First Love, 50 Years Later: John Banville's 'Ancient Light'

The intimacy of sex collides with the distance of autonomy.

Ancient Light

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 304 pages
Author: John Banville
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-10

This may be my favorite of the John Banville's novels I've read, thus far. John Banville evokes sexual desire and adolescence with jittery energy, crossing the story of Alex Cleave (note the surname--even as with his wife Leah and their dead daughter Cass, resonances linger) as an actor in his 60s with himself as a 15year-old who took on his best friend's mother as a lover. Alex recalls: "It was a confusion between the categories of the verb to know."

What results reminds me of Nabokov's Lolita from a tilted perspective. Both share a linguistic precision and an erotic charge, intensified by the passage of years and the narrator's inability to recover a doomed relationship. Every Banville novel provides passages that leap out at you, demanding to be taken in and lingered over. Here, many more pages contain them. More than any of his other works I've encountered, if still unevenly, given Banville's preference for sly and determined confusion, Ancient Light succeeds. It combines the frisson of tension in a sexual attraction with the psychological complications and intellectual considerations that characterize Banville's erudite, oblique fiction.

For example, to take only two examples early on, as Alex nervously wanders in Celia Gray's house, wondering what's next in an otherwise empty living room, he recalls from his later years how "quick with portent they always seem, the things in rooms that are not ours: that chintz-covered armchair braced somehow as if about to clamber angrily to its feet; that floor-lamp keeping so still and hiding its face under a coolie's hat; the upright piano, its lid greyed by an immaculate coating of dust, clenched against the wall with a neglected, rancorous mien, like a large ungainly pet the family had long ago ceased to love. Clearly from outside I could hear those lewd birds do their wolf-whistles." It's almost comic, a Disney cartoon animated in real life, but tinged with foreboding, and the hints of "grey" and lasciviousness, of pets and the end of affection, permeate this reverie.

Hints of Joyce--"tundish breasts" in a Old Masters painting being Alex's only previous glimpse of the female form--do not prepare for the sight of a middle-aged woman before a mirror, unclothed. "Instead of the shades of pink and peach that I would have expected--Rubens has a lot to answer for--her body displayed, disconcertingly, a range of muted tints from magnesium white to silver to tin, a scumbled sort of yellow, pale ochre, and even in places a faint greenishness and, in the hollows, a shadowing of mossy mauve." This appears appropriate for a time about 50 years ago, with Irish reticence ("scumbled"?) about flesh confronting its exposure, mirrored mirror that Alex passes, as he in amazement glances her way.

His emotions take over. The novel juxtaposes his near-retirement with his long ago complications with Mrs. Gray. After they first join, he cannot figure out why she puts herself in such a compromising and dangerous position. He is overwhelmed: "engrossed in what I felt for myself, I had no measure against which to match what she might feel for me. That was how it was at the start, and how it went on, to the end. That is how it is, when one discovers oneself through the other."

This is a rewarding if elevated novel which demonstrates the legacy that Banville sustains from Irish and Continental writers working at a high level. Not that it's an easy read, but it satisfies for an aesthetic quality inherent in Banville's earlier writings, but the introspection typical to his anguished and longing protagonists here finds more of a physical release, if for a while. The momentum of Alex's adolescent adventure carries along the reader, through the more languid passages of his later life, which typify Banville's preference for a tamped-down, introspective yet restless tone. Against his hormonal outbursts, he stares down his fate in the mental prison where Banville likes to lock up his narrators.

They enter a place where the exploration of the psyche intersects with the erotic and artistic drives that pull Alex into maturity. Fittingly, these filter into Beckett after the "day of the incident", their initial coupling. "First love the cynic observes, and afterwards the reckoning."

This half-century of slow, but engagingly obsessive reckoning spans the intervening passage of time between the teenaged boy and the man in the twilight of his acting prime. This section, inspired likely by the recent filming of Banville's Booker Prize winning The Sea feels less controlled, more weightless. Banville shuffles satire in. It lessens the burdens of Alex's state, at least for a short while, among the power that the past, summoned up again, exacts. I've set up, to avoid spoilers, in detail only the first 50 pages.

Much later, Alex feels baffled. Ghostlier, gothic elements enter as he visits Italy, and the site (a bit too neatly) where Shelley drowned, and Cass died. This in turn flows into two novels Banville published about a decade ago, corresponding to ten years earlier in Alex's experience. Yet, he tells us that the very man he played in the film to be, Axel, knew his daughter, Cass. Moreover, this admission comes as a casual aside long into the narration, after he finishes the role. Odd.

Banville triangulates this with Shroud (2003). This told of Axel Vander, the enigmatic fraud (inspired by lionized literary theorist and, much later unmasked as fascist collaborator, Paul de Man) who Cass pursues before her suicide. Eclipse (2001) dealt with Alex's anguished reminiscences of Cass, and his reaction to the news of her demise. Recollections in Ancient Light shift. Channeled through Alex, they turn less reliable as the plot unfolds, and this subtle challenge to the reliability of his tale as classical references and dream elements hover moves the second part into a milieu closer to past Banville explorations--in The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena-- into perils of trust.

This later journey into the echoes of Alex's youthful initiation into "this enigma of estrangement" as the intimacy of sex collides with the distance of autonomy continues into the present. Here, a lighter element, a send-up of the art house film scene, and Alex's opportunity to act on screen for the first time, blurs with a coming to terms with (or an avoidance of) why his daughter died. The elegant, if attenuated and uneasy, results will draw in any patient reader eager to meet Banville at his best.

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