of youth.
After young Alex’s first encounter with Mrs. Gray, “the
April day that I stepped out into was, of course, transfigured, was all flush
and shiver and skimming light, in contrast to the sluggishness of my sated
state.” The singing lyricism of memory is shadowed here by irony (“of course”).
The disturbing yet compelling beauty of the novel is that it balances luminous
prose with a darkly realistic sense of life’s fragilities and fatalities.
In the novel, a series of deaths confront Alex Cleave,
including the “decade-long grief” resulting from the tragic and mysterious
suicide of his adult daughter, Cass. His grief floods his consciousness, just
as it haunts his wife Lydia, yet Alex also manages partly in defense to immerse
himself in memories of his adolescent tryst with Mrs. Gray.
Ancient Light – Banville’s
latest work after The Infinities, the
Booker Prize winning The Sea, and the
dark Benjamin Black mysteries – contains many flashes of comedy. Alex Cleave is
a stage actor toward the end of his career (he had a disastrous on-stage
breakdown ten years before; that experience and the discovery of his daughter’s
suicide are narrated in Banville’s earlier novel Eclipse from 2001). To his delight, he has been offered a film
role, in a docudrama, playing opposite the beautiful young star Dawn Devonport,
“grave and grey-eyed,
sweetly sad, omnivorously erotic.”
The mature Alex Cleave is as capable of delight as of
profound self-criticism and is the source of the novel’s probing, humane comedy.
ironically apologetic, Alex is always as open to life as he is alert to death’s
The role he plays in his film is that of the aging and
corrupt academic Axel Vander. Even as Dawn, the young star, is seduced by him,
she exposes him as a fake, an “old monster” with a fascist past and a false
identity. (Vander is the subject of Banville’s Shroud from 2003; he is reminiscent of the disgraced literary
theorist, the late Paul de Man.)
Ancient Light is, in
any case, an independent work. Its tragicomic power arises from the collision
between its plots – the headlong rush of Alex’s often bawdy evocation of being
seduced as an adolescent by an older woman versus the developing possibility
that the aging Alex may attempt to seduce the young actress. To do so would
create a dangerous off-screen echo of their on-screen plot, and such a scenario
would also be an inverted repetition of what happened to Alex at fifteen.
Even, as it happens, an incestuous repetition: Alex’s
memories of his late daughter continually impinge on his meetings with Dawn, and
in one of the novel’s sinister parallels the actress attempts suicide, echoing
the daughter Cass’s suicide. Feeling himself become more and more “a thing of
fragments,” Alex finds the example of Vander’s rapaciousness almost
“overtaking” him. Then, an even more sinister parallel involves the suggestion
that Cass was driven to suicide ten years before by the monstrous Axel Vander,
whom Alex Cleave plays in the film.
Late in the novel, Alex writes, “But what, you will be
asking, what happened” between him and Dawn? In unexpected ways, Alex holds his
own against the looming tragic possibilities of the plot; he manages to refuse the pressure to descend
to the lowest level or to act out the most destructive roles.
If we were to
subtract Alex’s probing, mordant, and humane voice from the novel, the multiple
parallels in its plotting could resemble a rather ornate maze, and Banville’s
lush prose can verge on the overwritten, that of a “chap who writes like Walter
Pater in a delirium.” The words are Alex’s about the screenwriter of the film
he is in – known as JB. Part of the
comedy of John Banville’s novel, with its moments of intentional self-parody, is
that it includes a self-mocking portrait of the novelist. And it is testimony to how
fine a character Alex is that Banville’s surrogate JB remarkably befriends him
toward the end of the novel; they are to go to California to attend an
Axel Vander conference together.
By the ending of this brilliant novel, Alex discovers that
he “was mistaken about everything,” above all about Mrs. Gray, and the plot
reversals involving her are as stunning and moving as those in Julian Barnes’
recent The Sense of An Ending. Alex
is a wonderfully living character, who honors the elegiac wisdom of Ancient Light, the light from the past,
and it is that contingent,
fragile, yet healing light which illuminates Banville’s tragicomic new novel:
“all my dead are all alive to me, for whom the past is a luminous and
everlasting present; alive to me yet lost, except in the frail afterworld of
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulate. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]