Much like Nabokov’s Pale Fire – a work which, from the title onwards, it frequently eludes to – John Banville’s fifteenth novel is a multi-stranded work of bewildering beauty and apparently bewildering complexity which has, at its centre, a single, unsolvable grief. The unsolvable grief a father and mother feel as a result of the suicide of their daughter.
The book begins with the father, Alexander Cleave – who we already know from Eclipse (2000) – remembering an affair he had with the mother of his best friend when he was fifteen. These recollections, which at first appear to be the novel’s primary concern, recall the considerable poetic power with which Banville evoked the South East Coast of Ireland in his Booker Prize-winning The Sea. His descriptions of Mrs Gray – as Cleave only ever, and somewhat sinisterly, calls his former lover – also take the breath, and never more so than here, when combined with another motif of the book, the description of light:
The sun through the alder leaves scattered her about with flickering gold coins – my Danae! – and the hollows of her shoulders and the undersides of her breasts glimmered with reflected, swaying lights. …Once out of the water we scampered back to Cotter’s place, I with her dress in my arms and she naked still, a birch-pale dryad flickering ahead of me through the sunlight and the shadows of the wood.
The second strand of the plot is the one concerned with the suicide of Cleave and his wife’s daughter, Cass; who, like Hazel Shade – the daughter in Pale Fire – has suffered from periodic bouts of mental instability during the course of her ‘cut short’ lifespan. We are introduced to a world of ‘mournful telepathy’, which is so marked by their missing child’s presence that its atmosphere almost borders on the supernatural. Cleave’s wife is prone to bouts of sleepwalking whereby she searches the house, convinced of her daughter’s presence. Cleave follows in her wake, believing that it is dangerous to wake a sleepwalker but mindful lest his wife should injure herself. But it is not only for this reason: a kind of dream logic has overtaken him too.
Cass had been an insomniac as a child and Cleave had often taken her for middle-of-the-night drives to soothe her agitation. At the centre of Pale Fire is a re-invention by the grieving poet John Shade of a quotation from Goethe’s ‘The Erlking’ (meaning ‘Alder King’ in German):
Who rides so late in the night and the wind?
It is the writer’s grief. It is the wild
March wind. It is the father with his child.
If we should be in any doubt that this is what Banville is alluding to we need look no further than Pale Fire’s summation of ‘The Erlking’. It is about:
The hoary enchanter of the elf-haunted alderwood, who falls in love with the delicate little boy of a belated traveller.
Of course, viewed in this light Mrs Gray (Gray incidentally is one of the pseudonyms of John Shade’s killer in Pale Fire) is the ‘hoary enchanter’, something which seems a trifle unfair but which upon closer examination is not so far-fetched for the seducer of a fifteen-year old boy. Notice the use of ‘alderwood’ and then recall the ‘alder leaves’ I quoted earlier. There are in fact frequent mentions of the tree throughout Ancient Light; Banville even appears to deliberately draw our attention to it at one point, by saying ‘a clump of alder trees, I think they were alders.’ The name ‘Erl’ is also scattered throughout the text, appearing inside various other words – a very Nabokovian device – not least within the name of Ercole; the omniscient-seeming hotel porter at the very slightly over-titled ‘Ostentation Towers’, who appears in the third, ‘present day’ strand of Ancient Light.
It is in this third strand that the narrative grows a good deal more peculiar and where Banville’s love of wordplay and duality really comes to the fore. Cleave, a semi-retired actor who has only ever worked in the theatre, is offered the lead role in a film with the telling title, The Invention of the Past. The film is an unlikely biopic of one Axel Vander (who we already know from Banville’s earlier Shroud (2002)) a man who, Don Draper-like, takes on the identity of a dead man – the real Axel Vander – before going on to become a famous literary deconstructionist, as well as something of an all-round bastard. Cleave, having read Vander’s biography describes him as:
a slippery specimen… whose name by the way looks very like an anagram, to me.
As well it might do considering it is an anagram of his own name, Alexander Cleave. Vander’s biographer, meanwhile, is a certain ‘Jaybee’ (i.e. Banville himself), whose prose style is amusingly described as being like ‘Walter Pater in a delirium’.
Cleave is made aware that Vander, now himself no longer of this world, was in the same town in Italy as his daughter when she killed himself. Meanwhile his co-star in the film, the celebrated film star Dawn Devonport (real name Stella Stebbings), bereft after the recent death of her father, has tried to commit suicide herself. Cleave, taking on the role of father figure – although he himself admits that his motives are not entirely pure – suggests taking her away from filming for a week to recuperate. The place he suggests? Portovenere. The Italian sea port where his daughter took her own life.
As the three individual strands begin to reach their separate and interweaving conclusions you can be left in no doubt that in Ancient Light we find a novelist at the very height of his powers. For a writer to use Nabokov’s greatest novel as a feeder spring for his own work takes not only enormous self-confidence but, in order for it not to be an erroneous folly, matchless skill into the bargain. That in Ancient Light Banville has created an exploration of grief which not only supersedes his own The Sea, but which can also sit happily alongside that work of Nabokov’s from which it feeds, is a mark, quite frankly, of genius.