John Banville’s Ancient Light, a story of love’s memory, its loss, and the pertinacious endurance of its forgetting, by its title alone suggests that the light, or the flame itself, is only ever rekindled. For Banville’s ageing actor-father Alexander Cleave—the narrator of Shroud (2000) and Eclipse (2002)—it is with the remembrance of a past that he renders the present and presence of self.
Alex Cleave consoles a grieving wife, after their daughter Cassandra jumps from the cliffs of Liguria, and faces the troublesome task of comforting his co-actress. As a frail and sickly celebrity—Dawn Davenport—grieves her father’s death, Alex ponders on the conundrum of his pregnant daughter’s mysterious suicide, embroiling readers in the uncanny overlap of a screenplay with life. The unfilmed movie of which Alex is the lead actor, titled The Invention of the Past, becomes the novel’s medium of transference from ancient light to present.
Entangled with this plot is another circle of memory’s existence—that of Alex’s sexual liaison with his best friend Billy’s mother, Mrs Gray, over the course of a summer when he was 15 and she, 35. These transgressions occur in salacious little vignettes throughout the novel and evoke the dissembling nature of memory, or Proust’s axiom that a “remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” (276)
Memory always recycles itself in Banville’s fictions. Cleave puzzles over how “nothing in creation is ever destroyed, only disassembled and dispersed.” (184) The remembrance of existence—of having been—is an emptying out of old memories by a rearrangement of the furniture in the house by a “fussy firm of interior designers. (34) Everything renews as Cleave traverses between his memories and Davenport’s.
Ancient Light is a theory that the past is salvageable despite its elusive ways. In the opening pages, Cleave exposes the crimes of his Muse, Madam Memory, who he regards with a cynical eye for her ability to alter the past as he tries recollect it. As the tall tale proceeds, he turns the other cheek to woo her in praise of her capricious ways. She is the wraith of steam from the boiling kettle that Cleave dances with in the Gray’s kitchen. He, on the other hand, is a penitent Virgin Mary statue that has her “head down as usual” but his versions of the truth are hardly confessions. (4)
Banville testifies to his own religious attention for details and sees the unreliability of the past as a means to existence: In The Infinities, he says the Gods of Olympus are still watching over us and that one would have to, as a mortal, make it all up as one goes along. (35)
Banville’s fascination with truth-telling is not new and as a running trope of his work, exposes the unreliability of fiction. While engaging in an “act of preservation,” he simultaneously paints an image only to repaint it in a different colour despite conspicuous outlines from the previous. (Writing.ie.)Cleave, unlike Freddie Montgomery, the ur-artist from the Frames Trilogy, is quite the combination of Freddie and Banville’s pocket-Satan, Felix: he is both artist and nihilist. As such, the picturesque world that Banville colours becomes cloudier with every new shade. Ancient Light‘s immutably greying images “grey” the preciseness of every image and make everything all the more manageable, imperfect, and somehow mortal.
Banville’s fictions adopt the Greek tradition that regards a sexual swap of kin in kind. Ancient Light explores relationships between mother and daughter, father and daughter, and mother and son’s best friend. Cleave makes faint references to Celia as a goddess of the home, “Venus Domestica,” (7) professing that to his “enchanted eye,” every woman “possessed something of the prophetess.” (134) It is just as likely that he sexualizes her as both mother figure and sex goddess given he achieves his nymph-like status in a space that is most domestic—the Gray’s laundry room. In a dream of Davenport, who he treats like his own daughter, Cleave cannot keep his hands off her, wishing to relieve her of her goddess aura, contributed mostly by the clothes of his memory: “She was got up elaborately in the style of a gypsy, or a chieftainess of old, all bangles and beads and swathes of heavy, shimmering cloth in dramatic hues of emerald and golden oatmeal and rich burgundy. She was waiting impatiently and in some irritation for me to do something for her, to perform some service the needs of which she resented.” (284)
In any case, the balance between fiction and life is delicate and difficult to achieve even at the frail hands of a poetic master. Banville’s composition in Ancient Light does not fulfill the usual poetic expectations he has led his readers to expect of his previous works. The novel indulges in a prolonged incantation within several circles of time while Cleave’s lumbering nihilism leaves little to be desired as opposed to the usual Banvillean rogue. What gives, hopefully not out, is that the characters never truly live, since people cannot actually die as Proust gallantly exclaims, and so, they “remain bathed in a sort of [ancient light] of life.” (689)
Ancient Light. John Banville. New York: Knopf, 2012. Print.
John Banville. The Infinities. London: Vintage, 2009. Print.
Marcel Proust. The Captive; The Fugitive. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, rev. D. J. Enright. New York: Modern Library Classics, 1993. 689. Print.
Marcel Proust. Within a Budding Grove. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmatin, rev. D.J. Enright. New York: Modern Library, 1998. 276. Print.
Allison Wells. “John Banville’s Ancient Light: Of Memory and Invention.” 25 July 2012. Writing.ie. Web.