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Ancient Light - review

Talitha Stevenson reviews John Banville's latest novel.

Ancient Light
John Banville
Viking, 256pp, £16.99

The narrator of John Banville’s new novel has retreated to his attic while his estranged but weirdly venerated wife – “Lydia, Lydia, my encyclopaedia!’’ – is resolved to a life downstairs. Alexander Cleave, an actor, proceeds to tell his story by way of the doubts he has about his recollection of it. He questions his every memory, fraying what little hold he has on “the moth-eaten fabric of the past”, with the result that by the end, despite the intimate first-person construction, there is more than a staircase between us and a relationship with him, or with a sense of what Banville intended Cleave to be.

Unreliable narrators are literature’s most forgiveable rogues, being so remarkably like ourselves. But the crucial literary effect that their author must pull off is the creation of an external world against which the reader can check the first-person perspective. Rogues must, eventually, in fiction if not in life, see their frilliest constructions exposed to reality. Banville’s hero – who wonders, “Why does the mother of the muses keep nudging me like this?” – retains his illusions to the end. The effect is confusing. Just as it would not be possible for a newborn to enjoy a conjuring show, so we, deprived by Banville’s fictional world of a scientific lesson against which to set off his narrator’s romanticism, find the magic is lost on us.

Banville’s narrator has scant access to reliability. He is an actor surrounded by dead, half-dead or suicidal women, to whom he ascribes mystical qualities and among whom he feels caught in an “aimless conspiracy”, though we never learn why. His first love, Mrs Gray, who remains grey despite or because of her lover’s hectic lyricism (though nothing is made of this second possibility), is a woman glimpsed only in snatches. Cleave reports, for example, that she laughed until crying “I’ve wet myself” when told that her husband was having an affair. Yet despite such intimations of her schizoid nature, she is primarily a vessel for her lover’s adjectives.

Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita is narrated by a middle-aged man, Humbert Humbert, who is in love with a young girl. Banville’s narrator recalls a time when he was a young boy in love with a middle-aged woman. Like Humbert, Cleave inverts the norms of attraction, remembering girls his own age as “undersized hoydens”, trifles beside the charms of an adult woman. But while Humbert’s psychic distortions require him to take humiliating stands against the present day, Cleave reflects on a past that he wilfully misremembers: “I know very well this jumble is unlikely.” Humbert’s collisions with reality inspire a morally disturbing sympathy, while Cleave’s dappled recollections leave us certain that this isn’t what happened but uncertain what the bias is or what it implies.

Ancient Light is part of a trilogy (the other novels are Eclipse and Shroud) linked by the death of Cleave’s daughter. Banville must at times have thought that the portentousness of Ancient Light was justified by the suspense he built in the previous books. The narrator’s germinating realisation, for example, about the man he will play in a film is delivered in a startling, one-word paragraph: “Svidrigailov.” This may – for those who did not learn from Shroud that this is the nickname given to the lover of the narrator’s daughter’s dead ex-lover – be muddling. This back story is imparted later in Ancient Light, in a useful and underemployed Holmes-and-Watson-ish exchange between Cleave and his co-star, but it doesn’t dispel the sense of arriving late for the theatre.

Similarly under-substantiated is the final section of the book, which blurs Cleave’s past and present, merging reflections on his deceased daughter with those on his ex-lover, his wife and pretty co-star, but it’s not clear in the context of the novel what all this art is for. “Other people’s motives . . . are a mystery to me. My own are too,” says Cleave, as if to grant his author comprehensive insurance against the charge of indeterminacy. An emphasis on subjectivity comes with inbuilt limitations, both structural and metaphysical, for a novelist. While Banville may intend the prose with which the novel concludes to waft in the fragrant air of universality and human interconnectedness, the effect is choked by his narrator’s abiding solipsism.

Talitha Stevenson's most recent novel is "Disappear" (Virago, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism