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.
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.
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 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 29 October 2013
What beautiful story, with such great characters.
The relationship illicit between a 15 year year old boy and his best friend's mother unfolds alongside the present day life of the boy, now a parent himself, coping with decline and tragedy.
It's a really lovely story and told only in the way that John Banville can, brilliantly.
Also highly recommend, The sea by the same author and now as finished Ancient Light, I'm looking forward to my next John Banville story.
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 28 August 2012
I had not read anything by John Banville till I came across the FT's review of `Ancient Light', a novel that he published this year (2012). As it is the final book in a trilogy I bought the other two, `Eclipse' (2000) and `Shroud' (2002) along with it and read them one after the other. They were like the curate's egg - excellent in parts - and left me with mixed feelings.
I believe it was Raymond Chandler who said there are two categories of novelist: those who write stories and those who write writing. In `Eclipse', Banville is clearly in the second category. Alex Cleave, its narrator, is an oldish actor who has collapsed in mid performance and has returned to his childhood home in a provincial town in order to recover. The book is his disconnected reminiscences, ruminations, things he sees out of the corner of his eye that might be apparitions or just tricks of the light. The only action is in the book's last few pages when Cleave learns that his daughter has committed suicide and he journeys to Italy to identify her remains and bring them back to Ireland. However, the quality of Banville 's writing more than makes up for the lack of plot. I found it repaid reading slowly in order to savour all the allusions and flashes of colour.
`Shroud' has more story and less `writing'. This time the narrator is another self absorbed old curmudgeon, an academic going by the name of Axel Vander. The connection with the previous book's plot is loose but after a while it becomes apparent that, interspersed with episodes from the narrator's past life, we are being given an account of the events leading up to Cass Cleave's enigmatic suicide, the point at which the second book also ends.
In `Ancient Light' the sparkle in the writing that made `Eclipse' an enjoyable read has disappeared completely. We are back with Alex Cleave as narrator once again. This time he is persuaded to play the part of Axel Vander in a film but perhaps a third of the book is taken up with memories of his adolescence when, at the age of fifteen, he was seduced by Mrs Gray, his best friend's mother. As far as I was concerned, Banville never succeeded in making this unlikely episode plausible, mainly because within the constraints of a first person narrative the way in which the affair is experienced by Mrs Gray is no more than hinted at. I must also say that the two disagreeable old narrators were the only characters in any of the three books who came to life and that in my view the trilogy's conclusion is unsatisfying. Now that I have read `Ancient Light', I consider the ecstatic description given on its dust jacket way, way over the top.
I detected a clear decline in quality from Banville vintage 2000 to Banville 2012 which led me to wonder whether this particular trilogy is the best choice as an introduction to the author's work so I have ordered two of his earlier novels, `Mefisto' and `The Sea' and am reserving final judgement till I have read them.
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.
The narrator in John Banville's "Ancient Light" is Alex Cleave, a stage actor in the curtain call of his career. For reasons that become clearer towards the end of the book, he is recalling his first relationship, when as a teenager in 1950s Ireland, he had a passionate affair with the mother of his best friend. However, his past is also blighted by recollections of his own daughter's suicide ten years previously.
Anyone picking up a John Banville book expecting a fast and gripping plot has probably been very poorly advised on book selection, unless it's one of his books written under the name of Benjamin Black . This simply isn't what Banville does. In fact, I was reminded somewhat of the infamous theatre review for the first production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" which described it as "as play in which nothing happens. Twice." The same could be said of "Ancient Light" although in fact there are three relationships with women that Cleave explores, none of which with his wife incidentally, and so could perhaps have be described as a book in which nothing happens three times. But Banville's rich prose and steady pace is quite sumptuous. It may be too slow moving for some, but I found it enthralling.
As much as anything it's a book about memory. Cleave's narrative voice is utterly convincing, and at times it feels like sitting with a much loved, elderly relative who is going on, and on, and on. There are moments when you want Cleave to get to the point, any point, but equally, there's a sense that just listening to the voice is something you will want to remember. His gentle maundering about the past, full of self correction and self awareness is beautifully rendered. Despite some unlikable traits, he remains sympathetic throughout and evokes sadness and the reader's pity.
The prose is dense at times. Banville is given to long paragraphs, long sentences and there is minimal dialogue to speed things up. There is also a smattering of classical character allusions, although I found it far more approachable than, say, "The Infinities". Nevertheless, there were times when I found myself putting the book down just to come up for air. It's like eating a rich meal, you need an inter-course break before returning to Cleave's recollections of, ironically, intercourse.
Often with first person narratives it can be hard to get a clear image of the narrator, and certainly you only get a one-sided view, but Cleave is so open and honest about his past that you really feel you know this man. He knows when his memories may be unreliable, and tells you this.
It's also a thoughtful book on how couples deal with grief particularly of a child. Cleave returns to memories of happier times while his wife, who remains on the periphery throughout seems to have almost stopped existing in the real world.
It's beautifully constructed and superbly written. It's far from a light read, but it's a book that will stay with me for a long time. It won't be to everyone's taste however.