'I'm at last beginning to learn how to write, and I can let the writing mind dream'
JB – sorry, Banville – picks up his wine glass and looks gloomily into it. “People don’t see this in my books, often,” he says. “I never intend them to be funny. You can’t set out to be funny; the jokes would fall as flat as lead balloons. But the humour arises from situations. I think Mrs Gray is funny,” he adds. “Well, she finds him screamingly funny. He’s a boy, you know? And teenage boys are ridiculous.”
And, in their rampant and confused desires, vulnerable. Does he worry that readers might find the book’s full-on depiction of a 15-year-old boy with a 35-year-old woman shocking? “Well, you see, I never thought of any of this,” he says. “It seemed to me perfectly straightforward – and I hope there won’t be a controversy, with people coming for my blood.
“It seems to me a perfectly innocent relationship. I know that might seem strange. But here are these two people who need comforting, and they comfort each other in the only way they can. Because they can’t really talk. There’s nothing for them to talk about. Mrs Gray just waffles on, and Alex has, as she says, one thing on his mind. But this is what human beings do, offer each other comfort as best we can. We take it where we can find it in this terrible world. And why wouldn’t we? So I couldn’t find anything shocking in these two lost souls. Well, one is a lost soul. One is a soul that hasn’t found itself yet.”
Even innocence isn’t quite innocent in Banville’s portrayal of the relationship, with its glancing but persistent references to incest and religiosity and its almost forensic examination of the complexity of any, never mind family, human interactions.
In this respect the text is, its author insists, self-determining. So, sometimes, are the characters. The book’s evocative title is supplied by an Argentinian called Fedrigo Sorrán, who materialises in a hotel bar and talks to Cleave of “heat death and the Hubble constant, of quarks and quirks and multiple infinities”. The ancient light is the light of galaxies, which takes as long to reach us as our universe has existed.
It’s a reminder that Banville is the author of an earlier trilogy – Dr Copernicus, Kepler and The Newton Letter – about scientists. “I’ve always been fascinated by physics and cosmology,” he says. “It gets more and more scary the older you get. Since I’ll soon be out there.”
There is, however, a very unscientific explanation for the mysterious Mr Sorran. “He’s a Spanish friend of mine called Rodrigo Fresan – of course it’s an anagram of his name – and he asked me. He said, ‘Give me a walk-on part.’ So I gave him a walk-on part. But he’s an interesting character, isn’t he? Because I didn’t know where he came from, or who he was, or why he was talking about . . . being a miner, wasn’t it?
“I used to try to control everything I did in my books. Now I let things happen, and frequently that’s where the best stuff comes from. And people will tell me all sorts of things. There’s a book coming out later in the year, a Banville reader. The editor tells me that Cotter’s Place, the abandoned house where the lovers meet in Ancient Light, is in Birchwood. There’s a Cotter’s Place in Birchwood where the boy sees his parents making love, or something like that. It’s obviously deep in my memory, but I have no memory of it at all. Stuff accumulates in the mind like lint, and it just floats up without you noticing, which I like.”
IT’S A MARK OFconfidence in his ability as a writer – isn’t it? – that he’s able to allow such material to find its place in his beautifully balanced prose.