Fleur Macdonald

Gray’s anatomy

Gray's anatomy
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Reading a new John Banville novel is like walking into a house you know but finding the dirty old armchair has moved. The shelf, still stacked with the same books, is now bathed in dusty light. The rug has shifted from right under your feet. Time and memory, ‘a fussy firm of interior decorators’, have rearranged the furniture.

Whenever a Banville character peers into the recesses of their mind — and introspection is the norm — they experience a similar feeling of disorientation. We last met Alexander Cleave in Eclipse when the former thespian had retreated to wandering around his late mother's house in an attempt to gather his wits following a break down mid-performance. Now a decade later, in Ancient Light, he's rummaging through recollections, holed-up in his attic, penning his memories of a love affair that scorched the summer of his fifteenth year.

It starts straightforwardly enough: 'Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother'. He has a startlingly clear recollection of his first sighting of Mrs. Gray riding past: ‘My Lady of the Bicycle, now with her taut suspenders and pearly-white satin knickers, had all the dash and grace of a trim schooner plying fearlessly into a stiff nor’wester.’  But like a Stendhalian fresco, his certainty fragments; memory, Cleave admits, is a 'great and subtle dissembler.' It may have been another woman perhaps … or more likely, given Banville’s patchwork of allusions, an imprint from the pages of Ulysses and the nainsook knickers of Gerty MacDowell.  

As if suffering from subsidence, the novel cracks down the middle. The distorted justifications of a Humbert Humbert excusing his faunlet self are interrupted by a phone call from America and a proposition: his first film role. Cleave is to play the academic Axel Vander, the controversial expert in literary deconstruction, in a film about his final love affair based on his biography 'The Invention of the Past'. Perhaps convinced by the unlikely coincidence that Vander was also present in Portovenere, where his daughter Cass committed suicide ten years ago, Cleave takes the part - alongside the troubled yet mesmerising actress Dawn Davenport.

Cleave is obsessively concerned with the ‘mot juste’ or rather les mots justes as tautology and repetition (‘I was as insecure and self-doubting as any average boy’; ‘this made me itch to pour mockery and scorn onto them’; ‘Is it a general and sustained irony?’) makes for sinuous coiling sentences that demand to be read aloud. However Banville has no truck with the Flaubertian principle of authorial impersonality. As we can only know that Cleave is a voracious autodidact — like his author — from the other novels, the learned tone is unashamedly artificial. But it is rescued by a permanent ironic dismantling as the high blown jostles with the prosaic; the ‘first tryst’ between this sulky lusty boy and his cougar takes place ‘under the aegis of the ironing board’. And Banville has the last laugh; Cleave’s opinion of Vander’s biographer, ‘the mysterious Mr. Jaybee’, skates dangerously close to those of his own detractors:

‘Rhetorical in the extreme, dramatically elaborated, wholly unnatural, synthetic and clotted, it is a style such as might be forged 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 equally availed himself of.’

This isn’t a stylistic departure for Banville — he’ll need another pen name for that — but it is an opportunity for us to go back to the shifting light and dark of Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002). Though it just about stands alone, Ancient Light — and the narrative of the film shoot in particular — works better with the foundation of the two other novels. Banville critics may carp that he’s stuck in a rut but as ever his elegiac eroticism, encapsulated in this account of a young love affair, catches the balance between the clumsy and the tender in sex. In Shroud, Axel Vander says ‘I approach the female body on the knees of my soul’, here Alexander Cleave, a barely disguised near anagram, luxuriates in it. Mrs. Gray and her motives remain opaque but we get an honest reverence for her body: ‘the grainy look of her skin’ with its ‘muted tints from magnesium white to silver and tin’, ‘her unruly curl behind her ear’ and the ‘very white tops of her legs, plumped up and rounded above the tightness of her stockings’. Whether boy or man, Cleave or Vander, Banville worships women and this trilogy is the triptych on his altar.

Ancient Light by John Banville is published by Penguin.