Friday, 7 September 2012

Ancient Light by John Banville | The Invention of the Past

I would like to suggest that a lot of contemporary novel authors have a preoccupation with how our memories are part "truth" and part fiction. J M Coetzee said "we half perceive but we also half create" (Age of Iron). Increasingly this notion is being explored in fiction, and Ancient Light is a great example of a novel that deal with this specific issue. Aging actor Alexander Cleave finds himself reminiscing about his fling with his best friend's mother when he was 15. These memories are juxtaposed to the heart wrenching memory of his pregnant daughter's suicide ten years ago. Alex is desperate to find out the truth about his daughter's death, as well as the truth of what became of Mrs Gray after their fling abruptly came to an end. But he is forced to make up some of it: 'often the past seems a puzzle from which the most vital pieces are missing" (p. 211).

What I find extremely inviting about this novel is not only Banville's excellent prose and his meticulous choice of words, but also the fact that he seems to draw inspiration from two of my favourite authors, Paul Auster and J M Coetzee. If Auster and Coetzee's imaginative powers had a baby, the baby might come out as this novel. Both Auster and Coetzee's novels are often very metafictional, and especially the story set in the present tense of Ancient Light have some interesting metafictional traits. Alex has been offered a role in a movie, to play the elusive Alex Vander, whose identity was stolen after his death. The man who pretended to be Alex Vander was then as much of an actor as Alex Cleave. And in his remembrance of the past, it seems that Alex Cleave is inventing the past as much as the fake Alex Vander did. In playing Vander, he is becoming Vander; "...his usurper stepping seamlessly into his place and walking on, into the future, and overtaking me, who will presently in turn become a sort of him, another insubstantial link in the chain of impersonation and deceit" (p. 82).

Everyone involved in the movie production have strangely fictional names. Marcy Meriwether, Toby Taggart, Dawn Devonport and Billie Stryker all have a melodious but artificial quality which made me question if Alex was making them all up, or if they were somehow a figment of his imagination. And when Alex discovers that Alex Vander was in Portovenere, the Italian town where his daughter died, at the same time she was, I really start to question how everything is connected. It is almost an Austerian detective plot.

As mentioned above, the story happens on three time levels. Alex at 15 involved in an almost incestuous relationship with his best friend's mother; the time when his daughter committed suicide and the autopsy revealed that she was pregnant, while her personal notes revealed that a certain Svidrigailov was somehow involved; and now, Alex making his movie debut playing a man who pretended to be someone else. The great star Dawn Devonport has the female lead, playing Vander's much younger love interest. There is always a sexualized mother/son or father/daughter relationship involved in all, and in Dawn Devonport's case, she and Alex symbolically become surrogates for one another.

The title is mentioned a few times in the book. At one point it is referred to as a woman's right to have a window through which some piece of sky will be visible at the far end of the room. This I can only read as symbolizing hope and freedom. Was Mrs Gray's choice to have an affair with a boy her claim to the right of 'ancient light'? Later a different notion of the concept is brought up: "Now he was speaking of the ancient light of galaxies that travels for a million - a billion - a trillion! - miles to reach us. ...and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past" (p.172). Cleave is looking into the past of his youth, to an unresolved event that seems to have kicked off his acting, as well as the death of his daughter, which might never be resolved.

Grief is a strong theme in the novel. Similar to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the protagonist of Ancient Light cannot be reconciled to the fate of his child, and he feels forced to hang on to his grief: "to lay down the burden for the merest moment, would be to lose her with a finality that would have seemed more final than death itself" (p.140).

Ancient Light is a novel that deserves to be read in depth, to be lectured over, have theses written about it, and be compared and contrasted with author x,y and z. Unfortunately I have time only to scratch the surface and catch a hint of what it is about. It is without a doubt an excellent piece of literature, and it is when reading books like this that I really miss studying literature. Greater than The Sea, Ancient Light is a novel with sparks of excellent scattered throughout.

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