December 2, 2012

John Banville’s new novel about a teen’s affair with an older woman swims in a sea of brilliant prose

“Ancient Light” by John Banville (Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95)

“Ancient Light” by John Banville (Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95)

It may seem silly to envy the British. The Empire has collapsed; you can’t walk the streets of London without having your every move captured on security cameras; and homegrown terrorism is an ever-present threat.

The price of imperialism – in larger cities at least – has produced a heterogenous mix of cultures, colors and traditions: unwieldy spoils of global conquest. That social fabric, more integrated than even America’s inner cities, is fraying at the edges.

Yet we in the United States rush to copy Britain’s cultural successes. Consider television alone: “Masterpiece Theatre” is proof enough, not to mention “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The British Isles, for all their geographical diminution, breed a gigantic imaginative creativity that we never quite seem to catch up to.

In literature, especially, this proves painfully true. We must await the works of the best writers in the English language, appearing on this side of the Atlantic months after they have seen the light of print in England or Ireland. (I am defining “Britain” as broadly as possible here.)

Thus, John Banville’s latest novel, “Ancient Light,” has arrived on U.S. shores wrapped in a package of effusive praise from the U.K. “The Stockholm jury should pick up the phone now,” declares one reviewer. Translation: A Nobel Prize in Literature looms in Banville’s future.

Literary prognostication is no more reliable than meteorological guesswork, however, and Banville likely will have to rest content with the Man Booker Prize (England’s highest literary award), which he landed seven years ago for “The Sea.”

Ironically, he has written much better novels since then – works that expose the watery weaknesses of “The Sea”: a story mired in much meditating, but little plot. “The Infinities,” for instance, published in 2010, shines as a brilliant re-imagining of how the ancient Greek gods might incarnate themselves in 21st-century life – a work by turns witty, delightful, surprising and profound.

Now, “Ancient Light” appears, superior on all fronts to its predecessors. Stockholm calling? Perhaps.

But we best turn our attentions first where they belong: away from envy and toward the rich, ebullient prose of our most inimitable stylist in English today.

A type of existential or metaphysical love story between a 15-year-old boy and his best friend’s mother, the novel – laced with Banville’s trademark threads of cynicism – beams with a hard-earned reverence for the great mystery of human life; the fecund landscapes of the mind; and the relentless, unconscious maneuverings of the erotic ego.

If nothing else, Banville shows how first love remains our only love, how it spawns the pattern of our desires, how it imprints Eros on the soul.

Likewise, the overriding theme of the novel – Is memory merely invention or a strict mirroring of the past? – falls in line with many of the giants of Western literature: Homer’s “Iliad,” Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”

Although no Homer, Alex Cleave is a prolific writer. The protagonist of two previous Banville novels, “Eclipse” (2000) and “Shroud” (2002), he is now an aging actor, having ruined his theatrical career with a bout of mortal stage fright, then facing the enigmatic suicide of his mentally troubled daughter, Cass, who drowned off the coast of Italy.

While his wife, Lydia, sleepwalks in pursuit of Cass, Cleve perches upstairs writing his memoirs of the love affair with his best friend’s mother, a sexual awakening with a woman 20 years his senior.

Here, clearly, Banville strains the bonds of credulity; at first preposterous, the affair with Mrs. Gray (we never learn her first name) turns the knee-jerk Nabokovian comparisons on their head; young Alex is Lolita, not Humbert Humbert. And the squalor of 1950s American motels gives way to a rhapsody of laundry-room liaisons, to the roomy back seats of automobiles, to love reclaimed in luxurious imagery, even if young Alex is a barely pubescent Proust.

That is Cleave’s past, then; his present centers on the offer of his first acting role in cinema, playing – of all characters – the man who might have been with his daughter, Cass, at the time of her death in Italy, the notorious literary critic Axel Vander.

From this strained coincidence springs a Rubik’s cube of plot twists that bedevil the machinations of memory. We enter a hall of mirrored images of mirrored images. Illusion upon illusion.

Yet Banville is such a masterful writer that we never lose our focus. Past and present intertwine, but the adult Alex, with his Hollywood ambitions, always finds his way home in the light of his 15-year-old alter ego; his self as a nascent lover, on the cusp of the real world off-stage.

Life’s a dream, is it not?

“ . . . I do not believe we retain details, or if we do they are so heavily edited and censored and generally fancified as to constitutes a new thing altogether, a dream of a dream, in which the original is transfigured, as the dream itself transfigures waking experience. This does not prevent me from crediting dreams with all sorts of numinous and prophetic implications.”

For the elder Alex, life resembles “a gradual shipwreck.” But he leaves it to the 15-year-old man-child to piece together the battered hull of adulthood.

Wrenchingly out of time, the rocky coastline of love harbors an emotional maturity a teenage body cannot withstand, cannot contain, cannot carry into the future.

This is the poignant heart of Banville’s prose: opportunities lost by being forever out of reach, the detritus of desire.

Such beauty is heartbreaking, worth the risk of ridicule – just as 15-year-old Alex Cleave risks his reputation, his sanity, his still-forming heart to Mrs. Gray.

Passion never dies for Banville. Where it goes not even he can say. Yet we can be grateful that it has arrived at last on our open-armed, expectant shores.

“Ancient Light” is a bona fide cause for envy.

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