Book Review: Ancient Light by John Banville


It seems appropriate that there are three book-covers for John Banville’s Ancient Light. For confusion–or perhaps”uncertainty” –is the appropriate word for the various threads that form the cloth of Banville’s novel. Weaving together three stories (at the very least), Ancient Light details the aging actor Alex Cleave’s misted memories and the challenges of his present life.

Particularly important in his mind are the affair he had when he was 15 with the 35-year old mother of his best friend, his daughter who killed herself in Italy ten years before the novel begins, and the young “movie-star”with whom he–a respected stage actor– is filming his first movie. And hovering in the background, drinking tea in the kitchen while Cleave writes these “memoirs” is his wife, Lydia, who is struggling with their daughter’s death in her own way.

So who are the women represented on the book covers? Is that Mrs. Gray, his first love standing in front of the shop? Or his daughter waiting impatiently for his arrival? Is that the actress Dawn Davenport’s slip? Or Mrs. Gray’s? Or his daughter’s? And who can that be dancing? Mrs. Gray and young Alex seems obvious. But could it also be the characters that Cleave and Davenport are playing in their film? Or his daughter and the mysterious man she was working for (and whose child she was carrying) when she flung herself into the rock-strewn sea?

John Banville photogaph Derek Speirs for The New York Times, 2005

John Banville
photograph © 2005, Derek Speirs for The New York Times

That we can not be sure is part of the joy and wonder–and admiration–one feels in reading Ancient Light. Banville is an exquisite writer–and I do not use that word lightly. Character description, dialogue, setting, interior life–all are rendered with keenly sensitive language and thoughtfulness. At one point, the sky is the color of “wetted jute“; at another, it is described as “a layering of bands of clay-white, peach, pale green, all this reflected as a vaguely mottled mauve wash on the motionless…canal.” Some of the writing is heart-wrenching in its perfection; some is amusing. Here is Cleave describing a “researcher” sent by the movie company to help him with his role:

Billie, however, is obviously a native of these parts, a short pudgy person in, I judge, her middle to late thirties. She really is of remarkable shape, and might have been assembled from a collection of cardboard boxes of varying sizes that were first left out in the rain and then piled soggily any old way one on top of the other. The general effect was not improved by the extremely tight jeans she was wearing, and the black polo-necked jumper that made her large head look like a rubber ball set squarely atop those precariously stacked cartons.

Here is what the aging Alex has to say early about love:

I should like to be in love again, I should like to fall in love again, just once more.

He is aware of both the poignancy of those words and the sadness of the thought in the presence of his wife.

What Ancient Light is most surely about is the past. Cleave–believing he is nearing the end of his career–is enamored by it, by the love affair with Mrs. Gray (he notes the inexactness of this phrase) and by the death of his daughter.

Because I am getting old and the past has begun to seem more vivid than the present, he states, and then later, when he learns of what he mis-remembered, he concludes that often the past seems a puzzle from which the most vital pieces are missing.

When in Italy with Dawn Davenport he meets a mysterious Argentinian, (a ghost? his doppelgänger?) who over a bottle of wine says this too him:

“Even here,” he said, ” at this table, the light that is the image of my eyes takes time…to reach your eyes, and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past.”

But the past is slippery for both Cleave and the memoir he is writing. He notices instances when the progression of time seems to slip, to miss a cog:

There are moments, infrequent though marked, when it seems that by some tiny shift or lapse in time I have become misplaced, have outstripped or lagged behind myself.

Cleave’s stories ultimately come together in subtle and satisfying ways. There are coincidences, but Cleave does not believe in coincidences. There are “apparitions,” though Cleave is reluctant to but wishes to believe in an afterlife. (Twenty years ago, Banville did write a novel Ghosts.) There is doubling and there are doubles. There is a subtle knowledge of and reference to Greek mythology, and a faint feeling that the ancient gods are still at work in the lives of these mortals. And it is all done in a lush, rich style that is the very antithesis of modernity’s spare and sparse writing.

John Banville is an author who writes intelligent and dense books that deserve a much wider readership. His novel The Sea won the Man Booker Prize (much to the dismay of critics who felt it wasn’t commericial enough.) And lately he has also been writing detective novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. And I just learned, when I mentioned Ancient Light to a friend that this novel is in fact the third of a loose triology featuring Alex Cleave, his wife Lydia and their daughter Cass.

I will have to hunt them down.


Hackles, Philly Fringe Festival and a personal ghost

Photo courtesy of Groundswell Players

The Philly Fringe Festival and the Live Arts Festival have been running concurrently in Philadelphia for the past few weeks.  This usually means that there is an abundance of cutting edge theater, dance, performance, readings going on throughout the city, and this year it seems even more so.

For the past three years we have had a friend, Pia Agarwal, who worked for the festivals and always gave us a heads-up on what to see.  And she was never wrong.

But she’s moved to Austin, so we were on our own.

Fortunately, I know Nick Gillette, who is finding some success in the local theater scene.  This year, for the Fringe Festival,  he directed one play, Myths and Monsters,  at the Adrienne Mainstage and performed in another Hackles at the Crane Arts Old School White Space.

On Saturday night I went and saw Hackles. I have been in this venue twice before and each time have been wowed and impressed. This night was no different.

Groundswell Players in rehearsal for Hackles
(photo: Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

“Devised” by the Groundswell Players–students at the Pig Iron School for Advance Performance Training–the play features four actors who take on a variety of roles. The main roles however are a blind old man, his daughter, his cockatoo, and Death itself. Scott Shepherd, who played the cockatoo–incredibly well by the way–also played the daughter’s hesitant boyfriend. The other additional roles–teacher, fellow students, policeman–were negligible and merely stock figures to keep the plot moving.

When  the cockatoo dies, the daughter–played by Martha Stuckey–believes she sees Death come and take the bird’s soul. Later, she witnesses an accident (off-stage) and sees this female incarnation of Death (played by Alice Yorke) more clearly and more definitely.

She tells her blind father (Nick Gillette), who is fascinated by what she relates and who believes that the dead continue to contact us through the holes in the static of his off-station transistor radio.

There is still more death, in the past and yet to come, but there is also great hope: the play ends with the awkward daughter and her boyfriend figuring out how to slow dance while Al Green’s version of  “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” plays on the father’s no-longer-static radio.

The set was very cool–pure white walls with clear plastic opened umbrellas suspended from the ceiling. There was minimum furniture–the father’s table and chairs and a cabinet-like piece that was spun around–and great lighting.  There were two or three scenes with a scooter and roller-blades which could have been discarded, but as for the rest, it was perfect.

The play combined physical performance, comedy, metaphysics and domestic drama in a piece that was entrancing, engaging and thoughtful.

But the play was not what raised the “hackles” on my neck!

After the play, a number of us met in the parking lot, going over what we were doing and where we were going next.  Someone had an iPhone and asked someone else to take a picture of us all gathered.

No one, however, invited the ghost, who appears behind my head.

I have now studied this picture backwards and forwards, have enlarged it as much as I could and still see clearly, and it doesn’t make sense. Granted, the play dealt with death and the afterlife and the conviction that spirits communicate with us regularly, but I didn’t expect them to come out to an abandoned grammar-school parking lot. She seems to be in period costume–and our play was in modern dress; In fact, Death was dressed in a sexy black cocktail dress.  So she’s not from the play and she isn’t from the audience; her proportions seem larger than those walking out of the building; and she wasn’t with us.

So where do we go with this?