Ancient Light
By John Banville
288 pages, $25.95

By Michael D. Langan
John Banville’s new novel, “Ancient Light” is about the unreliability of memory. As one moves toward the end of life, it is a condition that dodderers among us recognize and which Banville calls “a gradual shipwreck.”
Regrettably, “Ancient Light” is a shipwreck itself, a hard-to-accept pastiche of Banville’s earlier novelistic plotting all dumped into his latest novel.
Here’s the story: An old man, Alexander Cleave, is writing about his first sexual experience as a teenager with his chum’s mother, Mrs. Gray, more than 50 years ago. His wife, Lydia, is an emotional wreck over the apparent suicide of their pregnant daughter, Cass. Add to the mix the prospect of a return to an acting career for Cleave in the movies.
This is a confused triad of stories whose “back and forth” breaks the momentum of action in each that is not helpful to the reader.
The title of the novel comes from Mrs. Gray’s speaking to 15-year-old Cleave. She recounts in their lovemaking, “odds and ends of arcane and curious information”, to wit: “… the householder’s right to ancient light – the sky must be visible at the top of a window viewed from the base of the opposite wall.” What? You might say. There’s a certain sense to it if you picture the couple lying on the floor.
Because it is an Irish novel with an overlay of repressed behavior, sex roves its pages. Cleave’s hyper-sexuality masks a basic loneliness with the human condition.
In this case, and so late in the day, sex is in the head of Alexander Cleave, an actor and character from Banville’s earlier novels, “The Shroud”, and “Eclipse,” now in his twilight years.
As with many older people, Cleave admits that “Images from the far past crowd my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all.”
It is certainly true that sexual repression in Ireland over decades led to an unhealthy explosion of interest in sex by a considerable segment of the population. One could postulate that having a more open and conversational attitude about sex education might have made a difference. This hypothesis is arguable, perhaps plausible, perhaps not. What’s clear is that the golden mean, a sense of balance, seems to have been lost while people fumbled in the hayloft.
It was a physical riot in the past, it’s a mental riot now in Banville’s novel, as Cleave thinks of a Mrs. Gray, a woman on a bicycle whose clothes and modesty were undone by a breeze as he observed her pass by, let in on what our author calls “a glimpse into the world of womanhood itself … on the great secret.”
In the first person Cleave asks, “Nowadays we are assured that there is hardly a jot of difference between the ways in which the sexes experience the world, but no woman, I am prepared to wager, has ever known the suffusion of dark delight that floods the veins of a male of any age, from toddler to nonagenarian, at the spectacle of the female privy parts, as they used quaintly to be called, exposed accidently, which is to say fortuitously, to sudden public view.”
Is Banville right in this view, that all men “…would on the instant [be] transformed and joined into a herd of bloodshot, baying satyrs bent on rapine”?
Likely there are exceptions, but interest in the opposite sex is undeniably built into men and women for the purpose of populating the race and lesser but valuable reasons.
Alas, Alexander Cleave hasn’t the will to walk away from temptation. Mrs. Gray’s womanly attributes, a “throaty laugh, and the negligent, backhanded grace with which she subdued her ballooning skirt” stays with him.
Memories such as the inscrutable recollection of a young boy’s inadvertent introduction to sex shift backward to those of a 15-year-old who is offered lovemaking at the invitation of his friend’s mother, Mrs. Gray, more than double his age. People can go to jail for this, but not in a Banville novel.
Banville’s smoldering scenes of coitus may too much for most readers. They are an admonition – even in this advanced age – to avert one’s own eyes from acts that Banville might better have left off the page. One needn’t be a “Mrs. Grundy”, that is, one overly fearful of maintaining propriety, to say this.
(On this score I am reminded of Thomas Lamb Eliot’s observation about changes in American society in 1914. T.S. Eliot’s father wrote to his brother, “I do not approve of public instruction in sexual relations. When I teach my children to avoid the Devil I don’t begin by giving them a letter of introduction to him and his crowd.”)
Somehow, amid all these old man reveries of “Let’s Fall in Lust”, Alexander Cleave gets an offer to take a starring role in a film, a life of Axel Vander, called “The Invention of the Past.” (Vander is also a character in an earlier Banville novel.) At least that’s what Cleve’s wife, Lydia, reports to him as he sits in his attic dreaming of Lady Venus and her sportive boy.
The Cleaves cleave to one another, but only just. He dreams of Lydia as a butch in a Sapphic dream. She agonizes in dreams over the death of their daughter, Catherine, “Cass” to both parents, who died in Liguria, pregnant.
In a strange way, the novel is dimmed by the brilliance of Banville’s writing.
One needs more than gorgeous phrasings in a novel. Equally required is that one “choose a suitable design and hold to it”, as Strunk and White wrote in “Elements of Style” more than 50 years ago. Banville would deny that what he’s written isn’t well laid out, but his book is a disappointment nevertheless.
Banville’s beautiful if hothouse writing about adolescent lust, mixed with the death of a daughter and a strange filmic opportunity that includes a whole set of new characters at the end of his life, don’t come off as a cohesive plot.
The result is “bad cess” – bad luck - for Banville, as some Irish might say about “Ancient Light.”

Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of Irish and British fiction for The News.