John Banville, whose array of awards includes the Man Booker in 2005 for The Sea, skips back in this, his 15th novel, to the troubled protagonists of Eclipse (2000), and Shroud (2002). In Eclipse, Alex Cleave was an actor who had frozen on stage, bringing his theatrical career to an ignominious end. The story involved his escape to his past, both bodily, returning to his mother's home, and mentally, in broaching the ghosts he had never laid to rest. That novel ended with a cataclysmic event, the drowning of Alex's daughter Cass.
Shroud related Cass's tragic story. Cass, who suffered from a schizophrenia-like condition, discovered a secret about the famous literary theorist, Axel Vander. Vander had stolen his name from a dead friend in Nazi Europe and managed to escape to the United States where he gained academic respect. Cass unearthed anti-Semitic articles that Vander had written during the war, and confronted him. Pregnant by him, she then killed herself.
Vander's character was based on the real-life Paul De Man, a Belgian literary critic who emigrated to the United States and became a leading deconstructionist. After his death, some 200 articles surfaced that he had written for the pro-Nazi Belgian paper Le Soir during the Nazi Occupation in 1942-43. Allegations followed of fraud, bigamy, non-payment of bills and child support.
One of De Man's notions was that truth is impossible to define because of bias in the critic: perhaps he was attempting to exculpate his actions. John Banville's take is different; for him truth exists, but its light is never fully visible, and casts different shadows depending on location. "So often the past seems a puzzle from which the most vital pieces are missing." Alex frequently illustrates the fallibility of memory and the difficulty of establishing a reliable narrative history.
Banville constructs elaborate webs of connections. In Shroud, Vander promulgated a theory denying the existence of self, and references to self abound here – what happens to memories on death? When unobserved, does the self, like the famous table of Oxbridge philosophy interview lore, cease to exist? Do actors playing parts, or using stage names, dissociate and dissolve their true self? In another allusive nod, an academic who invites Alex to a conference on Vander in the US holds the De Man Professorial Chair.
The memories which present eroded gaps in Alex's mind in Ancient Light concern a love affair which he had with his best friend's mother, Mrs Gray, when he was 15 and she 35. She was his great love, or so he says now that his relationship with his wife Lydia has reached a calm distance beyond which it is impossible to steer, for fear of precipitating calamitous tears about Cass. Alex is still haunted by memories of his daughter; tortured by her angst and by the missing pieces in the puzzle of her last days – who was the man of whom she spoke in her contemporaneous notes?
Into the opaque morass of Alex's febrile dreams of these two significant women for whom he still yearns, arrives an offer of a film role. He has been asked to play the part of Axel Vander in a film. Despite Vander having made a snatched and garbled phone call to Alex when Cass died, Alex does not click that Vander is the man who was with Cass at her death. Banville thus engineers a situation in which Alex impersonates the impersonator who was linked to Cass. The fragile actress playing Cass's part (unwittingly) mirrors Cass in many ways.
The story jumps between the present and that idyllic summer of Alex's affair with Mrs Gray. Banville perfectly captures the spirit of adolescence, the body yearning for sexual experience, the mind blurring eroticism and emotion. He is astute on the emotions of sexually abused boys who crave the sex but may resent their lost childhood, drift away from friends and conflate lust with mature or maternal love.
Banville is a Nabokovian artist, his prose so rich, poetic and packed with startling imagery that reading it is akin to gliding regally through a lake of praline: it's a slow, stately process, delicious and to be savoured. His penchant for arcane, even archaic, vocabulary is not ostentatious because it melds into the ornate, intricate structure of the text, like the Rembrandt in Kenwood House.
Essential to this style is a sharp editor to detect typos: "aurate" is used as an adjective for "women", but it's likely Banville meant aureate (golden; brilliant) as opposed to aurate (a salt of auric acid). "Sussurate" is used twice in quick succession and, from a literary master, repeated use of the commonly used terms "like so many ..." and "like nothing so much as ..." seem – well, not "aureate" enough.
But who would complain of warbles in a blackbird's song? This is a luminous, breathtaking work.