In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s praise for the work of other writers is almost undetectable, especially those from whom he had learned some elements of style—Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson in particular. Early in his memoir, however, Hemingway singles out a novelist whose books provide what he calls “after-work” pleasures that will fill “that empty time of day or night.” The pleasures he is referring to involve light reading, entertainment, and escapism; and the woman whose books have given him this variety of after-hours relief is none other than Marie Belloc Lowndes, author of The Lodger. About The Lodger and another Belloc Lowndes novel Hemingway displays a rare (for him) critical enthusiasm: “the people credible and the action and the terror never false. They were perfect for reading after you had worked….” This is patronizing, but it is still praise.
The Lodger is remembered today, when it is remembered at all, as the source for Alfred Hitchcock’s third silent movie, which the director described as “the first Hitchcock film.” More to the point, however, Hemingway did not discover The Lodger on his own. Gertrude Stein recommended it to him. He had announced to her that he had been reading the novels of Aldous Huxley, and Stein disapproved. “Huxley is a dead man,” she told him. “You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad.” Work from the middle range, what Dwight Macdonald would later call “mid-cult,” she frowned upon. It is unclear whether she thought The Lodger was frankly bad, but she certainly liked it. Katherine Anne Porter, who was not sympathetic to Stein, noticed that Stein typically enjoyed the accumulation of dead bodies in stories:
These early passions exhausted her; in later life she swam in the relaxing bath of detective and murder mysteries, because she liked somebody being dead in a story, and of them all Dashiell Hammett killed them off most to her taste.
Stein was not alone among the modernists in having a happy response to literary mayhem. T.S. Eliot enjoyed detective stories. Faulkner repeatedly tried his hand at the genre for the money. Borges set his sleuths to work on metaphysical errands and mysteries. Even Henry James made one attempt at a potboiler with a ghastly murder in it, The Other House. Then there is the example of Graham Greene, who (as is well known) for many years separated his books into two categories, novels and entertainments, the fun-filled entertainments powered by violent action and suspenseful plots, the novels weighed down with spiritual matters. But with Greene, who was carrying on a tradition from Joseph Conrad, there was often a bleed-through in the membrane between action and thought: the events of Brighton Rock, for example, contained various religio-spiritual obsessions right in the midst of episodes of acid being thrown into people’s faces.
In John Banville’s photograph on the dust jacket of Ancient Light, his sixteenth novel, both sides of his face are equally lit, and he looks fierce and implacable and slightly grumpy. And on the dust jacket of Vengeance, published at almost the same time as Ancient Light, is John Banville appearing as the crime writer Benjamin Black; his face is lit asymmetrically so that the right-hand side disappears into darkness. The pseudonymous author wears a gumshoe hat and an open-collared shirt, and the ghost of a smile may be glimpsed on his face, as if Benjamin Black were John Banville’s evil twin. It’s the evil twin who seems to be having the really good time.
A reading of the two books, the Banville novel and the Black novel, might inspire in some readers a consideration of the way that plot on the one hand and eloquence on the other have taken their leave of each other and have set up separate realms, if that is indeed what has happened. But the real mystery at the center of these books has more to do with the question of how to freeze time so that it partakes of the eternal, which is Banville’s true subject, and with the problem of consequences of actions in the here and now, which is Black’s. Eloquence is not the point of Vengeance, though it contains passages of verbal legerdemain, and plot is almost irrelevant in Ancient Light, although it contains a surprise ending.
Finally, however, the difference does not have to do with the absence or presence of plot. What we have in Vengeance is a fallen world, this one, where creeps do their entertaining dirty work. In Ancient Light, we have another world altogether, one incompatible with the first and slightly above it, made up of ecstatically described suspended moments, dreamlike episodes, nightmares, spectral characters, and the visionary twisting-back of time upon itself so that what has been done can be imagined as being, somehow, undone. What’s been done stays done in Black, but not in Banville. The two novels constitute the split parts of Humpty Dumpty, which is the novel form itself, down there on the ground, in pieces.
In both its particulars and its overall structure, Banville’s Ancient Light is a stop-time project on a large scale. Its narrator, Alex Cleave, an actor who happens to have a world-class prose style, has appeared in two previous Banville novels, Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002), the first also narrated by Cleave, although to me he does not sound in Eclipse like the same man who subsequently narrates Ancient Light. The prose of the new book has a kind of luxuriant beauty, and, given the number of gorgeous arias written in difficult keys with many sharps and flats, the novel has the feel of a feverish atonal chamber opera. The narrator tells his stories in both the recent and distant past tense, a tricky maneuver because when Alex Cleave begins his book he does not know certain crucial events of the plot that he will learn along the way, which is to say that the unwary reader may be easily misled by what Cleave claims to believe at the outset.
In Ancient Light two stories are set in counterpoint to each other, with a third forming a shadow counterpoint off to the side. In the first, set in the distant past of his adolescence, fifty years before the time of writing, the fifteen-year-old Alex Cleave begins an affair with the mother of his best friend, Billy Gray. At the time of the affair, Mrs. Gray is thirty-five. They meet surreptitiously in an abandoned house called “Cotter’s place,” and their lovemaking quickly takes on a kind of secular religious tone:
Outside, thrushes were making the woods round about ring with their manic whistling, and the sun of early summer shining through a broken casement was hot on my bare back. We must have made a striking composition there, the two of us, a profane pietà, the troubled woman nursing in her embrace a heartsick young male animal who was not and yet somehow was her son.
Note the tremendous pressure being placed on the adjectives. Ancient Light is a novel of carefully chosen adjectives that are called upon to denote the exact quality of an experience, its textures and colors and modulations. Despite, or maybe because of, their physicality, the erotic episodes are described almost as if they exist outside time and causality. Although the lovers will of course be discovered, and consequences will follow, their encounters seem to come to us from a great temporal distance where events are caught in a kind of stylistic amber. The point is to recapture that precious past, to hold it in suspension, and the nature of this Proustian project is as obvious to the author as it is to the reader:
Anyway, there we were, young Marcel in unlikely company with bare-armed Odette, pacing side by side along the boardworks, our heels knocking hollowly on the planking and I silently recalling, with arch compassion for a former unformed self, how not so long ago I used to lurk under here with my urchin pals when the tide was out and squint through the gaps between the sleepers in hopes of seeing up the skirts of girls walking by above us.
Cleave (now) is remembering himself as a fifteen-year-old who remembers himself as a twelve-year-old. In these sections, one stopped moment gives way to the next, like flowers pressed into other flowers, producing a glut of epiphanies and a certain heady perfume.
So efflorescent are the lovemaking episodes that no earthly object is spared the treatment. There is a stubborn insistence in these scenes on the transformation of the mundane into the lyrically elevated, with the result that even banal bric-a-brac takes on an element of transcendent beauteousness, including a humble conical-shaped whistling tea kettle:
The whistle was not on it, though, and from the stubby spout a broad slow column of steam was rising, dense with the sunlight in it and lazily undulant, and curling on itself in an elegant scroll at its topmost reach. When I made to approach the stove something of my own dense aura must have gone before me and this charmed cobra of steam leaned delicately away, as if in vague alarm; I paused, and it righted itself, and when I moved again it moved, too, as before.
This story of a March–August romance (it can hardly be called May–December) is interwoven with a present-time account of Alex Cleave’s role in a movie in which he is to play the shape-shifting Axel Vander, a Paul de Man–ish literary figure with a doubtful past. The movie provides the novel’s second plot, and the narrative of Axel Vander its third, its shadow story.
Here things get complicated and coincidental. Longtime readers of Banville will recognize Axel Vander from Shroud and will remember that Cleave’s daughter, Cass, committed suicide in that book by falling from a church tower—she was pregnant—in Portovenere on the Ligurian coast. Cass had been following the slime trail of Vander’s duplicitous life and immensely fraudulent career and had threatened to unmask him before she fell to her death. And now, in a coincidence that is beyond belief, both the narrator’s and the reader’s, Cleave is to play Vander, his own daughter’s nemesis, and the man whose first name is an anagram for his own. We are in a mirror world, and, yes, within the movie is a beautiful character played by an actress who gradually stands in for Cleave’s daughter. Also there are ghostly apparitions who appear and disappear, including an Argentinian astronomer named Fedrigo Sorrán.
But the plot itself is a trap, and any summary of it is misleading. The story itself is confounding—a contrivance, of sorts. No one aware of Banville’s other work would read this book for a summary of the action. It would be like attending an opera for the sole purpose of finding out what happens next. You can’t quite believe the temporal sequences and probably aren’t supposed to, because they exist within plot-time, which the narrator is determined to freeze into moments that spread toward eternity. If the idea, the project, is to escape from ordinary time, the plot-points are mere conveniences laid out on a grid. The grid locates an emotion and permits its elaboration, and in the meantime, dumbfounded by the beauty of the prose, you forget how you got there. Repeatedly, the slightly implausible sequences give way to a core feeling, such as Cleave’s or his wife’s grief over their daughter’s death; then that feeling gives rise to an aria, exactly as if we were listening to an opera whose ramshackle and artificial structure is a mere pretext for the music.