Saturday 24 February 2018

Controversial? Me? Nothing shocks readers now, says Banville

John Banville's new novel, Ancient Light, is as vivid, intense and literary as all his work, the writing as spellbinding as ever. A Booker Prize winner, Banville is Ireland's greatest living novelist and one of the finest writers in the English language anywhere.

Despite his status, however, Banville's new novel seems certain to raise a few eyebrows. It may even prove to be somewhat controversial.

The reason is that it centres on a taboo affair, a summer of love in a small town in 1950s Ireland between a 15-year-old boy and his best friend's mother, who is 35.

This is not a story about an older woman and a younger man, like Mrs Robinson and Ben in The Graduate.

Instead, it's the story of a mere boy who is seduced by a married woman more than twice his age, a story which at times is explicit and erotic.

Such a relationship was both completely unacceptable and criminal in 1950s Ireland, just as it would be today.

But in Banville's novel the relationship is explored in beautiful prose in a non-judgmental way, highlighting the extraordinary intensity of how the boy feels.

Concepts such as exploitation or statutory rape are irrelevant to the story. If there is a winner in the relationship it is the boy, who moves swiftly from acting like a rabbit caught in headlights to being an eager participant, hungry for more. If there is a victim at the end, it is the woman rather than the boy.

The story is told by Alexander Cleave, an actor in his 60s who is remembering the unlikely affair he had at the age of 15 when he fell in love with the mother of his best friend Billy Gray.

He remembers the all-consuming rapture, the overpowering allure of the 35-year-old Mrs Gray, the illicit meetings in a rundown cottage, the grapplings in the back of her car on rain-soaked afternoons.

Of course the novel is about much more than the affair. It's about youth and age, the heightened reality of first love, the illusions of our unreliable memories as we age, ecstasy and grief.

And Banville readers will be familiar with Cleave, who has appeared before in an earlier novel, Eclipse, and with Cleave's disturbed daughter Cass, who killed herself in the novel Shroud.

Since then, Banville has written two unrelated novels, including the Booker-winning The Sea. Now, in this new novel he has returned to Cleave again and there are strands from the first two books to be followed, in particular Cleave's recurring grief over of his daughter.

But the core around which this novel revolves is the taboo affair, with Banville's unbearably vivid descriptions of the obsessiveness and selfishness of young love. Martin Amis has said of Banville that he is "a master" whose prose gives "continuous, sensual delight".

The details of the forbidden affair in this new novel are as sensual as anything Banville has written. Cleave's interest is first aroused when he is just 10 or 11 and on the way into the local church, head down as usual, "like a permanent penitent".

Cleave remembers hearing "the fizzing of tyres, a sound that seemed to me excitingly erotic when I was a boy, and does so yet, I do not know why". Mrs Gray was arriving at speed on her bike, and as he looked up a spring wind caught her skirt and lifted it, "laying her bare all the way up to her waist."

More was to come a few years later at the start of their summer of love when, through an open door in Billy's house, he sees a triptych of a naked Mrs Gray standing before the triple mirrors of her dressing table. She gives him a challenging look.

Direct contact comes when she gives him a lift after a game of tennis, drives down a woodland track, stops the engine and asks him if he wants to kiss her.

A week later she brings him to her empty house and, "with an ease and briskness I had not the experience to appreciate properly at the time", manoeuvres him on to a camp bed beside the kitchen. Thanks to a 15-year-old boy's "violent single-mindedness" soon they have shed their clothes and he is "squirming and mewling on top of this matronly, warm woman."

The illicit affair progresses over the summer, with the boy in a trance of ecstasy for much of the time.

As well as a derelict cottage outside the town, a favourite place was on the bank of a stream in a wood.

The novel describes a day when, in the summer heat, Mrs Gray waded naked into a deep pool at a bend in the stream and the boy dived in after her.

Cleave remembers how he had "reached my hand around her bottom and pulled her to me and got my face between her thighs that at first resisted and then went shudderingly slack, and pressed my fish mouth to her nether lips that were cold and oysterish on the outside and hot within ..."

In the context of the book, the explicit descriptions of the sex between the pair are a beautifully written part of the story and entirely appropriate.

But, however well-realised in a literary novel, an affair between a 35-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy may still seem shocking to some readers.

Asked whether he thought it would be controversial, Banville's cryptic reply this week was: "Surely nothing nowadays can shock the reading public, which has been bombarded with all variety of obscenity since the 1960s.

"Not that I think my sad, loving couple are in any way obscene."

But is he not concerned that such an affair would be regarded as criminal, not just then, but now?

"The only criminality here that I can see is the boy's selfishness and his undervaluing of the loving and infinitely generous Mrs Gray."

Did he have any qualms about writing about a forbidden love like this in an occasionally explicit way?

"Qualms are the novelist's constant companions," he finishes.

Books Editor

John Spain

Indo Review

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