256 pp., Viking, £16.99
In Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, the protagonist asks ‘Who said it that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten?’ This quotation would serve as an adequate epigraph for John Banville’s new book, Ancient Light. The novel features Alexander Cleave, an ageing actor who has appeared in two previous books by Banville. This is no saga of the likes of Edward St Aubyn though, but a more episodic aggregation of Cleave’s various desires and memories. The novel charts Cleave’s recollections of an affair he had as a teenager with the mother of his best friend. This relationship is remembered in blurred fragments: scenes of voyeurism, heady adventure and intimate sexual experience. Cleave informs us early on that these memories are merely ‘items of flotsam’ that he chooses ‘to salvage from the general wreckage’ of his mind. ‘What is a life,’ he poignantly says, ‘but a gradual shipwreck?’
Stories from the illicit relationship are interspersed with scenes from the present where Cleave is asked to star in a new film about a literary scholar. This half of the book is less successful and remarkably unbelievable in many ways – a film about literary theory? I think not – but in some ways it provides a neat balance to the scenes from the past. However, the dual storylines are too forcefully combined. For instance, the film is called The Invention of the Past: a far-from-subtle nod to the subject of the novel we are reading. I find it strange that Banville felt the need to include such an explicit gesture to his theme; there are a number of points where Cleave admits the fragility of his memory, asking himself whether he has made the whole affair up. We do not need such hulking signposting.
Books about the potency, or waning, of memory are nothing new, and sadly Banville has little to offer us that has not been charted before. He is always good at capturing small details and glimpses of human behaviour in the miniature, but in Ancient Light the whole effect is too rigid and artificial. In contrast, Barnes’ slender and delicate The Sense of an Ending effortlessly charts the machinations and complications of memory in a restrained and wholly convincing way. I longed to re-read Barnes’ book as I ploughed through this sludge of a novel.
The Sea, which won Banville the Booker prize some years ago, masterfully tackled similar themes to Ancient Light, but did so with a clever and shocking structure, in poetically-charged language. Banville is known for this luxurious and finely-tuned prose, and there is no shortage of seductive sentences in this book, for example: ‘there is nothing like the loss of an only child to soften the wax of sealed convictions’. Such metaphoric beauty is typical of Banville, but in Ancient Light this wordiness often gets out of control. He is often critiqued for his pretentious literary styling, and for the first time, in the case of this book, I have to agree. Consider this description of steam rising from a boiling kettle: the ‘column…was rising, dense with sunlight in it and lazily undulant, and curling on itself in an elegant scroll at its topmost reach’. While the steam in some ways stands in for Mrs Gray – the undulant and elegant one in Cleave’s eyes – this description is too overbearing. Banville has many of these moments where his prose spills over into ridiculousness. Take this awful simile: ‘A sob of anguish was forming inside me like a big soft warm unlayable egg’. With the clichéd ‘sob of anguish’ aside (more than clunky), the layering of four adjectives onto that egg is laughable (I put an exclamation mark in the margin next to this passage in my copy!).
Ancient Light is a thoroughly disappointing read. Banville is a skilled and often stimulating novelist, but this book is flawed in too many ways for it to convince. For the real force of a ‘shipwreck’ of memory, read The Sea.
Chris Lloyd is studying for his PhD at Goldsmiths in literature and film of the American South. His blog, rapturelondon.tumblr.com features his writing, reviews and thoughts on culture.