‘[G]orgeous settings, angst unpicked, tragedy relived and reassessed’ – Ancient Light by John Banville

So: time for a new Banville – his first since The Sea took the ’05 Booker. Well, there’s a few inevitabilities here: high praise all round, some broadsheet/mainstream back-slapping, and a resurgence (probably online and in CW workshops) of the long debate about prose style – minimal or ornate? Show or tell? Banville, of course, is firmly in the ornate/telling camp. But the stylistics brouhaha is something of a non-issue for the reader; there’s plenty of room in literature for individual preference and if you’re a staunch Hemingway aficionado, well, you’re probably not reading Banville in the first place. For the uninitiated: Banville’s work is ruminative and erudite, and his characters are prone to reminiscence, observation and self-analysis. His descriptions are luscious, his scenes are correspondingly vivid. Do not expect brevity; do not expect denuded verbs and nouns. Ancient Light runs true to this form – gorgeous settings, angst unpicked, tragedy relived and reassessed. As far as style goes, it’s all more or less as expected. What I didn’t figure out, though – and which wasn’t flagged in the press release; I discovered it via some fortuitous search-engine action – is that this is third in a series of linked novels. And though I’ve read many a Banville, I haven’t read either Shroud or Eclipse, and so, my appraisal of Ancient Light is unfortunately partial.

All the same: Alex Cleave is an aging actor, ignominiously retired from the stage (see Eclipse), who’s been cast, to his surprise in a biopic of Axel Vander, a Paul de Man style academic and all-round dodgy character. Alex’s daughter, Cass, was somehow tangled up with Vander in real life, before her suicide – this is, I understand, the basis for Shroud. So one strand of the novel is about Alex’s involvement in the film, his relationship with a young superstar actress who reminds him of Cass, his attempts to deal with what appears to be the growing complexity of the circumstances surrounding her death. The other strand is Alex’s memory of his first love-affair, when he was fifteen, with Celia Gray, Mrs Gray, the middle-aged (to him, anyway; she was thirty-five) mother of his best friend, Billy. The affair, his retrospective analysis of her actions and his own behaviour, and his account of how it came to an end – all this, with the Cass/Vander plot, is related in Alex’s journal – a device that Banville has used before, and one that I find a little too convenient – look at the length of the entries! Imagine the expenditure of time and energy transcribing these most flowery and detailed of thoughts and memories! But, formal pedantry aside, what we’ve got is a two-pronged novel that moves (very much like The Sea) back and forth in time, building to the twin crescendos of the end of the affair and, well – the end of the filming of Vander’s life. It’s a little anticlimactic. The Mrs Gray parts of the novel are stronger: on the one hand, it’s pretty standard stuff (young man coming of age via the tender ministrations of an older, experienced woman), but, on the other hand, Alex’s cutting, deeply unsympathetic portrayal of his own young self gives it an edge and makes it funny and less predictable. While the unravelling of the relationship (and the unfolding of the plot) doesn’t contain many surprises, it’s not actually meant to; we know from the beginning that the affair didn’t last and (to an extent) how it collapsed. Banville’s real interest is in the minutiae of recall – the inadequacies and inventions and gaps of memory. His narrator acknowledges his own reliability and torments himself with it.

The other half of the book, though, felt loosely gathered – a collection of stray ends and hints that screamed, to me, READ THE OTHER TWO BOOKS! There’s a trip to Italy, in particular, complete with portentous, but unaccountable, encounters with strangers, and I felt like I was reading the the footnote to an original, missing, scene. So this, and Cass’s story in general, needs the backing of the earlier book. I think Alex’s own character is complete in itself in Ancient Light, but the plot in which he’s found himself – that of Vander and the girl – belongs to Shroud, or so it certainly seems. But yet, it’s not presented as the third in a series. This seems to be a foible of literary texts – genre fiction isn’t shy about continuation – and I don’t think it does the book any favours. Reading it as a stand-alone novel, I felt like I was missing huge chunks of the puzzle – but, crucially, I didn’t get drawn sufficiently into the intrigue to buy a copy of either of the earlier novels. There’s room for another sequel too (unless Shroud somehow bookends Ancient Light?) but, if so, I don’t think I’ll be queuing for it.

Before I leave you with naught but the taste of my own dissatisfaction, I do want to reiterate how much I admire Banville’s sharp sense of the comic, which sometimes gets lost amidst his endless descriptive passages. Ancient Light, for instance, has a cleric ‘whose name by happy chance, though perhaps not so happy for him, was Priest, so that he was Father Priest.’ Then there’s a tramp that Alex knows by sight, who occasionally turns up freshly clean and sober: ‘Lazarus probably looked like that after Martha and Mary brought him home from the cemetery and unwound the last of his grave-clothes and got him on his feet and generally smartened him up.’ And let’s have the necessary nod to the mot juste: ‘I felt as raw as a freshly peeled stick’. Spot on.

Any Cop?: Banville is a master stylist (if you can get along with his prose, that is) and for that, I’d read Ancient Light. But the plot is uneven – half the book relies too heavily on its unacknowledged predecessors, and while the other half is funny, beautiful and insightful, do you want to wade through the rest? I wouldn’t recommend it. All that said, now, it’ll probably go and win the Booker.

Valerie O’Riordan

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