Ancient Light, by John Banville, Penguin Viking, RRP£16.99, 256 pages
“Writers die twice,” Martin Amis observed when reviewing Vladimir Nabokov’s posthumously published The Original of Laura and lamenting its terminal flaws: “once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.”
It may be connected to the aestheticism of the endeavour, but prose stylists – and John Banville is one of the pre-eminent practitioners of our time – share a tendency to ripen and then rot. Banville’s exquisite The Sea secured him the greatly deserved and long overdue Man Booker Prize in 2005, but his next novel, The Infinities (2009), proved a perplexing read. The style was characteristically luminescent but something vital was missing, a key component of the Banvillian project: the feet of clay. The Infinities was narrated by Hermes and one of the characters was Zeus, but the gods at play do not suffer from the weakness out of which compelling art is made. The publication of The Infinities left Banville at a crossroads: whether to follow the well-trodden path of many great prose stylists before him and accept diminishing returns on his talent, or to have a moment.
Banville has elected to have a moment. Last year he won the Franz Kafka Prize (regarded as a good omen for the Nobel Prize). In February, the film Albert Nobbs, for which he co-wrote the screenplay, was nominated for three Oscars. The sixth in his Benjamin Black series of crime novels, Vengeance, is being published practically simultaneously with this, Ancient Light, Banville’s 15th literary novel and the third instalment in a trilogy that follows two members of the Cleave family, father Alexander and daughter Cass.
Ancient Light completes a trilogy of trilogies. In the past, Banville wrote them consecutively. The science trilogy, Doctor Copernicus, Kepler and The Newton Letter (the last of which marked him out as a worthy successor to Nabokov), was completed between 1976 and 1982. The Frames trilogy – The Book of Evidence, Ghosts and Athena (the last is a work that can stand alongside Lolita) – was published between 1989 and 1995.
The Cleave trilogy, or perhaps the “Cloven” trilogy, for these are fractured people, began in 2000 with Eclipse. Alexander Cleave, an actor who corpsed on stage, retreats to his childhood home in an effort to regroup, only to be floored by the news that his only child Cass has lost her life in mysterious circumstances in Italy. Shroud (2002) picked up the story from Cass’s point of view, the story as her father will never know it. Cass had fallen in with a strange older man, Axel Vander, a literary theorist whose anti-Semitic past the scholarly Cass had uncovered.
In Ancient Light, Banville revisits Alexander 10 years on, retired from acting and still mired in the wreckage of his daughter’s death, brooding of late on the complexities of a love affair from his teenage years, when a film scout arrives to offer work on a movie about a strange older man and his troubled girlfriend who dies in mysterious circumstances in Italy…
Ancient Light also bears resemblances to Lolita that extend beyond the obvious hallmark ecstatic prose, for it is narrated by Alexander, the “nympheur” (or whatever the masculine variant of “nymphet” might be – how telling that there doesn’t appear to be one). Alexander is seduced by his best friend’s mother Mrs Gray, and a sexually charged but doomed small-town love affair begins. “Her ramblings and ruminations and the odd breathless flight of wonderment I regarded as no more than the preliminaries I had to put up with before getting her into the back seat of that pachydermous old station wagon or on to the lumpy mattress on Cotter’s littered floor.”
Unlike poor Lolita, Banville’s “nympheur” Alexander lives to narrate this tale, and it is illuminating and often funny but ultimately devastating. Fifty or so years later, Alexander perceives how offhand his treatment of Mrs Gray was, for time and loss have made him sensitive to the plight of women. “Oh, yes, every advantage I got of her represented a nasty, miniature victory for my sense of self-esteem and sense of lordship over her.”
Ancient Light may be a novel about women, but Banville evokes the opposite sex from the standpoint of one who finds them baffling. Baffling, and therefore intriguing. Alexander’s first lover, his wife, his daughter, his mother – all are depicted with vivid clarity. A fifth woman appears, starlet Dawn Devonport, who plays the girlfriend in the film about Vander.
The plot strands combine in the closing sections of the novel as Alexander’s narrative switches from 1950s Ireland to an Italian winter to the present day, these different periods of his life blending into a single meditation of breathtaking beauty and profundity on love and loss and death, the final page of which brought tears. The Stockholm jury should pick up the phone now.
Claire Kilroy’s new novel ‘The Devil I Know’ will be published by Faber next month