'I'm at last beginning to learn how to write, and I can let the writing mind dream'
After 19 novels John Banville believes he’s getting the hang of it – and relaxing. Where once he tried to control everything in his books, now he lets the stories take their own course, with welcome results
‘THE PAST HAS always obsessed me,” says John Banville. I look carefully at him to see if this is a Banvillian joke: a moment earlier, as we made our way to the bar of the Merrion Hotel, he had been riffing with considerable glee on the vagueness and vagaries of the 66-year-old memory. “It’s absolutely true,” he protests. “The middle stuff is all gone. But the past is incredibly vivid. We think we’re living in the present, but we’re really living in the past.
“That’s one of the themes of the novel; that we live most vividly in the past. It’s a strange thing. Why does the past seem so magical, so fraught, so luminous? At the time it was just, ugh, another boring bloody day. But, to look back on, it’s a day full of miracles and light and extraordinary events. Why is this? What process do we apply to the past, to give it this vividness? I don’t know. And that’s why I keep probing at the problem.”
The past certainly has a starring role in Banville’s new novel. Ancient Light, his 19th since the story collection Long Lankin was published, in 1970, finds the elderly actor Alexander Cleave writing a memoir about his illicit affair, as a young teenager, with the mother of his best friend, Billy Gray.
As Cleave beavers away in his attic room, his wife is suffering from night terrors that cause her to wander the house searching for their daughter Cass, who died by suicide in mysterious circumstances. Is Cleave’s retreat into a sunny long-ago summer an attempt to escape from this overwhelming grief? If it is, it’s doomed to fail, for when he is invited to play the role of an enigmatic literary critic named Axel Vander in a Hollywood movie, the layers of Cleave’s reality get darker, weirder and more uncertain than ever.
Regular readers of Banville will already have spotted some familiar points of reference. Cleave made his first appearance in the novel Eclipse (2000), when he fled to his parents’ house to mourn his dead daughter and his ailing acting career. Shroud (2002) took up the story from Cass’s side. A researcher who has discovered dastardly deeds in the past of one Axel Vander, she goes to Italy to meet Vander, and ends up throwing herself on to the rocks at a Ligurian resort.
ALTHOUGH TECHNICALLY PARTof a trilogy with Eclipse and Shroud, Ancient Light stands as a novel in its own, majestic right. It is, it almost goes without saying, ravishingly written and scrupulously observed. But it’s also a highly playful book, full of puns and puzzles and hilarious – or are they vicious? – pastiches. There’s an academic, Prof Blank of the University of Arcady. At one point the narrator conjures up a doll from childhood: a 3D, horror-movie moment.
In his efforts to get into the role of Vander, meanwhile, Cleave is reading a biography that the film company has supplied. Called The Invention of the Past, it’s written by “JB”, whose style, Cleave notes with some asperity, is “wholly unnatural, synthetic and clotted”.
Later in the book Cleave meets JB for a drink but wishes he hadn’t. “JB is distinctly odd, and grows odder each time I encounter him,” he declares. “He maintains a furtive, anxious air, and gives the impression always of being in the process of edging nervously away.”
Not just JB but also, to a T, John Banville as he likes to think of himself, rather than the urbane, amusing sophisticate who turns up to interviews and literary conferences.