So here's to you, Mrs Gray

Sat, Jul 7, 2012, 01:00

FICTION:JOHN BANVILLE is a man of many books, Booker books among them. And most of his reviews, it has been claimed, are eulogies. He has many enemies too, he thinks, because of a diatribe of his on Ian McEwan’s Saturday, and these enemies have no doubt produced hostile reviews of his work.

But on book pages and in journals the dominant note has at this point been more and more favourable, if not congratulatory. Seamus Heaney speaks strikingly of his “mischievous, mortally serious way”, Adam Phillips starts a sentence: “No one since Proust . . .” Others say that “everything interests him”, that he is “sublime”, a “lord of language”, a “writer’s writer”. He can certainly be called a reviewer’s writer.

The latest novel, Ancient Light, shares characters and events with earlier fictions by Banville, including the suicide of a daughter – the daughter of his narrator, Alexander Cleave, who has spent his life as a professional actor. These shared elements can give the impression of a triptych or trilogy under construction, and they don’t always enhance the lucidity for which he has been praised. Cleave tells the story of his young life in an Irish seaside town, and of his love affair at 15 with 35-year-old Mrs Gray, mother of a schoolfriend. A calendar of assignations ensues: in a kitchen annexe, a car, a ruined hut. The affair ends in mystery, cleared up in part eventually.

Since then Cleave has married and has fathered a child. In much later times he goes to Italy in pursuit of the last days of his long-lost daughter, spent in the company of the ominous Axel Varder, who appears to allude to the disgraced postmodernist star literary theorist Paul de Man, a name Banville may have been loath to leave out of a novel prone to colourful and evocative names. He has meanwhile befriended the film star Dawn Devonport, a less tender bond than the one he had with homespun Mrs Gray, whose maiden name is scarcely divulged in the book and has escaped the mind of its reminiscent narrator. Memory and mystery are, in general, a concern of John Banville’s. Memory and invention are, according to his narrator, the same thing. Further tests are hereby imposed on the project of lucidity.

The words chosen by this lord of language may be meant to mimic the language of Cleave’s theatrical day job. “Satyrs bent on rapine” (or rape), talk of the demonic, might be cases in point. Words such as “supererogatory” and “leporine” are used. The lovers are referred to as “Lady Venus and her sportive boy”; a holiday is grandly referred to as “the Feast of St Priapus, perhaps”. But he also uses homely terms, such as “hanky-panky”, a mainly Scots-Irish expression, I believe, for what happens in the hay of the ruined and rained-on hut.

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