Ancient Light (Banville)

Ancient Light
John Banville, 2012
Knopf Doubleday
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307957054

The Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sea gives us a brilliant, profoundly moving new novel about an actor in the twilight of his life and his career: a meditation on love and loss, and on the inscrutable immediacy of the past in our present lives.

Is there any difference between memory and invention? That is the question that fuels this stunning novel, written with the depth of character, the clarifying lyricism and the sly humor that have marked all of John Banville’s extraordinary works.

And it is the question that haunts Alexander Cleave, an actor in the twilight of his career and of his life, as he plumbs the memories of his first—and perhaps only—love (he, fifteen years old, the woman more than twice his age, the mother of his best friend; the situation impossible, thrilling, devouring and finally devastating)...and of his daughter, lost to a kind of madness of mind and heart that Cleave can only fail to understand.

When his dormant acting career is suddenly, inexplicably revived with a movie role portraying a man who may not be who he says he is, his young leading lady—famous and fragile—unwittingly gives him the opportunity to see with aching clarity the “chasm that yawns between the doing of a thing and the recollection of what was done.”

Ancient Light is a profoundly moving meditation on love and loss, on the inscrutable immediacy of the past in our present lives, on how invention shapes memory and memory shapes the man. It is a book of spellbinding power and pathos from one of the greatest masters of prose at work today. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Aka—Benjamin Black
Birth—December, 1945
Where—Wexford, Ireland, UK
Education—St. Peter's College, Wexford
Awards—Booker Prize (more below)
Currently—lives in Dublin, Ireland

John Banville is an Irish novelist and journalist. His novel The Book of Evidence (1989) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the Guinness Peat Aviation award. His eighteenth novel, The Sea, won the Man Booker Prize in 2005. He sometimes writes under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.

Banville is known for his precise and cold prose style, Nabokovian inventiveness, and for the dark humour of his generally arch narrators. His stated ambition is to give his prose "the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has".

Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland. His father worked in a garage and died when Banville was in his early thirties; his mother was a housewife. He is the youngest of three siblings; his older brother Vincent is also a novelist and has written under the name Vincent Lawrence as well as his own. His sister Vonnie Banville-Evans has written both a children's novel and a reminiscence of growing up in Wexford.

Banville was educated at a Christian Brothers school and at St Peter's College in Wexford. Despite having intended to be a painter and an architect he did not attend university. Banville has described this as "A great mistake. I should have gone. I regret not taking that four years of getting drunk and falling in love. But I wanted to get away from my family. I wanted to be free."

After school he worked as a clerk at Aer Lingus which allowed him to travel at deeply-discounted rates. He took advantage of this to travel in Greece and Italy. He lived in the United States during 1968 and 1969. On his return to Ireland he became a sub-editor at the Irish Press, rising eventually to the position of chief sub-editor. His first book, Long Lankin, was published in 1970.

Early career
After the Irish Press collapsed in 1995, he became a sub-editor at the Irish Times. He was appointed literary editor in 1998. The Irish Times, too, suffered severe financial problems, and Banville was offered the choice of taking a redundancy package or working as a features department sub-editor. He left.

Banville has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books since 1990. In 1984, he was elected to the Irish arts association Aosdana, but resigned in 2001 so that some other artist might be allowed to receive the annuity. He described himself in an interview with Argentine paper La Nacíon, as a West Brit. Banville also writes hardboiled crime fiction under the pen name Benjamin Black, beginning with Christine Falls (2006).

Banville has two adult sons with his wife, the American textile artist Janet Dunham. They met during his visit to San Francisco in 1968 where she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Dunham described him during the writing process as being like "a murderer who's just come back from a particularly bloody killing". Banville has two daughters from his relationship with Patricia Quinn, former head of the Arts Council of Ireland.

Banville has a strong interest in animal rights, and is often featured in Irish media speaking out against vivisection in Irish university research.

His writing
Banville is considered by critics as a master stylist of the English language, and his writing has been described as perfectly crafted, beautiful, dazzling. David Mehegan of the Boston Globe calls Banville "one of the great stylists writing in English today"; Don DeLillo called his work "dangerous and clear-running prose;" Val Nolan in the Sunday Business Post calls his style "lyrical, fastidious, and occasionally hilarious" [10]; The Observer described his 1989 work, The Book of Evidence, as "flawlessly flowing prose whose lyricism, patrician irony and aching sense of loss are reminiscent of Lolita." Banville himself has admitted that he is "trying to blend poetry and fiction into some new form." He is also known for his dark humour, and sharp wit.

Banville has written two trilogies; "The Revolutions Trilogy", consisting of Doctor Copernicus, Kepler, The Newton Letter and a second unnamed trilogy consisting of The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, Athena.

Banville is highly scathing of all of his work, stating of his books "I hate them all ... I loathe them. They're all a standing embarrassment. Instead of dwelling on the past Banville is continually looking forward; "You have to crank yourself up every morning and think about all the awful stuff you did yesterday, and how how you can compensate for that by doing better today". He writes only about a hundred words a day for his literary novels, versus several thousand words a day for his Benjamin Black crime fiction. He appreciates his work as Black as a craft while as Banville he is an artist, though he does consider crime-writing, in his own words, as being "cheap fiction."

Banville is highly influenced by Heinrich von Kleist, having written adaptations of three of his plays (including Amphitrion) and having again used Amphitrion as a basis for his novel The Infinities. One of Banvilles earlier influences was James Joyce—"After I'd read the Dubliners, and was struck at the way Joyce wrote about real life, I immediately started writing bad imitations of the Dubliners."

Booker Prize, James Tail Black Memorial Prize, Irish Book Awards, Guiness Peat Aviation Award, Guardian Ficiton Award, Franz Kafka Prize, Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. (Author bio from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Glittering visual evocation, expressed in a tone at once fresh and wistfully ironic.... A world at once random, dreamlike and deeply experienced.
Sunday Times (UK)

Banville proves here over and over that one can write with the true texture of erotic memory without resorting to titillation. He deserves to outsell Fifty Shades of Grey tenfold.
Sunday Express (UK)

Banville does regretful roues better than almost anyone.... His use of language can also be startlingly brilliant .... Terrific.... Full of sadness and yearning.
Sunday Telegraph (UK)

This dazzling novel captures a long-lost adolescent world of passion and desire.
Independent (UK)

The Booker prize winning author—widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in English today—has produced what many already consider a literary masterpiece.
Sunday Independent (UK)

Ravishingly written and scrupulously observed
Irish Times

We now want them [novels] to provoke, cajole, edify, entertain, puzzle, divert, clarify and console. Banville's new novel does all these things and much more besides.
Irish Independent

Banville, with his forensic sensory memory, his great gift for textural (and textual) precision, his ability to inhabit not just a room, as a writer, but also the full weight of a breathing body, is exactly in his element here.

Prose that lingers on every last physical and psychological detail.

A novel criss-crossed with ghost roads and dead-ends and peopled by shifty characters who seem provisional even to themselves. It is written in Baville's customary prose, rhythmic and allusive and dense with suggestive imagery, prose and deliberately slows you down and frequently wrongfoots you.

In Man Booker Prize-winner Banville's 16th novel, the Irish author reprises the character of Alex Cleave, who first appeared in 2000's Eclipse, and then two years later in Shroud. Cleave, a has-been theater actor, reminisces about his 15th summer, "half a century ago," when he had an affair with his best friend's mother, Mrs. Gray, who, he tells us, was "unhappy then," lest readers judge her too harshly for bedding a minor. Interwoven with this vividly drawn summer is Cleave's current existence, which is saturated with pain and regret: His daughter, Cass, flung herself off the Italian coast 10 years ago, and his wife, Lydia, still sleepwalks in the night to rampage through the house in search of her. When, out of the blue, Cleave is offered a role in a biopic of literary critic Axel Vander entitled The Invention of the Past, life and art intertwine beguilingly for Alex, who is engaged in the tricky business of inventing his own past; how is he to unravel the strands of his existence when memory is such an unreliable muse? The problem with this book is that the past is beautifully—perfectly—imagined; it's Alex's over-determined present that's unbelievable.
Publishers Weekly

At the end of a stuttering career, suddenly revived by a role-of-a-lifetime movie turn, actor Alexander Cleave looks back at his first and probably only love—a charged and ultimately catastrophic passion at age 15 for his best friend's mother. Then there's his daughter, whose own scary turn of mind he cannot understand. Always an honored writer, Banville has gained a bigger audience here since winning the Man Booker Prize for The Sea, so this probing study of memory's shiftiness will be anticipated.
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
(Caution: Spoiler Alert)

1. What are the most distinctive features of John Banville’s prose style? What accounts for its remarkable richness, lyricism, and subtlety of perception?

2. What is the effect of Ancient Light being told simultaneously from the points of view of the teenage Alex and the adult Alex? How does Alex’s present affect his past? How does his past affect his present?

3. Alex frequently interrupts himself as he’s telling his story by asking questions in asides, such as, “She was not a native of our town—have I said that?—and neither was her husband” (p. 66). What is the effect of this kind of self-reflexive, self-questioning narration? In what ways does it feel true to Alex’s character?

4. At the opening of the book, Alex writes: “Images from the far past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all” (p. 3). How reliable is Alex as a narrator? His memory seems extraordinarily vivid and detailed, but how trustworthy is it? Is it possible to discern what he’s remembering and what he’s inventing or embellishing?

5. Why does Alex feel compelled now, fifty years after the fact, to write about his first love? What purpose does writing this story serve for him?

6. After Mrs. Gray flees, Alex feels abandoned and afraid. “This was grown-up territory, where I should not have to be. Who would rescue me, who would follow and find me and lead me back to be again among the scenes and the safety I had know before...?” (p. 264). Has Alex been victimized by Mrs. Gray, in spite of his more-than-enthusiastic involvement in their passionate affair? Has he been prematurely robbed of his innocence or given the gift of a great love?

7. Why does Alex take Dawn Devonport to Ligurian coastal town of Portovenere after her failed suicide attempt? What are his ostensible motives? What deeper reasons might be guiding him?

8. In playing the part of the Belgian literary critic Axel Vander, who lived most of his adult life under an assumed identity, Alex is pretending to be an impostor. What is the significance of this double impersonation?

9. Near the end of the novel, Alex says “People, real people, expect actors to be the characters they play. I am not Axel Vander, nor anything like him. Am I?” (p. 274). Is Alex anything like Axel, beyond their anagrammatic names? Why would he assert that he is not like Axel, and then immediately question that assertion?

10. How has their daughter Cass’s suicide affected Alex and Lydia’s marriage? Does Dawn Devonport serve as a kind of daughter-substitute for them?

11. Alex says that he was happy to listen to Mrs. Gray’s ramblings, “or to pretend to, so long as she consented to lie in my embrace in the back seat of the station wagon or on the mattress in Cotter’s place” (p. 144). Is he a narcissist or merely displaying the passionate impatience of youthful male lust? Could he have loved her less selfishly?

12. Why doesn’t it occur to Alex that when Mrs. Gray wonders aloud what it might be like to not be here, and asks him if he ever thinks about death, she is tacitly referring to her own grave illness? Why does he immediately assume she’s referring to her husband’s impending death?

13. How does learning the fate of Mrs. Gray—the real reason she disappeared from Alex’s life—change the way the novel should be read? How might Mrs. Gray’s awareness of her illness help explain her affair with young Alex?

14. Alex muses, “I used to think, long ago, that despite all the evidence I was the one in charge of my own life.... Now I realise that always I have been acted upon, by unacknowledged forces, hidden coercions” (p. 278). Why would he come to this conclusion? What are the “unacknowledged forces” and “hidden coercions” that have acted on him?

15. Why does Banville choose to end the novel with Alex remembering sleeping on the floor next to his mother’s bed, in the aftermath of the end of his affair with Mrs. Gray? What might be the “radiant being” he feels approaching the house just before he falls asleep?

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