Blinded By The Light. “Ancient Light” by John Banville

By Niall McArdle


John Banville’s Ancient Light is a sequel of sorts to Eclipse and Shroud. The trilogy, if it can be called that, concerns the past and the terrific hold it has over us, and how it shapes our destinies. The ancient light of the title is from distant galaxies that has travelled billions of miles to earth, and is therefore only ever a glimpse of the past, as is everything. “At this table, the light that is the image of my eyes takes time, a tiny time, infinitesimal, yet time, to reach your eyes, and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere we are looking into the past.” But how well can you see into the past if the light from it is dim?

All three novels are about how people lie to themselves and others about who they are, how identity is at best protean, at worst a collection of lies.  No doubt his publishers will one day collect the three novels into a single collection, as they have done before with books of his that have only the most tenuous connections. The Revolutions Trilogy (three novels concerning science: Dr. Copernicus; Kepler; The Newton  Letter) and The Frames Trilogy (three concerning art: The Book of Evidence; Ghosts; Athena). Will they call this one The Identities Trilogy?

In Eclipse Alexander Cleave, a famous actor, corpses on stage and flees the theatre, returning to his childhood home, where he ruminates on the past, is haunted by the shade of his father, and worries about his mentally ill daughter, Catherine (or Cass), who suffers from Mendelbaum’s Syndrome, an invention of Banville’s akin to schizophrenia. Concurrent to the events in Eclipse, in Shroud Cass travels to Turin to meet a famous academic, Axel Vander (a name that is deliberately not so far from Alexander). Cass has discovered that the great man has a terrible secret: his whole life has been a lie. During the war he adopted the identity of a friend he thought dead, perhaps in doing so dooming the man to execution. Cass and Vander have a strange and tragic affair that ends when she commits suicide. Ancient Light is set a decade later, and the figures of Cass and Vander return, reimagined as characters in a screenplay for a film about Axel Vander’s life that will star – who else? – Alexander Cleave.

You need to accept an awful amount of coincidences in Ancient Light, happenings that a hackneyed writer of cheap thrillers might balk at using. Cleave plays the man whose child Cass was carrying at the time of her suicide, but Cleave is unaware of this. Dawn Devonport, his poised, glamorous and delicate co-star (part Angelina Jolie, part Keira Knightley) plays a fictional stand-in for Cass:: Cora, the young woman who Vander seduces, and who kills herself. Dawn too attempts suicide, after which Cleave takes her to -wait for it – Italy, to the very place in fact where his daughter died.

            The statisticians tell us there is no such thing as coincidence, and I must accept that they know what they are talking about. If I were to believe that a certain confluence of events was a special and unique phenomenon outside the ordinary flow of happenstance I would have to accept, as I do not, that there is a transcendent process at work above, or behind, or within, commonplace reality. And yet I ask myself, why not? Why should I not allow of a secret and sly arranger of seemingly chance events? Axel Vander was in Portovenere when my daughter died. This fact, and I take it as a fact, stands before me huge and immovable, like a tree, with all its roots hidden deep in darkness.

Of course Banville is anything but a hack, and in any event you don’t really read his novels for the plots. To write about an actor playing a man who himself was a sort of actor (what is lying but a form of acting?) affords Banville the opportunity to dwell upon a subject he has spent most of his career pondering: what is the nature of the Self? What does it mean to play a part?

It’s something Banville knows a bit about: he occasionally plays the part of crime novelist Benjamin Black. Black has similar concerns to Banville, albeit while serving the demands of the crime genre. His dour pathologist Quirke is a troubled soul ill at ease with the world, haunted by childhood trauma, and burdened by the guilt over a huge deceit he has perpetrated on his daughter, Phoebe. Black writes as well as Banville, but an awful lot quicker, and while Black is most definitely Banville, there is sometimes a sense that he is very much not (he seems happier than Banville, less tormented).

Banville at work. source: nuigalway

I think we have Benjamin Black to thank, therefore, for the sly and amusing appearance that Banville himself makes in Ancient Light (Banville has done similar before:  in Athena anagrams of the author’s name showed up as fictional painters, but here the meta-joke goes much further.) Just as Banville created Axel Vander in Shroud, “JB” shows up here as Vander’s biographer and the screenwriter of the biopic. I imagine Benjamin Black hovering Banville’s shoulder saying ‘go on, do it.’ JB’s title for the Vander biography is the terrible-sounding The Invention of the Past, and Banville has a lot of fun at the expense of his critics who despair of his highly-burnished prose.

            The prose style was what struck me first and most forcefully – indeed, it nearly knocked me over. Is it an affectation, or a stance deliberately taken? Is it a general and sustained irony? Rhetorical in the extreme, dramatically elaborated, wholly unnatural, synthetic and clotted, it is astyle such as might be forged – le mot juste! – by a minor court official at Byzantium , say, a former slave whose master had generously allowed him the freedom of his extensive and eclectic library, a freedom the poor fellow all too eagerly availed himself of.

Later we meet JB at the cast read-through.

            He is a somewhat shifty and self-effacing fellow of about my vintage; I had the impression he is ill at ease at finding himself here – probably he considers himself many cuts above mere screenwork. So this is the chap who writes like Walter Pater in a delirium!

If the novel only concerned the film production and this strange doubling of selves and occurrences, it would be a pleasant but rather short read. The bulk of the story concerns Cleave’s recalling of another set of events from his past: at fifteen he had a passionate affair with Mrs. Gray, the mother of his best friend. While Ancient Light is a sequel to Eclipse and Shroud, it feels far more like a continuation of The Sea, Banville’s Booker-winning novel about the hold a holidaying sophisticated family, the Godleys, have on a young boy, Max Morden, in a dreary seaside town. Indeed, young Alexander Cleave could well be an adolescent version of the child Max. Both novels have a narrator who is in awe of a family vastly different from his.

            Was my passion for Mrs. Gray, at the outset, at any rate, anything more than an intensification of the conviction that we all had at that age that our friends’ families were so very much nicer, more gracious, more interesting – in a word, more desirable – than our own?

He falls in love with her (or thinks he does anyway), and she is more than receptive, and soon the two of them are going at it like rabbits. They make love on the floor of the laundry room, in the back seat of her station wagon, and on a mouldy mattress in an abandoned cottage. Banville wades deep into Cleave’s memory, faulty as it is (he cannot keep track of the season when he had his youthful dalliance, and mixes up the timeline of events). “Curious, these holes one encounters when one presses over-insistently upon the moth-eaten fabric of the past.”  While he’s hazy on some things, he’s fanatically detailed about his lover’s body. He recalls

            a thing she used to wear, called a half-slip, I believe – yes, undergarments again – a  slithery, skirt-length affair in salmon-coloured silk or nylon, would leave, when she had taken it off, a pink weal where the elastic waistband had pressed into the pliant, silvery flesh of her belly and flanks, and though less discernibly, at the back, too, above her wonderfully prominent bum, with its two deep dimples and the knubbled, slightly sandpapery twin patches underneath, where she sat down.

And then there is

            the feel of her full flesh straining inside the strictures of her clothing, the hot fatness of her lips when they went pulpy from passion, the cool moist touch of her slightly pitted cheek when she laid it against my belly … Her colours for me were grey, naturally, but a particular lilac-grey, and umber, and rose, and another tint, hard to name – dark tea? bruised honeysuckle? – to be glimpsed in her most secret places, along the fringes of her nether lips and in the aureole of the pursed little star occluded within the crevice of her bum.

In spite of all this detail, Alex still is oblivious to certain things. Being a virginal teenager introduced to “the opulence of a grown-up woman,” he only has one thing on his mind, and he has sullen rages of jealousy when he imagines her with Mr. Gray. He takes to spying on them at the cinema, and when they go away on holiday, he follows so he can be near her. The affair ends suddenly and Mrs. Gray disappears from his life, as does the rest of the family. As with many of Banville’s novels, the closing pages reveal an answer to a puzzle the narrator didn’t even know existed, casting the entire story in a new light.


As with much of Banville, there is fine attention to the feel and smell of things; “the sullen, bitter reek” of whiskey; how the objects in other people’s houses can appear strange, “that chintz-covered armchair braced somehow and as if about to clamber angrily to its feet”; and he has the gift of fully conjuring people, places and events with a few deft strokes. Mrs. Gray’s husband “had a remarkably small and disproportionate head, which gave one the illusion that one was always farther off from him than was in fact the case.” An annoying child at a birthday party, “a whey-faced creature, neckless and fat, displayed an alarmingly adhesive interest in me, and kept popping up at my elbow with a congested, insinuating smile.” All Irish writers, for better or worse, are obsessed with the weather. Banville revels in descriptions such as “summer sunlight, calm, and heavy as honey,” and “The rain had stopped but the sky still sagged and was the colour of wetted jute.” A thunderstorm presages the end of the affair. “There is something vindictive about that kind of rain, a sense of vengeance being wrought from above. How relentlessly it clattered through the trees that day, like artillery fire showering down on a defenceless and huddled village.”

The novel has a superb, subtle structure as it moves between Alex’s memories of his young love, the recreation of the life of Vander on film, Alex’s ministrations to the suicidal Dawn, who becomes an obvious surrogate for his dead daughter, and his speculation as to what exactly happened to Cass in Italy. “Must I set off in search for her again, in sorrow and in pain?” Alex and JB decide to head to the sunlit shores of Arcady to attend an Axel Vander conference (presided over by a Professor Blank, father of Officer Blank, the policeman in Shroud who came to Vander’s house after his wife died) in the hope of unearthing the truth about the man, although Alex is dubious and suspects the University will want him to appear in costume. “People, real people, expect actors to be the characters they play. I am not Axel Vander, or anything like him. Am I?”

In Ancient Light the past illuminates the present and allows characters to look again at who they are and what they have done. Like the sunlight that comes at the dawn at the novel’s end, offering a sort of consolation to those in anguish, “a light that seemed somehow to shake within itself even as it strengthened, and it was as if some radiant being were advancing.” Banville’s power as a writer is as strong as ever, with the ability to uncover epiphanies with a delicacy of touch, and surely this latest addition to his oeuvre must put him near the top of the list of names considered for the Nobel Prize.

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