John Banville: Ancient Light (2012)

Ancient Light

‘Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.’

In a small town in 1950s Ireland a fifteen-year-old boy has illicit meetings with a thirty-five-year-old woman – in the back of her car on sunny mornings, and in a rundown cottage in the country on rain-soaked afternoons. Unsure why she has chosen him, he becomes obsessed and tormented by this first love. Half a century later, actor Alexander Cleave – grieving for the recent loss of his daughter – recalls these trysts, trying to make sense of the boy he was and of the needs and frailties of the human heart.

It’s been a while since I last read John Banville. Ancient Light is his latest work. I didn’t know when I started it that it’s part of a trilogy, or rather one part of a triptych, Shroud and Eclipse being the other two parts. Luckily they can be read independently, but I’m sure it would be interesting to read them chronologically.

Alexander Cleave, whose story is told in Eclipse, is an aging stage actor. In Ancient Light he spends his days in an attic room, writing about his first love, Mrs Gray. He had an affair with the mother of his best friend Billy when he was only a boy of fifteen. Mrs Gray was a woman of 33. The way he remembers it, she seduced him in the pantry of the family home. Later they meet in the car and in an abandoned cottage where they spend long rainy afternoons. The affair lasts a few months and ends in disaster.

Alexander Cleave is a tormented soul. His daughter Cass committed suicide ten years ago and his acting career ended in an undignified way. His memories are more important than his present life and remembering Mrs Gray seems to be his escape route. But does he really remember it correctly? Did it start in spring or was it autumn? When did he see Mrs Gray for the first time?

The book is an exploration of memory and how it works, of how we distort even the smallest things and only when we compare our memories with the memory of others do we realize that things were very different.

All his life Alex wondered what became of Mrs Gray. While he writes down what he remembers, he gets a phone call from th US and is hired for a movie. It’s the first time ever that someone wants him in  a movie. He’s to play the part of Axel Vander, a mysterious dead critic. (His story is described in Shroud). From the moment when he gets the phone call until the end of the book the story moves between the story of his affair and the present.

Thanks to Billie Striker, one of the people working for the film crew, who acts like  some sort of private detective, Cleave finally finds out what happened to Mrs Gray and realizes that a lot of what he remembers was quite different and that he distorted a lot of the truth, misinterpreted facts and combined them to a story that was quite different from what really happened.

Banville is famous for his use of language. It is rare that I need a dictionary when I read an English book but I did in this case. A few of the amazon reviewers also mention that they had to use a dictionary, so it’s not due to the fact that English isn’t my native language but because Banville puts a lot of effort into finding specific words. His descriptions are detailed, lyrical, poetic and accurate. Many passages are very beautiful but it’s not easy reading. In the best passages, you are carried along by the beauty of the thoughts and descriptions and enjoy the way he writes, in  the bad parts it’s like walking in a bog. You hardly make any progress.

The story of the affair and the uncovering of what really happened was truly marvellous. Banville at his best. But the parts on the movie making were quite annoying. I hate artifice and there was a lot of that in these passages, beginning with the names. Banville writes his crime novels under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black, so very obviously he is fond of alliteration. I’m not. We find names like Marci Meriwether, Dawn Davenport, Toby Taggart and many more in this novel. They all belong to the people who are part of the movie crew. I found this quite heavyhanded. There are other elements I didn’t care for that much.

Overall I loved parts and passages of this novel, while other parts and other passages were quite artificial and annoying. This is very much Banville, he likes these games of mirrors and already in a very early scene there is  the evocation of a mirror image, when young Alex sees the naked Mrs Gray accidentally in a mirror.

One of my favorite scenes describes how Alexander confesses his affair to a priest called “Father Priest”. This is an amazingly humorous scene, the way the priest tries to find out what exactly Alex has done. The priest is sleazy and it’s obvious he wants detailed descriptions. This early passage addresses the moral aspects of the story. While Mrs Gray may very well have taken advantage of Alex’s youth, the priest is far more immoral.

What dampened the beautiful parts somewhat is the fact that young Alex is an extremely unlikable character. I’ve rarely read such a heartless description of an affair, such self-indulgent and self-centered behavior.

Banville writes beautifully and I liked how he explores memory. I truly liked the revelations at the end of the story as well. It wasn’t what I had expected at all. But I didn’t like the characters and I didn’t always care for the many artificial elements like alliterations, mirror images . Clearly, when Banville won the Booker Prize the jury didn’t have “readable” in mind.

35 thoughts on “John Banville: Ancient Light (2012)

  1. I am very interested in these explorations on memory. When I was younger these things did not matter so much to me. But as I get older I see how memory is so easily distorted. even when it is accurate what we emphasize and downplay even has an enormous impact.

    • I keep a diary since I’m 11 and occasionally I read older parts. I was shocked more than once to fin out that I felt so diffrent about something than I thought.
      It made me even wonder if people without a diary are not better off. They just keep the memories they want to keep, let their psyche do the sorting out.
      I think that part and the way he uses language really worked well and show why he’s a candidate for the Nobel Prize.

  2. Thanks Caroline: I have this one on my shelf. I wonder how I’ll feel about this as I like nasty characters. Like your last sentence BTW. I think you’re onto something.

    • He’s not nasty as such, he’s selfish and unfeeling but the whole situation that the narrator describes is odd and memory has distorted it. Maybe he wanted to show himself in a unflattering ligt as he felt guilty.
      I’d be intrested to know what you think of it. Not a breezy read, that’s for sure.

  3. Wonderful review, Caroline! Glad to know that you liked this book in some ways and enjoyed John Banville’s prose. He is one of my favourite writers and I love his books just for his prose. Your comment – “in the bad parts it’s like walking in a bog” – made me smile 🙂 The story told in ‘Ancient Light’ looks very similar to that of Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’. I want to read this book now and compare. Memory is an interesting thing – so important and so unreliable. It is interesting that you have been keeping a diary for years and sometimes dip into it. It must be wonderful to meet your younger self again. Thanks for this wonderful review and for talking about both the good parts and the not-so-good parts of the novel.

    • Thanks, Vishy. It had amazingly beautiful parts and I think it might even be a reread some day but other parts were hard going. I haven’t read The Sense of an Ending but from what I saw in other people’s review I thought there might be a similarity. I’d be interested what you say when you compare them and I’m tempted to read Barnes now.
      It’s interesting to read old diaries and go back in time. We really distort quite a lot.

    • I was often disappointed in the last years that the choices were less and less focussing on the writing as such. Story and charcater are important but the writing, for me, for a prize like that, is the most importnat element.
      When I read Banville, I know why got the prize. I find books whose craft I admire more worthy of the prize than books I just like or enjoy for the story. .

  4. TBM – depends on how good the writing is. Anyway, prizes are handed out by committees, and are properly studied using theories developed in political science, not literature.

    The alliterative names are presumably the creations of the narrator (and also Banville, but as far as interpretation goes, the narrator). He is deliberately making the movie scenes artificial, while at the same time hiding the identities of the “real” people involved. The narrator is not writing fiction.

    So is the use of alliterative names actually artless – like Banville is using the device badly?

    It will be a rare Banville novel where you escape “self-indulgent and self-centered behavior.” This is just one way in which Banville is a true disciple of Proust. You identify a couple of the others, too.

    • Tom, yes, in this case the alliterative names are not only the narrator but quite clearly Banville at wotk as well. I wouldn’t say that this easil if he hadn’t chosen a name like Benjamin Black. Take the character Dawn Davenport her real name starts with two SS (I can’t remember it now). Cleave’s daughter is called Cassandra, ergo Cassandra Cleaves, so the alliterations are also to be found outside of the movie.
      I found he used it badly. It’s too heavy handed for me. It’s part of those mirror images, I’d say. Of course you can debate whether that’s artful or not. In a way I adrmire it, on the other hand it annoys me.
      He’s very Proustian, I agree.

    • Tom – I loved this sentence of yours – “prizes are handed out by committees, and are properly studied using theories developed in political science, not literature.” Can’t stop smiling 🙂

  5. Banville strikes me (from the one novel I’ve read, which sounds from the description exactly like this one) as the prototypical literary fictionalist (since you were discussing this before). I found the book I read very well written, but felt that Banville has chosen the most oblique and uninteresting way to tell the story he could possibly think of. Also, it sounds like it has the prototypical plot of the literary novel: an event has repercussions, to be recounted in retrospect.

    • You’re correct, yes, but it’s still nice to read something this well written and to have to use a dictionary for a change.
      I’d say that it’s not as simple as that in this case, meaning, there was an event and it was important in his past but it didn’t eally have repercussions as such. It’s more that he’ stuck in the present having lost is job and the only place where he feels he still had options was the past.
      I’m tempted to read the other two.
      The link Tom added in the last post led to the site of a crtic who wrote about literaray fiction and mentioned Banville in that context. He seems a Banville hater.
      I can understand how some people don’t go for this type of writing that’s in love with itself.

  6. How uncanny, the way obooki accurately describes most Banville novels without having read them. I have read 13 myself, and that last sentence of obooki’s pretty well says why I have not have the fortitude for #14. And I obviously enjoy him.

    But Banville does hammer his sentences into that pattern, no matter how trivial the results. I would identify The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable as non-trivial exceptions, by the way.

    D. G. Myers has only read The Sea. He used to teach a “Prize-winning Novels” class, where he assigned whatever novels had most recently won the Booker, Orange, National Book Award, and so on. It sounds highly instructive. Painful, but instructive.

    Myers identifies Lolita as the best novel (in English) of the 20th century, so he is OK with well-written sentences.

    • I don’t know which of Banville’s novels Obooki read but it was either very similiar to this one or all of Banvilles novels resemble each other.
      I have read Athena and this one, so I’ve still got fortitude left for more.
      The Prize Winning Novels class is something I’d find interesting although I know myers has the potential to wind me up. He’s guilty of the very same he ccuses Banville of.
      It’s uncanny that you mention Nabokov because while reading Banville I was reminded of the sruggles the French translator of “Ada” had. I’m sure whoever translates Banville is chewing his/her nails as well.
      I’ll be reading Benjamin Black soon.

      • I hope the Benjamin Black novels are Raymond Chandlersque, Caroline 🙂 If beautiful prose and crime fiction come together, it must be a wonderful pleasure to read. I will look forward to hearing your thoughts on the Benjamin Black novels.

        • I think that’s pretty much what they are. Crime + beautiful writing. I wonder how well he’s doind with the plot as his other novels clearly don’t have that in mind.

  7. This sounds like something I’d enjoy. I think I’ll give the first in the trilogy a try before checking out the other two. I’m very much in favor of an author who uses obscure words.

    • I loved that. Most authors have such a reduced vocabulary. Mostly that’s fine but I like being challenged.
      I think I’ll read the other two as well, sooner or later. But I’m tempted by his crime novels, which he writes as Benjamin Black. I’d like to see how “readable” they are. I’m pretty sure, they are very intelligent.

        • I just tested the beginning of one novel on amazon and the writing seems beautiful but maybe more accessible. Should be interesting to read.
          No, I haven’t read The Sea but I’ve got it.

  8. Sorry you were disappointed by the book in some ways. He’s a writer I’ve never tried, due to the complexity of the language. (Or I’d need to read it in French)

    This story of a love between a young adolescent and an older woman has a taste of déjà vu. (The Reader or The Devil in the Flesh or even The Red and the Black) Does he manage to give something new to that kind of affair?

    Which other Banville has you read? Did you like it (them) better?

    PS : “He used to teach a “Prize-winning Novels” class” I didn’t know such things existed. Isn’t that a bit artificial? It sounds like studying business cases, you know, to dissect the strategy of successful companies and try to find out recipes.

    • I’ve read Athena and it was even more artificial than this. I liked this better.
      The affair as such is different because his writing is very different from those you mention but, no, it’s nothing new as such. the reason why is different.
      You’d have a hard time reading him in English, he’s very Proustian, long sentences and the vocabulary is vast. It’s feasible but it would take time.
      I have no idea which would be a good starting point. The Sea maybe.
      I think it would be interesting a “Prize-winning-Novels” class.

  9. Your post pretty much describes the same experience I had reading Banville’s The Sea. It was a book I very much admired on some levels and was frustrated by on others. I have also read one of his Benjamin Black novels, the first one, and recall liking it (and always intending to read more), but otherwise I have not gotten back to his work. When the term literary fiction is mentioned, he would certainly come to mind! I had no idea that this book was one of three related stories–I do want to read Ancient Light as I love stories about memory and how it often tricks us, but I haven’t quite found the right moment.

    • I see we agree on his writing. I’m tempted to read The Sea best, since I’ve already have it. Funny enough in the link Tom added to the discussion Banville came up. Nobody would ever doubt that what he writes is “literary fiction” in the best and the worst sense. 🙂
      You can read this withouth having read the other two but I’m sure it would be interesting to read them chronologically.
      I’m tempted to compare it to Julian Barnes now.

    • Thanks, Querulous Squirrel. It’s amazing , I agree. I don’t have a lot of family other than my father but our memories are so dfferent as well.
      It’s almost scary sometimes but fascinating as well, how we shape our worlds.

  10. I had the same thought as Vishy re Sense of an Ending. I think the alliteration would irritate me, partly for the artificiality in a novel which sounds otherwise fairly naturalist in tone, and partly because it always reminds me of the superhero comics I grew up on (superheroes tend to have alliterative names – Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, and so on).

    I have his The Sea, but haven’t read it yet so that will be my first. I also have some of his crime fiction, which I understand is much more accessible and in fact is quite highly regarded as crime fiction as I understand it.

    There was a bit of a fuss a few years back when at some literary event he mentioned that he wrote his Benjamin Black books in a very different way to his John Banville books – that in the Banville’s he took ages over every sentence whereas the writing process in the Black books was much swifter and easier. A bunch of the crime fan community took offence, saying that he was suggesting that crime fiction was a lesser form and didn’t merit the same attention yadda yadda. Banville made the I thought excellent riposte that he obviously did rate crime fiction or he wouldn’t be writing it. His processes though were very different.

    It makes sense to me actually. His literary stuff seems all about the sentence, the phrase, the language. His crime fiction as I understand it (not having read it yet either) is much more about plot, character, that sort of thing.

    • That’s an interesting anecdote and he did give a good answer. I’m very keen on readig his crime and I think it’s a proof of his talent if he writes it diffrently. Some authors who write sentences like he does in his literary work can’t write any other way but in his case it seems deliberate and I like what he does. But not the alliterations. That’s just plain gimmicky.
      I’ll read The Sea next and hope you will get to it as well, it would be interesting to read your thoughts on his writing.
      I definitely need to read the Branes as well and compare.

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