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Review: Ancient Light by John Banville


A TRUE LITERARY ANARCHIST: John Banville draws on Wexford roots. Photo: David Conachy

A TRUE LITERARY ANARCHIST: John Banville draws on Wexford roots. Photo: David Conachy

A TRUE LITERARY ANARCHIST: John Banville draws on Wexford roots. Photo: David Conachy

John Banville makes things very difficult for himself. When making his acceptance speech after receiving the Man Booker Prize, he thanked his publishers for sticking with him while he wrote "unreadable books".

He seems to revel in promoting himself as a writer of austere, elitist fiction. Except that he doesn't write that kind of fiction. He writes of the human condition, as evidenced immediately in his new novel Ancient Light in the line that occurs early on: "There being nothing that has not happened already, except what happened in Eden, at the catastrophic outset of everything." In other words, sex is at the heart of it all; it drives us, motivates us, and damns us. It also implies that all our ills stem from the biblical interdict on the apple. Now there's an anarchic statement if ever there was one, and from a writer who perennially acknowledges rural Wexford roots, and also exults in the order of language.

Ancient Light is as much about the uncertainty of memory as anything else. The final work in the trilogy which began with Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002), it closes a kind of circle whose outlines have been jagged and painful for the characters within it.

Alexander Cleave, an actor laden with honours and esteem is about to come out of self-imposed retirement to play the film role of the celebrated European academic Axel Vander who retired to the West Coast some years earlier.

Cleave is still overwhelmed by the pain of the suicide of his beloved and deeply disturbed daughter Cass. At the time of her death, Cass was engaged in research on Axel Vander and his possible charlatan Doppelganger, and the two had met by design in Turin.

And Alexander Cleave is driven to his own research of memory: the boyhood summer he was 15, and the sexual awakening of his tempestuous obsessed affair with Mrs Gray, mother of his best friend Billy.

Banville draws the picture with almost repellent brilliance: the foolhardiness of youth, its fears, its incomprehensions, its lost whimperings, and above all its utterly soulless selfishness, that primal drive of youth which is battered out of most of us as we awake to adult responsibilities. It may be Mrs Gray who draws him into the first guilty embrace in her kitchen backroom, after he has caught a glimpse of her knickers as she cycled past on a windy day, but Alexander is the catalyst.

And as he ruminates in old age on those months copulating fiercely and urgently in a derelict cottage, a location that he had blithely presented to his lover as a piece of amatory perfection, he remembers the terror of discovery and its terrible consequences for small-town life.

Looking back, he sees it as a lesson in loss, a loss that was to repeat itself with the death of Cass, her body shattered on a rocky promontory in Italy, and the loss that he now encounters in his troubled movie co-star Dawn Devonport, the impossibly thin, overnight star who lives with today's trappings of celebrity while haunted by the humble roots which were at least a haven of certainty.

And just as Dawn is troubled by the uncomfortable carapace of the life part of her still yearns for, Cleave yearns to enter the carapace that surrounded Cass's short, unhappy life. Their journey together is one of painful discovery for both, as Alexander unearths the mockery of memory and the fragility of truth. And over it all hangs the shadow of Axel Vander: neither the months of superficial movie "research" nor the subsequent filming will do anything to solve the enigma of his strange life. And Alexander Cleave, finding some comfort for loss in caring for Dawn Devonport in her insecure misery, has to come to terms with Cass, his beloved dead Cass, as having had a clarity of thought and tenacity that did solve the enigma, only to create another.

John Banville has the ability to make you sigh with regret as you finish his books: you want more of the perfection of style, the near-mocking insight into our darkest miseries. And of course, you want the answers to the questions he sets us about ourselves. It's not surprising that with Eclipse and Shroud coming hard on each other's heels, it's taken ten years for him to present us with the circle's closure in Ancient Light. Except this is Banville: don't necessarily bank on closure. He is a true literary anarchist.

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