So here's to you, Mrs Gray


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.

The words of the book move between the domestic and the aureate (or “aurate”, as a possibly mischievous spelling puts it). Discussion of the novel, however, is likely to dwell less on linguistic matters, or on the solution of mysteries, than on the presentation of Mrs Gray and her effect on her young chap, and on his awareness of that “purblind optician”, as he calls the spectacled Mr Gray.

This is very much what I like about the novel, those parts of it, in other words, that cut down on orotundity, that require other words. Mrs Gray is human, funny, fleshly. The “tender tending” that Dawn Devonport is in need of is supplied by Mrs Gray, who belies her name by being aureate or aurate. Banville has declared in an interview that he doesn’t understand women (or men, or himself), but he does seem to understand Celia Gray. Her chap is selfish, often surly, more respectful of the need for secrecy than Mrs Gray (whose disregard is a puzzle I’m unable to solve). The novel works towards an elucidation of the narrator’s misreadings of his vernal past and towards a final and suspenseful close that can’t be thought to be the end of a trilogy.

None of this is meant to make light of the gift for words and wordplay that helps to depict this not very Irish Ireland (as a British reader might suppose it), while the enlightening of the innocent by the woman at the waning of her youth is done proud in Banville’s novel. In one way or another the book has an aspect of social history: there can never have been a golden time when secrecy defeated the neighbours and nobody at all knew what was going on.

Karl Miller founded the London Review of Books, which he edited from 1979 to 1992, and is emeritus professor of English at University College London. His most recent book is Tretower to Clyro: Essays, published by Quercus

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