Book Review: Ancient Light

 Ancient Light
John Banville
Knopf 2012  pp. 304

John Banville’s books can be hard work. I think I’ve read enough of them to be able to make that statement without fear of contradiction. That said, I will add that he is worth every minute you spend with him.
The first book of his that I read was The Untouchable, a roman à clef loosely based on Sir Anthony Blunt, who after an illustrious career as an art historian was unmasked as the ‘fourth man’ of the infamous Cambridge Five spies. In real life this caused genuine consternation for those who knew him. Blunt seemed to be anything but a socialist and, indeed, had close connections to aristocracy and the English royal family. In the novel, Maskell (the Blunt character) is also a mystery to himself and the unfolding of the book is his existential examination of his own life. It’s probably a masterpiece (I think it is) and I remember it as replete with stunning insights into human emotions.
This latest work, Ancient Light, is a slow piece and not without some problems. It’s the remembered story of an affair between the narrator when he was a fifteen-year-old boy and a married woman in her thirties. It’s clear from the beginning that the affair will be discovered and a lot of the time is spent while reading the story in a kind of dread of that eventuality. At the time of telling, the narrator, Alexander Cleve, is in his 60s and is a mostly retired actor.There is a subplot about the suicide some years earlier of his daughter, Cass, and a lot of references to events that occurred in two earlier books, Shroud and Eclipse. I’ve not read either of those books and can’t help but feel that I might have gotten more out of this book, had I done so.
Therein, in fact, lies my problem with this book. I found it very hard to see the people clearly. Mrs. Gray, the young Cleave’s paramour, remains an enigma to me. Why would a married woman (who was both religious and in love with her husband) have an affair with a fifteen year-old boy? In a small community? The narrator gives no clue. Indeed, the cover of the hardback edition that I read is a picture of an empty slip (see above) and perfectly illustrates the absent Mrs, Gray and the unromantic, unerotic feel of the whole story.
Reviewers have mentioned about the narrator’s confused memory, and indeed there are instances of that but it’s mostly about what season it was when events occurred. The real problem seems to be more a case of the self-absorbtion of the narrator and his cluelessness about other people’s inner lives. Whether this is illustrative of a solipsistic youth or is a failing on Banville’s part is not clear to me.
The grown Cleave finds himself in a starring role in a film, the lead of which is a young, fragile actress whom he takes under his wing. She’s grieving for her father as he is still grieving for his daughter, but it still seems an almost arbitrary connection and I don’t understand what either party got from the friendship.
Characters in Banville books seem to find themselves in situations that they got into by merit of their own actions but without any semblance of volition on their part. I have noticed this in both The Book of Evidence and in The Sea, where the main character seems to just go along in a kind of stunned resignation. And yet these characters seem to be acutely aware of the minutiae of their own emotions if not always of the collective heft of their feelings.
Still, Banville’s prose is a wondrous thing -- clean, smooth, precise and full of startling observations. He has a kind of way of triangulating situations. Stating them one way, then moving slightly aside and re-stating “She had an air of faint desperation and at the same time seemed ruefully amused”
But mostly it’s the precision with which he can depict the inner ebb and flow of feelings and thought:
“Every aurate woman I have loved in my life and I use the word loved in its widest sense, has left her impression on me as the old gods of creation are said to have left their thumbprints on the temples of the men that they fashioned out of mud and turned into us. Just so do I retain a particular trace of each one of my women -- for I think of them all as mine still -- stamped indelibly on the underside of my memory. I will glimpse in the street a head of wheat-coloured hair retreating among the hurrying crowd, or a slender hand lifted and waving farewell in a certain way; I will hear a phrase of laughter from the far side of a hotel lobby, or just a word spoken with a recognized, warm inflection and on the instant this or that she will be there vividly, fleetingly and my heart like an old dog will scramble up and give a wistful woof.”
And yet for all this lucidity there seems to be much untold and at the end one is left admiring the writing but somehow perplexed by the story.


1 comment

  • Rodger Hara

    Rodger Hara

    Thank you for the review. I was left with the same feeling of lack of resolution and closure. I've not read The Untouchable and will soon but have read Ghosts and The Sea. Ghosts has a similar absence of closure and The Sea comes a bit closer but still leaves the reader to make assumptions about the ending. There's also strong plot movement created by the attraction of a youth for an older woman that drives the story in The Sea (a movie with script by Banville starring Ciaran Hinds has been produced that should be released soon). To get closure more or less regularly, I've enjoyed reading his Benjamin Black police procedurals/mysteries. Regardless, Banville's writing is at or near the top for writers regardless of style and is indeed admirable.

    Thank you for the review. I was left with the same feeling of lack of resolution and closure. I've not read The Untouchable and will soon but have read Ghosts and The Sea. Ghosts has a similar absence of closure and The Sea comes a bit closer but still leaves the reader to make assumptions about the ending. There's also strong plot movement created by the attraction of a youth for an older woman that drives the story in The Sea (a movie with script by Banville starring Ciaran Hinds has been produced that should be released soon). To get closure more or less regularly, I've enjoyed reading his Benjamin Black police procedurals/mysteries. Regardless, Banville's writing is at or near the top for writers regardless of style and is indeed admirable.

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