Matthew Dennison

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Ancient Light

John Banville

Viking, pp. 256, £

If it is true that we demand of our favourite authors above all consistency — a certain fidelity to the territory that they have earlier marked out as their own — Ancient Light contains ingredients certain to please Banville aficionados. ‘Images from the far past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions,’ the novel’s narrator tells us at the outset. On the instant we are transported back through four decades of Banville’s writing: ‘We imagine that we remember things as they were, while in fact all we carry into the future are fragments which reconstruct a wholly illusory past,’ he asserted in an earlier novel, Birchwood, written in 1973. And so, in Ancient Light, it proves to be. In groping towards the past, Banville’s narrator fixates on details, ‘always details’: ‘exact and impossible’, they fail him. Ultimately, this exercise in remembering and misremembering resolves itself in revelations of almost unbearable poignancy.

Like his need to look backwards and reassemble the broken shards of memory into something ‘true’ and meaningful, Alexander Cleave, our narrator, is a Banville familiar. He previously appeared in an earlier novel, Eclipse. At that point, Cleave was in the throes of abandoning his career as a classical stage actor. In Ancient Light, his career enjoys an improbable renaissance when he is called on to star in his first film, a biopic based on the life of a literary critic (who has also already had a fictional outing, in this case in Banville’s 2002 novel, Shroud). This self-reflexive aspect of Banville’s fiction, however, is of limited significance in Ancient Light, concerned as it is above all with an affair which took place 50 years earlier.

Retired from the stage but not yet summoned by a transatlantic telephone call to moviedom, Cleave devotes himself with luxuriant self-indulgence to what initially appears the intensely pleasurable task of recalling his sexual awakening. For one delicious, sun-drenched summer when he was 15, Cleave became the ill-kempt and spotty lover of his best friend’s mother. Theirs was a liaison complicated on Cleave’s side by the sullen insecurities and insistent hormones of adolescence; on Mrs Gray’s side by fear of discovery and an awareness not only of wrongdoing, but of the magnitude of the risk to which, with each embrace, she exposed herself. At first hand, Cleave learnt the joy of sex; he also experienced jealousy, fear and, in Banville’s prose, his emergence as an artist.

For Mrs Gray, who provides the spur to Cleave’s Banvillian act of re-remembering, appears here not so much a person as a cocktail of adjectives. With painterly tenderness, she is presented to us as a construct of iridescent flesh tones:

Her colours for me were … 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.

Cleave’s summer of sensual awakening provides Banville with an irresistible impulse to descriptive writing of determined but poetic exactitude: sensuousness in the service of sensuousness.

By comparison, the novel’s modern-day plot, involving Cleave’s nascent film career and his return with his co-star Dawn Devenport to the scene of his adult daughter’s death, appears almost flimsy. ‘I am getting old and the past has begun to seem more vivid than the present,’ Cleave suggests. It is impossible that the reader should disagree.

Like Banville’s previous novels, Ancient Light is unashamedly literary fiction. It possesses too a distinctively ‘Irish’ quality: there are echoes of the plangent earthiness of Edna O’Brien’s writing combined with William Trevor’s mothwing wistfulness. Cleave himself is lost in a world of his own imagining, the richly visual quality of his remembering in itself a statement of self-absorption. The result is a novel of unsettling beauty, demanding perhaps and spiked by humour, but ultimately inescapably moving.