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.