In the trompe loeil universe of the versatile Irish novelist John Banville, things rarely happen just once. The actual event in a particular intersection of space and time - the secret tryst, the trusted friend betrayed - is filtered through a kaleidoscope of memory and dream, lies and subterfuge, hallucinations and ghosts. In Banvilles latest novel, Ancient Light, there is the added distorting mirror of a movie version of events long past. The biopic in which the narrator, an aging actor named Alexander Cleave, is unexpectedly invited to star - landing this plum part without applying for it, without even an audition - is called, to hammer home the point, The Invention of the Past.
Time and Memory are a fussy firm of interior decorators, Cleave, the hyperarticulate son of a lodging-house keeper, intones, always shifting the furniture about and redesigning and even reassigning rooms. The effect of this slyly constructed and stylistically buoyant novel sometimes verges on the claustrophobic, as the reader gropes for clues in what Cleave describes, with characteristic grandiosity, as the inilluminable dimness of my self-regarding consciousness.
Two traumatic events from the past hang in the narrative balance. First, there is Cleave’s love affair, in the spring and summer he was 15, with the 35-year-old mother of his best friend, Billy Gray, in the tight little town near the Irish coast where he grew up. And, second, there is the suicide, four decades later, of his own troubled daughter, Cass, under mysterious circumstances in the Ligurian coastal town of Portovenere, on the bay where Shelley drowned.
What brings these two events - or, rather, Cleave’s shape-shifting memory of them - together is the movie, in which he will play Axel Vander, a famous literary critic with an unsavory past. Cleave learns the puzzling detail that Vander also happened to be in Portovenere when Cass, a specialist in arcane literary theory, plunged to her death. Readers might remember a younger Cleave as the ghost-haunted narrator of Banville’s 2001 midlife crisis novel, Eclipse. Those who have also read his 2003 novel, Shroud, the second installment in what can now be seen as a trilogy, will know a great deal more about Vander and Cass than Cleave does - cleave, that cloven word that means both to adhere and its opposite, to divide.
Division is the driver of Ancient Light, a tangled tale in which everything has a double. Axel anagrammatically scrambles Alex; Mrs. Gray, his matronly inamorata, may or may not be a woman first glimpsed on a bicycle in taut suspenders and pearly-white satin knickers; the self-destructive movie star Dawn Devonport (note the double consonants) portrays the suicidal Cass; the memoir Cleave is writing bleeds into the movie he is making. Meanwhile, the exploits of the fictional Axel Vander are based on the real-life career of the critic Paul de Man, who, unknown to his admirers until his posthumous exposure, contributed articles during World War II to a pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic journal in Belgium and later wrote brilliantly about Shelley.
And then, of course, there is the doubling inherent in the actor’s profession, this absurd trade in which I have spent my life pretending to be other people, above all pretending not to be myself. After a lifetime on the stage, however, Cleave has curiously little to say about memorable roles or leading ladies. Stray remarks about the theater tend to be excuses to talk about something else, lapses in memory, for example (Gary Fonda in ‘The Grapes of Noon’?), or the incoherence and manifold nature of what used to be considered the individual self.