Once for a while you meet an author who you read for writing craftsmanship, for masterly style and then storyline seems to recede into the background It doesn t matter then if plot is too draggy in parts, if protagonists not always are likeable, if action is sometimes flagging John Banville is that kind of writer I have just fallen under the spell of his prose because it never fails Smooth, mellifluous, multidimensional, bursting with emotions Those older ones, faded and distant, and these recent which any time couldn t healAncient Light , like other Banville s works I read so far concerns past and memory Ones say that past it is today just anything further Agreed Others maintain thatpast is a foreign country they do things differentlyAgreed once again.Alexander Cleave, an ageing actor by whole hours seating in his retreat, is a guardian of memory Memory of Mrs Gray, summer or rather spring goddes, it was April then, his youthful love Memory of Cassie, his unhappy daughter, connoisseur of death and an expert of passing, who died by suicide ten years earlier.Evocation of bygone affair and mourning for daughter These two threads interlace with present life of Alexander And are pretext to journey, also this real one, deep into the past Because, in fact, wherever we look, we look into the past Trying to cope with death of his daughter Alex visits place where she died as if the view of rocks which destroyed her face, waters which mercifully washed her body could anything change or recoup Attentively collects all shards and pieces, reliving over and over again his bereavement, not allowing the old wounds being healedI guard my memories of my lost one jealously, keep them securely under wraps, like a folio of delicate watercolours that must be protected from the harsh light of dayBrooding about secret trysts and forbidden romance can see how this juvenescent infatuation coloured his subsequent life But things we remember not always mirror what really happened and sometimes we have to face with imprecision of recollections Everything is relative and memory, like distorting mirror, beguiles us with blurred images, deludes with false reflectionMadam Memory, this subtle dissembler , plays tricks on us, enhances some events, imparting to them glorious light and flavor while other deeds, faded and eclipsed are patiently waiting for awakening Is it memory yet or maybe invention, reshaping the past Sometimes one can t distinguish them. The Mysteries of the KitchenA young man s sexual fantasy about an affair with a married woman becomes, if he lives long enough, an old man s nostalgic reminiscence of first love Or is it an unacknowledged trauma which crippled him emotionally and created an entirely mis recalled scandal Ancient Light isn t telling with complete certainty In any case, as Banville s male protagonist has it, what is life but a gradual shipwreck There are several connected stories hung on the memories of adolescent adultery, all continuations of themes used in Banville s previous novels, The Shroud and Eclipse betrayal, suicide, and family trauma among them The common thread in all three volumes is identity how it is constructed, maintained, and eroded In Ancient Light identity is explored as it is created through the traces of the past that, like light from distant stars, reaches us blurred and distorted in memory.What Banville reveals is not what one might expect, at least not entirely, about male identity He makes it quite clear that men, or at least his man Alex Cleave, remember primarily the sex and the threatened deprivation of sex in their youthful past That and the incessant emotional demands singular attentiveness, immediate empathy, motherly tenderness they make on the object of their affections It appears that it is the acquiescence to these demands that constitute the primary reason for Alex s loving memories In a word, Alex is selfish And he is not noticeably less selfish at age 65 than he was at age 15 Alex s mature reveries about his teenage exploits with the 35 year old Mrs Gray, for example, never provoke the slightest serious thought about why such a woman, the mother of his best friend, might take the enormous risk of an affair with a pimply faced, whinging youth The best he can come up with is a projection, Perhaps that s what she accomplished for herself through me, a return to childhood Not anywhere near the truth of course He merely presumes, even in his maturity, that she had the same motivations as his own To this extent, then, Alex s identity seems constant or is a fixed a better term Another symptom of male selfishness is Alex s contemplation of an alternative universe How would it have been, he muses, if Mrs Gray and not Lydia had been my daughter s mother This is the Lydia to whom he has been married for almost 40 years, with whom he has had a handicapped daughter who committed suicide a decade previously in mysterious circumstances, and who sleep walks the house at night in search of her lost daughter Yet he calmly fantasises about the life he might have had, implicitly comparing it to the one he has Just thinking about it causes him to exclaim, Lord, I feel 15 again Bastard Banville also suggests that probably because of their intrinsic selfishness men are entirely incapable of understanding, much less entering into the kind of relationships women routinely have with one another His symbol for this male alienation is the kitchen, a room in which male presence is not encouraged and within which women speak with each other of mysterious matters incomprehensible to men The relationships among women, including those who are virtual strangers to one another, are entirely opaque and inexplicable to Alex Even the relationships between living and dead women, such as between his wife and daughter, do not compute in his experience Learning, it seems, is not part of Alex s identity.Problematic maleness pervades the narrative otherwise with frequent references to the man, Vander, a character appearing in the first two Cleave novels, who is the likely cause of Alex s daughter s suicide Ancient Light has a little twist of the post modern, probably ironic, in that Alex, an actor, plays a biographical film role of Vander, thus implicating him, at least in a literary way, with his daughter s death.In sum then, male identity doesn t come off well here It is certainly an inept and bumbling misogyny that Alex demonstrates on every opportunity he has But it is misogyny nonetheless This begs the question of course Who taught him, or failed to teach him, about appropriate relationships with women other than the women with whom he has had relationships Could his shipwreck of a life have been avoided through a little feminine instruction in sex, life and the universe Or is the X Y genetic profile merely a curse It was a scorching afternoon Wait Or was it an evening Ah, the flimsy line between erratic memories and induced imagination What I distinctly remember is my spontaneous decision to take a bath in the unruly ocean of Alexander Cleave s consciousness Wait Or was it Banville s A game of mirrors where truth and identity play a silent role in the undulating waves of painfully selected words composing the swaying tide of androgynous prose that wash the shores of beguiling poetry.Words Those inaccurate pieces of shattered letters that can t convey the wholeness of meaning when glued back together unless some virtuous sorcerer casts a spell upon them, infusing them with their original essence Banville shakes his magic wand and brings the Ireland of the fifties back to life using the magnifying prism of Alex s unreliable recollections of an affair between his fifteen year old self and his best friend s mother, the Aphrodite Mrs Gray.Still mourning for the loss of his daughter Cass and struggling to delineate his missing identity after years of putting an act on the stages, Alex subsists locked in his hermit s mind where he swims against the current of his memories flowing down the riverbanks of invention only to disembogue in the steely sea of reality LoveThe truth is I did t love her enoughBanville treads the mental paths of Alex s flashbacks to outline the significance of an amorphous word that has been perverted by overuse Love can t be framed into a static condition because it transcends time through its constant reshaping Even after the object of Alex s adoration has dissolved into nothingness, an idealized image of tantalizing Mrs Gray remains, polluting his present disemboweled existence with her ageless presence and ruining the rest of women for him.LossWhat is life but a gradual shipwreckAs Alex courses the river of the fragmented reminiscences of his youth, he confronts the disquieting revelation of having gone adrift by mourning the lost versions of himself imprinted on his beloved ones rather than the fact of their tragic deaths If one s true image is reflected in the mirror of others, what is left of that self when the others are gone Time There is no such thing as present, for every second lived, every light refracted in the pupils of our eyes belongs to the past Future is a chimera and present is an infinitesimal reality that goes stale in merciless instantaneity,alive to Alex yet lost, except in the frail after world of his words Memory Tricky Selective Subjective Untrustworthy snapshots that come and go unpredictably like the rocking motion of waves carrying exact and impossible details of Alex s past to compound his nebulous present What is memory and what is figment What is fallacy and what is self preservationThe things we retain, memory s worthless coin Identity Banville relentlessly teases the reader providing not a reflection of Alexander Cleave, but a reflection of his reflection through a translucent labyrinth of distorting mirrors, where not everything means something and identity expands and contracts like elusive time Fiction and reality mix and blend creating a continuum of sumptuous prose that soars with uncanny lyricism and natural imagery and stimulates with suggestive eroticism and overwhelming emotion As frustrating as an unfocused narrator and a slippery plotline can be, one can t help but luxuriate in Banville s mellifluous long digressions disguised as literary delicatessen and bask in his evocative voice, which intones a melodious ode to a past overshadowed by oblivion yet illuminated by an everlasting Ancient Light Allow yourself to be swirled away by the stirring waters of Banville s stream of consciousness and to go astray in the puzzle of memory where the crucial pieces are missing and only luminous words will prevail. There are no certainties in Ancient Light, just wisps, shadows and fragments It is as if John Banville has written the entire novel from odd scraps and shreds of possibilities The reader feels the breath of these possibilities on his cheek but cannot distinguish their exact shape We feel there may be connections between the events recounted in the present time of the novel and those of the past, between the real characters and the absent ones, but rarely are our suppositions confirmed Out of all this vagueness, out of this ancient light, John Banville, who is a character in his own book, has extracted something quite beautiful but which can also be ever so slightly annoying I have read and enjoyed several of his books, The Sea being my favourite, and I ve always found his style faultless so I had to ask myself why I found this one annoying Was it because the narrator s voice is too fussy, too particular Was it because there were just too many undeveloped threads, too much going on under the skin of this delicate novel Was it because the different threads, although in need of development, were instead padded out with odd reflections about life in general as if JB allowed himself to veer away completely from his characters from time to time just for the hell of it You might say, why not Why not indeed The digressions on various aspects of life are interesting and the language is always just right But these asides are disorientating, distancing us from the issues confronting the characters so that finally, we don t care very much what happens to them some of the scenes deserve to be charged with great emotion but I didn t feel emotionally involved until the final page Interestingly, one of the characters, Dawn Devonport, is like a physical embodiment of the novel itself beautiful, ethereal, fragmented, damaged, frustrating and ultimately cold Tailpiece relating to the Mrs Grey section, and containing spoilers although I have tried to be as vague as the narrator himself While reading Ancient Light, I wondered about the reliability of the narrator s memories of his teenage affair with Mrs Grey, a theme which I didn t mention in my review but which gets most of the focus in the other reviews I ve looked at since Alex, as the narrator is called, is sometimes very vague when recalling that summer He s unsure about what season it really was so that it sometimes seems as if he is creating the scenario rather than recreating it, although at other times he is very precise about colours and smells and textures When he meets a key figure in that episode at the end of the novel, and we finally get some facts about the events of that year, I began to do wonder if the entire affair had been limited to that one occasion in the laundry room, when Mrs Grey was simply giving him a change of clothes while herself wearing nothing but an oversized dressing gown Such an episode, in which Mrs Grey seemed to embody the female figure from the Kayser stocking poster seen in the window of the Ladies Outfitters in the town, one of his few fetish objects, could easily have been magnified in an over active teenage mind into a series of romantic encounters, oddly never witnessed by anyone else except a few other young boys wishful thinking perhaps even though Alex lived in a small town where, as we know from life and literature, everyone knows everyone s business This theory might explain how he managed to forget the eventual outcome of Mrs Grey s life maybe he was only aware of her as a stimulus for his adolescent desire His adding a phantom character to the scene in the laundry room is significant too and further proof that he made something major out of something relatively ordinary, i.e the mother of a friend offering him a change of clothes after they had both been drenched to the skin during a thunderstorm Although I didn t read Banville s earlier novel, Eclipse, I gather that it takes place in the same town as Ancient Light where the adult Alex is spending time recuperating from a trauma According to reviews of that book, he fails to mention Mrs Grey even once during the action of the earlier novel And, yes, I know I am writing as if Alex himself were not a fiction That s exactly how I remember it Banville is often compared to Nabokov so I suppose it s inevitable that he write his own version of a Lolita story but with the twist that it s from a male perspective this time Here Alexander Cleave, a boy of fifteen, is the victim Banville s use of language and his sense of humor are staggering He doesn t so much provide belly laughs as he does a nod or a chuckle for example a Hollywood film director stays at Ostentation Towers and another luminary is a professor of Applied Deconstruction His descriptions of the natural world are lovely Ancient Light is an apt title because this is a book of memories Even current events have roots in the past And nothing happens just once.There are three stories told here One is of Cleave s childhood and his early love affair , another, from an adult perspective, is told in flashbacks about a death from ten years ago that s left Alexander grieving, and the third story is about his current life Alexander is a career stage actor yet on the verge of retirement he s suddenly offered a leading role in a movie based on an enigmatic man whose life touched his own though he s not sure to what extent In fact part of what he tries to find out is just how intimately this character, Vander, played in his past.Threaded through these explorations are four key women, the married lover who s also the mother of his best friend, his wife, his daughter, and Dawn Davenport, his leading lady in the movie they re making together Each main character seems to have a double or to have a reflection With all the doubling of characters and the flopping between past and present I found myself wondering who the real person was, which reality was real, the ancient memory or the current reality Or were either of them accurate To muddy the waters Banville throws in allusions to Greek fables further throwing doubt on the narrator s account In the end it didn t really matter what the truth was because, just like life, no memory is ever 100% accurate and who s to say which interpretation of events are real It s what we give our attention to that counts, that gives things weight. There are moments, infrequent though marked, when it seems that by some tiny shift or lapse in time I have become misplaced, have outstripped or lagged behind myselfAnd for that moment I am helpless, so much so that I imagine I will not be able to move on to the next place, or go back to the place where I was before that I will not be able to stir at all, but will have to remain there, sunk in perplexity, mired in this incomprehensible fermata So it was, that I basked in the marvel that is Banville s prose, even if it meant taking a stroll alongside the unreliable narrator, Alexander Cleave, as he takes a retrospective look at his life Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother, is the first line that lured me Yet this is not all this book is about, for it also centers around the loss of a child to suicide, the strain of a marriage, the stress of creative work, and the effects of sadness on one s physical and mental it is a lyrical bombardment of the emotional and psychological What really propelled me to read this book was the theme of memory, as memory is a theme I find alluring in most books And Banville did not disappoint me here, for he veered seamlessly between time, place, and tense, at times toying with my own sense of time, and even trying my reader s patience Yet how can I account for all these anomalies, these improbabilities I cannot What I have described is what appears in my memory s eye, and I must say what I see.The parallel stories within this present and past maneuver reminded me of Olsson s The Memory of Love, where a woman revisits her childhood from a seaside town Unlike that story, which ended in a crescendo to explain intentional forgetfulness stemming from trauma, this story has a linear arc that features a narrator on an intentional quest to reconcile his past Was he really in love with his best friend s mother And why would she get involved with a fifteen year old in the first place What did he not know about her What did he not know about his daughter His wife As he works on a movie and meets a woman whose depressive state reminds him of his daughter s, this familiarity causes him to wrestle with his pastIt was as if I had been strolling unconcernedly along an unfamiliar, pleasant street when suddenly a door had been flung open and I had been seized by the scruff and hauled unceremoniously not into a strange place but a place that I knew all too well and had thought I would never be made to enter again How accurate are our own memories What do we know of our first loves You can t help but ask yourself these questions when you read this sordid story with mounted language It s not too often that you can relax in the exquisiteness of an author s narration and direction, not too often that you find a true meditation on loss and regret that exhibits such profundity about life,this vast invisible sea of weightless and transparent stuff, present everywhere, undetected, through which we move, unsuspecting swimmers, and which moves through us, a silent, secret essence the ancient light of galaxies and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past Billy Gray Was My Best Friend And I Fell In Love With His Mother Alexander Cleave, An Actor Who Thinks His Best Days Are Behind Him, Remembers His First Unlikely Affair As A Teenage Boy In A Small Town In S Ireland The Illicit Meetings In A Rundown Cottage Outside Town Assignations In The Back Of His Lover S Car On Sunny Mornings And Rain Soaked Afternoons And With These Early Memories Comes Something Sharper And Much Darker The Recent Recollection Of The Actor S Own Daughter S Suicide Ten Years Before Ancient Light Is The Story Of A Life Rendered Brilliantly Vivid The Obsession And Selfishness Of Young Love And The Terrifying Shock Of Grief It Is A Dazzling Novel, Funny, Utterly Pleasurable And Devastatingly Moving In The Same Moment John Banville, as is usual with him, demonstrates than just one level in his narration and the novel carries multiple psychological messages and meanings More confusingly still, there was another mirror, a full length one, fixed to what would have to have been the outwards facing side of the inwards opening door, and it was in this mirror that I saw the room reflected, with at its centre the dressing table, or whatever it was, with its own mirror, or I should say mirrors What I had, therefore, was not, strictly speaking, a view of the bathroom, or bedroom, but a reflection of it, and of Mrs Gray not a reflection but a reflection of a reflection The present and the past, tricks of memory, delusions of youth and old age are the subjects our past is a corrupted reflection of our life in our memory so our recountal of the past is a reflection of a reflection Nor did she care for the plangent, plunging love stories that were still so popular then, the women all shoulder pads and lipstick and the men either craven or treacherous or both John Banville doesn t go for this kind of tales either So Ancient Light is much a story of despair than a love story It is the story of skeletons in the closet of the past Since it seems that nothing in creation is ever destroyed, only disassembled and dispersed, might not the same be true of individual consciousness Where when we die does it go to, all that we have been When I think of those whom I have loved and lost I am as one wandering among eyeless statues in a garden at nightfall The air about me is murmurous with absences When one looks behind, what does one see What ghosts John Banville s perfect sentences flow without apparent effort Banville is a master, fully in control Alex, an actor from early age on, lives in a world where the past is real to him than the present so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past What is the exact nature of these memories though This novel examines that question in a most exquisite way. The three stars I m giving this book are actually erring on the side of generous, because my bafflement at the vague allusions to plot and coincidence that run through the novel without ever being resolved or illuminated or anything very much happening with them may in part have been my fault Turns out this is the 3rd book in a trilogy of which I had not read the first two books, so much might have been different and less frustrating than it was, had I read the earlier books.This is an extremely introspective static book by a writer infatuated with fancy language and high brow literary allusions Proust is not only the informing spirit of much of this long meandering meditation on memory and love, but he s actually name checked in an inside baseball sort of way we re told the narrator recalls his 15 year old self and his older lover as Marcel and Odette In a similar lit crit in crowd joke, a sinister Paul DeMan analog haunts the outskirts of this book, even as DeMan himself is repeatedly name checked, and of course how meta the narrator jokes about how the fictional DeMan analog is a lot like Paul DeMan I almost find it touching that anyone still cares about Paul DeMan enough to built a non narrative narrative around him Talk about something that drags you back in time DeMan is a madeleine that takes me back to my first literature class in college But for me at least, Banville isn t Proust Where Proust grabbed my heart and my mind and wouldn t let go and sucked me in for all six books, and always left me chewing something over, or saying yeah, that s IT even in the draggy bits like Albertine Disparue , each of these 300 pages was bit of a slog While there were flashes of lapidary brilliance, too often there were just too many words, and too many memory games, and the neither of the women in the central relationships the narrator s not mother and his not daughter ever become than literary devices So too, you might say of Odette and Albertine, butstill.Nonetheless, as irritating as I found this book in addition to non people characters, we have non place places the most deracinated Ireland, London and Italy that you can imagine only mental spaces are real to our narrator , there was something oddly intriguing about Banville s game I might actually read the first two books some day, when I have a LOT of time.