Sunday, December 22, 2013

Coming of age after retirement (Books - Ancient Light by John Banville)

It's a useful thing to read a John Banville novel every few years or so, just to remind oneself what really great writing can accomplish.  Banville is not a concept writer - his writing is not about gimmick.  Nor is it about plot - although things certainly happen.  His novels are about the forces that stir lives and his power is in how he uses language to stop and make one notice.  He doesn't so much write sentences as wield them.  Letting them slice their way into your consciousness so that they ferment there.  In Ancient Light (Vintage International, 2012) a sixty-something actor in a dwindling career, lives with his wife as they both mourn the death of their daughter, a suicide, a number of years earlier.  Two things happen.  Firstly, he remembers his first love at 15, who happened to be the mother of his best friend.  From the accomplished opening paragraph:

Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.  Love may be too strong a word but I do not know a weaker one that will apply.  All this happened half a century ago.  I was fifteen and Mrs. Gray was thirty-five.  Such things are easily said, since words themselves have no shame and are never surprised.  She might be living still.  She would be, what, eighty-three, eighty-four?  That is not a great age, these days.  What if I were to set off in search of her?  That would be a quest.  I should like to be in love again, I should like to fall in love again, just once more. 
Our first-person narrator, Alexander Cleave, is, in a few sentences, revealed as untrustworthy, valuing words for themselves, and a bit of a Don Quixote - a dreamer looking for a quest.

The second event of the novel is that Alexander is offered a film job - a leading role, in fact, playing Axel Vander, a philosopher who makes up his past by assuming the identity of another man, and on this builds a successful career. It might be noticed that both the philosopher and the actor make up identities, and as Alexander assumes Vander's identity, he examines his own past for the man he has built out of it.
 Madam Memory is a great and subtle dissembler.  When I look back all is flux, without beginning and flowing towards no end, or none that I shall experience, except as a final full stop . The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage - and what is a life but a gradual shipwreck? - may take on an aspect of inevitability when I put them on display in their glass showcases, but they are random; representative, perhaps, perhaps compellingly so, but random nonetheless.
Here we see the difference between the person to whom things has happened and the artist who makes something of them.  This may be true of Banville as he begins writing this  story.  It is just page two as I read these words, though this could have been the last things Banville wrote rather than the first.  But I read it early, and so the charade has begun.

What we experience is a creation and Banville is a master craftsman.  Writerly yes, but the voice of his character justifies it.  He is never arty.
My wife harbours no sapphic inclinations, so far as I know - though how far is that? - but in the dream she was cheerfully, briskly, butch.  The object of her transferred affections was a strange little man-like creature with wispy sideburns and a faint moustache and no hips , a dead ringer, now that I think of it, for Edgar Allan Poe.  As to the dream proper i shall not bore you, or myself, with the details.  
There is always a smile on Banville's face as he writes about the foibles of his characters.  His tone is continuously bemused, a lot like Chekhov.  He is perspicacious but not mocking, as I sometimes feel that Iris Murdoch is.  

Our leading man tells is he is no leading man.  He is a has-been stage actor cast by some fluke in this film role.  His action - to discern whether he has been true to the man he has made of his past, formed in some very fundamental way by two key events - this early love affair and the death of his daughter.  Our narrator is foolish and not terribly admirable, but through the course of Ancient Light he is ennobled.  What I found wonderful about this book aside from the beautiful writing is that it is a coming of novel about a man in his sixties.  One can come of age at any age.


Unknown said...

Strong praise. I will look for this one. It is rare, these days, to find a hero past the age of 40 in fiction.

I like what you say about Banville's writing here, too. Have you read his mysteries written under the pen-name Benjamin Black? That the author himself has two working identities may add something to the theme in Ancient Light.

I also wonder if Banville uses these two identities to indulge in different kinds of writing. Mysteries are always about plot.

Ted said...

I have read a couple of the Benjamin Black mysteries and like them a lot. From what I understand, he he uses the mystery writing as a way to keep writing but take a break from the more "serious" works. He switches back and forth between the genres.