Tuesday 16 January 2018

Review: Ancient Light by John Banville

Viking Penguin €14.99, pbk, 245 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

What is it that novels do? For starters (pace Dr Johnson) they should delight and instruct. But we want more, we now want them to provoke, cajole, edify, entertain, puzzle, divert, clarify and console. Banville's new novel does all these things and much more besides.

Here the narrator and one of the central characters is Alexander Cleave. The other is Mrs Gray -- and we will return to her in a moment. Banville's dedicated readers will remember Cleave as a disturbed actor and narrator of the novel Eclipse (2000). In that novel some of his disturbance results from the suicide of his beloved daughter Cass who, in turn, was a central character in the novel Shroud (2002).

So Ancient Light could be considered part of a trilogy. There is no knowing for sure because the nature of Banville's fictions is exploratory, excavatory even. However deep we go, there are always further depths.

Cleave is older now and in retirement from the stage. As an aid to coping with his ineradicable grief at the loss of his daughter he has taken to composing a memoir of his youth. The opening sentence is arresting: "Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother." We quickly learn that she is 35 and Cleave is a mere stripling of 15. So Banville delivers a rich source of bleak and black comedy, not to mention a whole gallery of guilts from the casual and passing to the totally transfixing.

With such a mismatched pair, romance does not get much of a look in. While Mrs Gray may refer to her "lovely boy", he, the immature and inexperienced, has little to go on other than his peremptory lust. When he does not get what he wants -- which is invariant -- he whinges and sulks. But he is a quick lad and soon learns to pleasure her very keenly.

While the first venue for venery was the laundry room in the Gray family home (with an ironing board and a packet of Tide as the only witnesses) the lovers soon resort to the back seat of the family station wagon and to the abandoned Cotter cottage in the woods.

Dedicated readers will recognise this place as the location for a "primal scene" witnessed by Gabriel Godkin in Birchwood (1973).

There is a secondary plot which brings Cleave out of retirement and into the movies. But to call it secondary is to be wholly inaccurate. It is seamlessly woven into the finished and gorgeous fabric of the fiction where all is made finally to cohere. Banville achieves this effect, as he has always done, through the tone and style of his narrator.

Allusive is hardly the word. Here are echoes of Yeats and Joyce and Beckett, naturally, and Proust and Nabokov. Banville offers here the consolations of articulate art. What balm for bruised lives.

Gerry Dukes is a critic and writer

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