‘Ancient Light’ Ultimately Unilluminating

'Ancient Light' by John Banville (Knopf)

“Ancient Light,” the 18th novel by the Irish writer and critic John Banville, is strikingly representative of his oeuvre. Many hallmarks of Banville’s earlier work—including the persistence and unreliability of memory, nostalgia as a means of coping with trauma, prose that ranges from the hauntingly beautiful to the excessive, and the absence of plot—are present to their fullest effect. The novel is the final component of a unnamed trilogy, all narrated by the fictional stage actor Alexander Cleave. Banville concludes his trilogy with observant though sometimes overdone action.

The first two parts of this trilogy, 2000’s “Eclipse” and 2002’s “Shroud,” described Cleave’s decline as a stage actor, his subsequent mental breakdown, and his relationship with his daughter Cass, a tempestuous and headstrong literary scholar. “Shroud” detailed Cass’s association with Axel Vander, a character closely based on the late, controversial Yale professor Paul de Man. “Ancient Light” picks up some time after Cass’s suicide, the event with which “Eclipse” ended. At the outset of the novel, Cleave and his wife Lydia continue to grieve for their dead daughter.

The rest of the narrative runs down two tracks. One is a nostalgic confession where Cleave recounts his first romance. As a 15-year old boy in an Irish small town, he had an affair with Celia Gray, the 36-year-old mother of a friend. In the present, Cleave, now in his mid-60s, makes an unexpected return to the acting profession. Many years after an on-stage breakdown ended his career, he is approached by an independent Hollywood studio with an intriguing offer—a role in “The Invention of the Past,” a biopic on the life of Axel Vander, the same literary critic in whose company Cass took her life.

Cleave is ignorant of Vander’s connection to Cass. He accepts the role despite never acting in a film before, and once on set he meets the film’s leading lady Dawn Devonport, a young woman fresh from a failed suicide attempt of her own. Throughout the novel, Banville shifts focus from Cleave’s childhood romance to his time with Devonport—a technique more stylistically common in film, but one familiar to readers of his other works.

Banville has always been a passionate stylist and is committed to a writing style that often mimics poetry in its weight and meaning. At its best, his writing in “Ancient Light” is luminous. On virtually every page, there are moments of exquisitely fine narration, such as his description of waking up in a house without central heating: “Our houses on spring mornings such as this one had a special chill that gave a sharp, lacquered edge to everything, as if the air had turned to waterglass overnight.” Best of all are the scenes of Cleave and Celia Gray’s romance. Here, the prose captures fully the strange and awkward tenderness of a 15-year old who is as bemused as he is enraptured, and his love for a woman as old as his mother “but otherwise as unlike her as could be.”

Cleave is acutely self-conscious both about his need to remember the past as well as about the unreliability of his memory. Yet his memory of Celia Gray, whether accurate or imagined, is clearly as real and important to him as the present. Even more than in the earlier novels in the trilogy, Banville’s writing is blackly comedic; indeed, this may be his most humorous novel. It is full of deliciously apt ruminations: “Her name was Celia. Celia Gray. It does not sound quite right, does it, that combination? Women’s married names never sound right, in my opinion. Is it that they all marry the wrong men, or at any rate men with the wrong surnames?” Cleave’s discursive, slightly rambling narrative tone is moving and enjoyable.

As with all of Banville’s work, however, his writing flourishes are often taken to excess. For every few phrases that are suitably beautiful, there are some that do not work. “Time and Memory are a fussy firm of interior decorators, though, always shifting the furniture about and redesigning and even reassigning rooms,” he writes. At moments like this, Banville’s intellectual ambition over-reaches itself. He has moderated his love for 10-dollar words—what the critic Jessica Winter once described as his “famously torrid affair with his thesaurus”—but every so often, they creep into the first-person narration, such as when Cleave describes himself as “maculate,” hardly a word that most writers, let alone an actor, would know or use.

Banville over-reaches as well with some of his post-modern novelistic games. To name a priest Father Priest is an unfunny joke; to insert a version of the author himself as the unauthorized biographer of Axel Vander is a hackneyed gesture. Worst of all is the passage in which Cleave lists a number of literary theorists he has “vaguely heard of, with striking and difficult names,” and pauses to admire in particular the name “Paul de Man,” on whom Banville modeled Vander. This sort of knowing wink to the reader is wearying and even silly. It demeans a writer of Banville’s gifts.

The major weakness of “Ancient Light,” however, lies is not in its moments of gimmickry but in its vagueness. Why would a Hollywood studio take a chance on a relatively obscure 60-something stage actor with no screen experience? Why does Celia Gray embark on an affair with a boy too young to shave? By not even attempting to consider such basic questions, the novel risks rendering its own plot unintentionally absurd. This evasion prevents “Ancient Light” from being a classic Banville novel like “The Book of Evidence” or “The Sea,” but it is still a rich and involving minor work. Like Bernhard Schlink’s “The Reader,” a novel whose central love affair features protagonists identical in age to this one, “Ancient Light” beautifully describes a bizarre romance. Ultimately, though, the book is worse off for circumventing the practical question of why such a romance could occur.

—Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reached at kdguha@fas.harvard.edu.

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