Ancient Light

  • John Banville
  • Knopf
  • 304 pp.
  • December 19, 2012

In this third novel in a series by the acclaimed Irish novelist, an aging stage actor confronts a confounding role involving an imposter.

Reviewed by Jessica Neely

In the early pages of Ancient Light, Alexander Cleave, a classical stage actor in his 60s, is offered his first role in a film. “The Invention of the Past,” as the film is titled, is based on the life of a character named Axel Vander, who notoriously assumed another man’s identity. As he sets out to prepare for the role of a man he’s never heard of, Alex receives a packet of reference materials about Vander written by people with strikingly odd names — Deleuze, Baudrillard, Ingeray, Paul de Man. Many of them take issue with the work and opinions of Vander, a literary theorist. Also among the papers is an overwrought biography, from which the film takes its title; its author is someone with the initials “JB.”

“He seems a slippery specimen, this Vander — whose name, by the way, looks very like an anagram to me,” Alex remarks.

Thus begins the 16th novel by the revered Irish writer John Banville, who received the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, which is generally considered his masterpiece. Ancient Light is the third of a group of novels involving the same characters, who include Alex, his wife, Lydia, and their only daughter, Cass. In Eclipse (2000), we see Alex facing a crisis in his career. By the end of the novel, Cass, who suffered from schizophrenia, has died after jumping from a church tower in the Ligurgian seaside town of Portoveniere. The follow-up novel Shroud (2002) delves more deeply into Cass’s troubling story, including a dramatic discovery she made about Vander: anti-Semitic pieces he wrote early in his career.

In Ancient Light, one cannot miss the reflexive connection between Alex and Axel, both figures devoted to the art of dissemination — one an actor, the other an impostor. There is also the intriguing similarity between the initials of the biographer, JB, and of John Banville himself. The novel is filled with double identities like these, and with what Alex calls a “tiresomely alliterative series”: The executive at Pentagram Pictures is one Marcy Meriwether; the film is to be directed by Toby Taggart; it will star Dawn Devonport. The steady assault of all this wordplay keeps us at arm’s length.

It is part of Banville’s genius, however, that the clever narrative belies the true grief with which Alex is grappling, for we are pulled in emotionally by his intense recounting of two episodes that have haunted him. One is the affair he had at the age of 15 with Mrs. Gray, a woman 20 years his senior and the mother of his best friend; the other is the confused, unrelenting grief that he and Lydia feel about Cass’s suicide 10 years earlier. Father-daughter, mother-son — more pairings that have the effect of refracting rather than resolving the questions surrounding the central tragedies of this book.

For most of the book Alex retells or recasts scenes from his five-month affair with Mrs. Gray. Though narrated with the formal inflection of the 62-year-old dramaturge looking back, the writing in its lyricism, cadence, unexpected diction and bluntness conveys the engorged heart and stark bewilderment of the boy at 15. His first sexual encounter with Mrs. Gray occurred on a low camp bed in the family’s laundry room (only slightly less tawdry, but alternately magical, is the abandoned cottage they later occupied, tucked away in the woods, with its bare mattress on its floor). By turns the seducer and petulant boy, Alex takes us in vivid, hypnotic scenes through his past: “I thought with what felt like sorrow of the wetted boughs of the cherry trees outside glistening blackly and the bedraggled blossoms falling. Was this what it was to be in love, I asked myself, this sudden plangent gusting in the heart?”

Alex has tried for years to come to terms with the emotional damage from the affair, which ended abruptly. Banville masterfully articulates that in the heightened language of love poetry; disorienting, out of sync, unattached to the earth. Early on, Alex fails in his attempts to envision a synthesized Mrs. Gray as more than the “wet amber” of her eyes, her “plump and polished breast lolling against my palm” or himself as more than his own “spasming legs and backside frenziedly pumping.” He finds this disjointedness haunting, “for I was not accustomed yet to the chasm that yawns between the doing of a thing and the recollection of what was done.”

Cass Cleave’s suicide remains another unhealed sorrow. She was pregnant when she fell to the rocks at Portovenere, but the father of the child is “a palpable absence” known only as Svidrigailov; nor do her parents know why she went to Liguria in the first place. When in this story Alex’s co-star in the movie, Dawn Devonport, overdoses but fails in her suicide attempt, Alex takes her to Portovenere to recuperate. Despite Lydia’s insistence — “You won’t bring her back, you know ... not like this” — Alex and Dawn assume another father-daughter pairing.

In an old hotel at Lerici, Dawn asks whether it was the place where Keats drowned. Cleave explains that it was Shelley, but she disregards him. “I’m like him, like Keats,” Dawn tells Alex. “I’m living a posthumous existence — isn’t that what he said of himself somewhere?”

It is, and it’s also something Banville said about himself in a 2009 interview with The Literateur. Later, Dawn suggests to Alex: “I suppose you think he was Svidrigailov … Axel Vander — you think he was him.” So many echoes fill the pages of Ancient Light. The references to light, from which the title is drawn, are prismatic, galactic, hallucinatory, radiating.

Toward the end of filming, Alex is invited to attend a seminar on the work of Axel Vander. All expenses and an honorarium will be paid, according to the letter writer: one H. Cyrus Blank, who holds the position of Paul de Man (“him again!” Alex thinks) Professor of Applied Deconstruction in the English Department at Arcady. Cleave muses that he might be asked to impersonate Axel Vander, in costume.

A few pages away from this novel’s conclusion, Alex meets JB for a drink, but their  conversation provides him with little resolution. Instead, he imagines the next journey he must take, in search of his daughter, whose death he can neither comprehend nor accept, “since 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 these words.”

Jessica Neely is a writer and editor living in Cheverly, Md. Formerly with the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, she currently works in the disabilities community, providing family services and inclusive cultural opportunities.

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