Whether or not you like this book will depend on your response to Banville's style. The story is slow and contemplative; narrated by an ageing actor, it tells the story of his first sexual awakening in an affair with the mother of his best friend, the suicide of his daughter ten years ago and his current involvement in shooting a film. He often addresses the reader directly, describes things in unusual detail and digresses from the tale into odd preoccupations and observations. The book is about the nature of memory as much as anything - how we remember, misremember and unknowingly invent - and I think Banville does this brilliantly. He describes very believably how memories seem to work, realising for example that he remembers autumn leaves lying when the event must have taken place in April, or forgetting the content of a really important conversation but remembering small details about where it took place. He conjures astonishingly vivid scenes from minutiae like the smell of a stone wall by a road or the wafting of steam from a kettle, and comes up with some wonderful descriptions like the woman who "really is of the most remarkable shape, and might have been assembled from a collection of cardboard boxes of varying sizes that were first left out in the rain and then piled soggily any old way one on top of another."
It will probably be clear early on whether you are going to enjoy the book. The second paragraph of the book begins, "What do I recall of her, here in these soft pale days at the lapsing of the year?" and a few pages later, "...I would lie with my cheek resting on her midriff...and in my ear the pings and plonks of her innards at their ceaseless work of transubstantiation." I think if you like all this, along with things like talk of "vermiform corridors" and descriptions and speculative character analysis of a random tramp, you will like the book and if you don't, you won't.
Personally, I loved individual parts but found a whole book of it a bit much so I find it difficult to give an overall rating. I can't recommend it unreservedly because it became a bit of a struggle slogging through it all, but I would be very sorry not to have read it. I suspect that a lot of people will love it and a lot will dislike it. I hope the above has given you some idea of whether or not it will be to your taste.
"Images from the past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions... Madame Memory is a great and subtle dissembler".
Alex Cleave, a semi-retired stage actor in his sixties, sits in his attic room musing on a past love affair which took place in the 1950s, when he was fifteen and fell in love with a woman twenty years his senior, called Celia Gray, the mother of his best friend, Billy. Almost without dialogue, this story is first person narrated by Alex and, as he sifts through his memories, we learn about his past life - but only what he wishes to reveal for, as Alex tells us, we are being told the items of flotsam that he chooses to salvage from the general wreckage. While Alex muses on his past, his wife, Lydia, grief-stricken after the loss of their only child, Cass, who died ten years previously, suffers nocturnal bouts of mania where she leaves her bed and sleepwalks through their home, desperately seeking and calling out for her daughter. Alex suffering from his own grief, finds himself always in the position of trying to comfort Lydia and, after yet another sleepless night, as they sit on the stairs and around them "the hall furniture stands dimly in the gloom like shocked and speechless attendants", Alex wonders about the nature of grief and whether there is such a thing as the mortal soul. And as Alex tries to cope with caring for Lydia and mourning the loss of his daughter, he takes refuge by revisiting moments from his past.
As Alex muses on his past life, we learn about his first meeting with Celia Gray, as she cycles past him and the wind obligingly lifts her skirt to reveal her stockinged and suspender-belted lower form, followed by a later sighting of her as Alex waits for Billy and espies her naked body reflected in a dressing table mirror; we read how their first coming together takes place in the laundry room amongst the washing, the soap powder and the ironing board; we learn of their love-making in the back seat of the family car and of their trysts in an abandoned cottage in the woods. And running alongside Alex's memories of a past romance, the story also focuses on the present day as we read how Alex is tempted out of retirement and is offered and takes up his first role in a Hollywood movie.
Regular readers of Banville's fiction may recognize Alex and Cass Cleave from his previous novels: Eclipse and Shroud, so this book could be termed the third in a loose trilogy of stories, but this novel can be read and enjoyed quite independently from the previous two. As always, Banville's lavish prose and his desire to create complex aesthetic effects is in evidence in this novel and, as I read in a 'Paris Review' interview, Banville is unapologetic in being committed to putting language and rhythm above plot; therefore, his style of writing is something readers either seem to admire or dislike - as shown by the mixed reviews of this novel from Amazon readers. Personally I am generally an admirer of Banville's writing, but I do have to say that I did not find this novel quite as satisfying as some of his previous novels, particularly The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable. In summary I can say that this beautifully written, rather sombre story, is a tale that glimmers rather than sparkles.
I really wanted to enjoy this: I like 'literary' novels and am quite happy to be dazzled by the perfectly crafted phrase, the arresting image or unusual vocabulary. And there are plenty of those qualities here, some of them quite breathtakingly beautiful, vivid or simply, like Goldilocks' porridge 'just right'. '......the ground around us [was] plated with the hammered gold of fallen leaves.' 'But there is nothing like the loss of an only child to soften the wax of sealed convictions.'
Yet it is also a measure of the book's weaknesses for this reader that those are the things I remember rather than pretty much anything else. And after a while I began to feel that beneath the extraordinary style was little of any real interest. I appreciate, of course, that Banville in using the first person, is creating the character of Alexander Cleave: the preoccupation with the lingering evocation of place etc (reliability of memory is clearly one of the themes) is part of what we are being encouraged to feel about him. But I soon wearied of Cleave and failed to find much interest in his character. The sense of artifice for me became overwhelming and I confess the absurd alliterative names of so many of the characters only added to this sense: Toby Taggart, Dawn Devonport, Marcy Meriwether?
Or am I missing something? The point is that I recognise that I may well be, but in all honesty, I don't really care enough to soldier on as one sometimes does with books that irritate but hint at as yet undiscovered depths. Hidden shallows here, I fear.
On reading Ancient Light, I felt that I'd read it before. Perhaps this is because, subject-matter wise, it is reminiscent to me of 'Notes on a Scandal' or 'Lolita'. In contrast, however, Ancient Light is more ponderous and knowing, more poetic, elegaic and tired and also verbally obscurantist. A lot of reviewers reached for their dictionary on reading some of these out-of-common-use words though I must admit I didn't- frankly, because I was not interested enough. This may be because I find the subject of a 15 year old and 35 year old friend's mum in sexual union uncomfortable to read about. I just couldn't get over a slightly yuk! 'I don't want to read about this' feeling.
Perhaps my deja-vu was about the instability of memory and identity that is the real subject of this novel. Having examined some of my own early memories there were some clashes with my siblings. For example, I thought I put out the fire in my mum's hair over the alight christmas pudding, but my sister tells me she did. I even remember batting mum's head with a tea-towel repeatedly - a very physical memory which includes the smell of burnt hair - though I cannot put money on this memory as my sister swears it is hers. Memory is creatively selective and connective as Banville shows very well.
Memories are examined from every angle and this makes for a frequently painstainkingly slow pace. It is narrated by Alexander Cleave, retired actor, with an almost scientific approach to memory and grief that made me feel quite sleepy. To me reading Ancient Light was like listening to a verbose and circuitous talker, and trying to pay close attention.
The style of writing is too clever and too arch for my personal liking and the subject matter as I have said wasn't really my cup of tea. However, I did enjoy the metaphors some of which I found quite funny. Overall I have given this 3 stars as I think Banville is a first class writer. I think though I have started with the wrong Banville book.
Alex, an actor now in his sixties, looks back to his fifteenth year, the year he had a lover affair with Mrs Gray, the mother of his best friend Billy. As Alex remembers, often not with great clarity for the passage of time has blurred some of the events, he keeps us abreast of current events in his life which centre on his engagement to appear as the man of the title alongside film star legend Dawn Devonport in a biopic, a role for which he is drawn out of retirement.
Alex relates the account of his youth with great tenderness, a little guilt and some longing. He describes his encounters with Mrs Gray creating some of the best and most subtle erotic fiction one is likely to discover. He has no delusions about himself, either as a fifteen year old as he recalls the moods and tantrums he employed to get his own way with Mrs Gray, or in the present as he feels he has been adopted by the beautiful Dawn Devonport as a surrogate father figure.
Ancient Lights is a tender, touching novel, the real charm of which is in the telling. Banville allows Alex tell his story as if talking directly to his audience, and an audience of one, the reader, in a very conversational manner. Yet at the same time he manages write with great opulence yet unpretentiousness, prose of great fluidity and beauty. Highly recommended.
on 18 November 2012
This is John Banville doing what he does best: writing about the nature of memory, and doing so with prose that sings and soars. The story is certainly no page-turner. Indeed, much of the pleasure here derives from lingering on a single page, and savouring one exquisitely-crafted sentence after another. There is much in common here with "The Sea", Banville's Booker winner from a decade or so ago. Once again, the protagonist is an ageing artistic professional (an actor, in this case), who is contemplating events from his past while negotiating those of the present. And, once again, the past and present narratives are woven together organically throughout the book. The writing is truly magical, conjuring images of dazzling clarity. I found myself reading sentences multiple times, just to relish the sound and shape of them in my mind's ear. Extraordinary.
on 27 July 2013
Actor Alexander Cleave is at decline of his career. He lives with his wife, Lydia, with whom they still grieve for their lost daughter Cassandra, who died ten years ago in the Italian resort of all places.
To once again remember what love is, Cleave writes a story about the greatest love of his life. His memories start with the day when he saw a woman's underwear, who rode on bycicle. He was not sure was it the same woman that he knew closely for the next five months. Alex was 15 years old at the time, still a schoolboy, with a very limited knowledge of the opposite sex. His best friend was Billy Gray, with whom they often walked, went to school together, and Alex in the morning waited at Grays home while Billy would prepare himself to go to school. One morning, Alex was waiting for Billy and decided to walk through the corridors of the Gray's house. Grays have had a big house: Billy's father, Mr. Gray, kept optics shop, and the family lived quite comfortably, compared to many others. Passing by one of the rooms, Alex accidentally had seen Mrs. Gray, naked, looking at herself in the mirror. The boy held in memory this remarkable moment, until one day Mrs. Gray had given him a lift home after tennis game, and during a stop asked to kiss her. After the kiss, Alex doesn't sees the woman who is older than him by 18 years, she was 33, for a week, thinking it was a random incident. But a week later, Alex is again in the house of Grays, and then in the basement laundry room, Mrs. Gray puts him the mattress and makes love to him. Since then the regular meetings between the boy and the mother of his best friend begin.
From the beginning there was a suspicion that the actor Cleave was an unreliable narrator. There can not be a person of such a memory. From the way he seemed to deliberately missed the point, copying them to the gaps in memory, one could guess that something with the narrator was wrong.
And it was, although it was impossible to predict the final, it was possible only to assume that the twist would be, and that sort of twists there are in every Banville's novel. It is, of course, right to say that you need to read this novel not for the unexpected finale. «Ancient Light» is a dust photo, which the writer has restored so that it had become even better than before. Banville weaves verbal lace, as a poet choosing the right words, often those that you can see only in poetry.
Banville always stands out because he fills his books with ravishing descriptions, accurate details, such as the nail on the head, but his prose has plot. It moves like a snake with tattoos: We consider drawings of unearthly beauty and watch the graceful snake-story. The author has possession of colors, the language, and the canvas, the story, so they're mixing - and we see a picture.
The novel is daring at times, but not one that is asking for trouble. The book is not about the provocative love, but about the rebirth of love and revival of the memory of love. The central plot-line there is the five months of passion (love?) between Alex and Mrs. Gray, and the subplot about the film and the actress is clearly secondary. This plot-line connects the «Ancient Light» with two other novels by Banville, which I have not read. But the past and present intersect here just with the theme of revival of love.
This book offers an elegant and refined reading and is hugely enjoybale.
John Banville's "Ancient Light" is a serious and disturbing novel that weaves several themes together in a masterly manner. The story is told by an actor, in late middle age, who offers a recollected account of a teenage infatuation he had in the early 1950's for his best friend's mother, interspersed with a contemporary narration of his work filming a biopic with a young actress whose actions during the course of filming seem to mirror aspects of the tragic loss of his own daughter some years earlier. The interaction of these themes is both accomplished and strangely disturbing, particularly as the narrator's reliability as a witness to these different events is subtly undermined as the novel progresses.
Banville's skill as a writer and in particular his ability to inhabit a character, especially that of a narrator - as in his earlier book, 'The Untouchable', is extraordinarily impressive. Moreover the novel's rapid time-shifts are handled with distinction.
I have indicated four rather than five stars for the admittedly highly subjective reason that I found the narrator an unsympathetic character. I couldn't warm to him. I guess I wasn't supposed to warm to him, but it did keep me at some distance from fully enjoying the book.
The Irish novelist John Banville is certainly a wordsmith and, very occasionally in his novel `Ancient Light', he teeters on the edge of spilling over to deliver a very wordy novel. Our narrator, the aging thespian, Alexander Cleave, has had to retire from the stage due to problems remembering his lines but now, out of the blue, is invited to take a leading role in a biopic about the literary critic Alex Vander, a rum cove indeed. In his youth, Cleave had an affair with Mrs Gray, mother of his schoolfriend, Billy. Now he is remembering it all from a distance of almost 50 years.
The other big event in the life of Cleave and his wife, Lydia, is the suicide, four decades later, of his daughter, Cass, under mysterious circumstances in Portovenere, on the Ligurian coast. These two events are linked by a suicide attempt that his co-star, Dawn Davenport, born Stella Stebbings, makes and Cleave's intention of taking her to Portovenere to recover. Alliteration is really rife as Banville also introduces the reader to Marcy Meriwether, Toby Taggart, Pentagram Pictures and Ambrose Abbott - it comes as a surprise that Mrs Gray was Celia, not Georgina.
Cleave, living on the Irish coast, says little about his acting or his roles, perhaps his lapses of memory were responsible for the half-remembered `Gary Fonda in `The Grapes of Noon''? In Banville's much earlier novel, "Shroud," Axel Vander, took another man's identity and here he crops up again. Alex, shortened from Alexander, is very close to Axel and, as I read this novel, I ended up looking for anagrams and linkages whenever any new character cropped up, maybe not what the author wanted. "Shroud' also tells the story of Cass's life and death, made pregnant by Axel, not Alex.
The author positively flings out words that will have most readers flicking through the dictionary, `caducous', `concumberance' and that is just the Cs.
The story jerks between past and present, and Banville is good at remembering the jealousies, sulks and confusions of adolescence, and his mention of the Kayser-Bondor model took me back, and my name is not Xela.
Page after page is filled with long paragraphs of reportage, so that the sight of inverted commas was like a ice-cold drink on a hot Ligurian day. A character called Father Priest is surely a step too far. However, I can forgive an author who describes the scout for Pentagram Pictures, Billie (not Billy) Stryker as `a remarkable shape, and might have been assembled from a collection of cardboard boxes of varying sizes that were first left out in the rain and then piled soggily any old way one on top of another'. Or Mrs Gray's optician husband, who `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'.
As I have mentioned, the author has this novel teetering on the edge (I can repeat too) of verbosity for verbosity's sake. I was just about ready to accompany him throughout this not-too-long journey but hope that the next novel will be less arty.
John Banville has always specialized in short, dense novels in which his narrators are unreliable, even dishonest. These characters actually see themselves differently from what they really are, and as they remember and talk about the past, their memories are at least as much invented as factual. In Eclipse (2000), the first novel of this trilogy which deals with the same characters as Ancient Light, Banville's narrator is Alexander Cleave, a stage actor who has "dried" onstage and who has returned to his childhood home to relive memories and come to terms with the inner self which has betrayed him onstage. Shroud (2002) tells the story of the disturbed Cass Cleave, Alexander's missing daughter, presumed dead, told from the point of view of Axel Vander, a mysterious professor unknown to Alexander Cleave, who was traveling with Cass in Italy when she vanished.
Now, in Ancient Light, the final novel of the trilogy, Banville brings the arc of his plot to its conclusion, both in terms of story and of his theme of memory and our reinvention of it. Here, sixty-five-year-old Alexander and his wife Lydia (whose real name is Leah) are still mourning Cass ten years after she vanished. A former stage actor whose career is dormant, Cleave spends much of his time in an "attic aerie" musing about the past while writing a memoir about an affair he had fifty years ago with Celia Gray, the mother of his best friend. He was fifteen and she, thirty-five.
His memories of Mrs. Gray, still so vivid and exciting, dominate much of Cleave's inner life, and as he describes this affair, his life as a teenager becomes vibrant and understandable within the context of the 1950s in which it took place. Though he feels that his memories are real, he is constantly getting confused about the seasons in which certain events took place, and even he recognizes and admits that some of these memories could be false. The turning point in Cleave's life occurs when a film production company selects him to play the role of the mysterious professor Axel Vander, whose specialty is in "deconstruction." The film, to be called "The Invention of the Past," will also star the emotionally fragile Dawn Devonport. "She was Cora, Vander's girl, and I was Vander."
With its parallel narratives of Cleave as a young man having an affair with his best friend's mother, and Cleave as a sixty-five-year-old actor trying to save self-destructive Dawn Devonport, the reader is kept totally engaged with two vibrant stories, yet the scenes and events constantly suggest that there is more to the action than meets the eye. The result is thrilling, with the reader willingly assuming the roles of both detective and psychologist, analyzing the details, and finding the answers all related thematically, every detail on every level connected to every other detail. In prose that is relaxed but elegant, smooth, and evocative, the book is completely engrossing, and much of the novel also contains humor and a great deal of dramatic irony. Most readers will be haunted by the similarities of names here: "Alexander Cleave" is almost an anagram for "Axel Vander," raising another whole set of tantalizing connections and suggestions. The ending brings all the themes full-circle, and while some may accuse the author of falling prey to the convenience of a tour de force, it is perfectly fitting in its details, thematically. Stunning as a stand-alone, Ancient Light is even better as part of a trilogy.