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.
And music is the point of this book, its glory and triumph. Like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, the narrator of Ancient Light wants to stop time or at least to force it into a spiral that will turn back upon itself as a way of recapturing the past and somehow undoing its losses. How to accomplish that? At the core of Alex Cleave is a parent’s heartbrokenness, set alongside a man’s ecstatic memories of himself as an adolescent. The stopping of time through lyric transformation—some would call it “afflatus”—opens the way to the only possible reclamation of both. It’s as if the prose has shouldered the entire burden of undoing death and loss, an ambition rarely seen in contemporary letters. One reads Ancient Light in a state of slightly stunned admiration and disbelief that anyone still believes in literary art sufficiently to call upon its resources for these particular ends.
Two exemplary passages will have to stand in for the rest:
The universe, according to him, contains a missing mass we cannot see or feel or measure. There is much, much more of it than there is of anything else, and the visible universe, the one that we know, is sparse and puny in comparison. I thought of it, this vast invisible sea of weightless and transparent stuff, present everywhere, undetected, through which we move, unsuspecting swimmers, and which moves through us, a silent, secret essence.
How I love the archaic sunlight of these late-autumn afternoons. Low on the horizon there were scrapings of cloud like bits of crinkled gold leaf and the sky higher up was a layering of bands of clay-white, peach, pale green, all this reflected as a vaguely mottled mauve wash on the motionless and brimming surface of the canal.
An unsympathetic reader—let us call such a person an aesthetic secularist, an ironist who no longer believes in art as a spiritual project—could easily claim that such passages sometimes betray a laborious brilliance, that their effects are at times overcooked, and that the masterpiece tone occasionally oppresses the prose. All true, at least provisionally. All grand ambitions are laughable in a landscape dominated by irony. In a sense, Ancient Light requires a reader who is willing to believe in the power of a prose style to do what is physically impossible. Plot—mere action—cannot do the trick. The remedy lies elsewhere.
A common charge against Banville’s work, that the writing is cold, seems nonsensical to the reader of a book like Ancient Light, whose emotional temperature moves from warmheartedness up to fever and then stays at fever level much of the time. You keep waiting for the prose to calm down and return to the ordinary, to a plainspoken condition of rest, but the narrator’s sorrows (“this absurdity, O heart, O troubled heart”) cannot permit such lassitude until the book’s closing pages. Until then, even the expository asides have a burnished, worked-over, glistening shellac: “The streets at mid-morning or in the early afternoon have an air of definite yet unfulfilled purpose, as if something important had forgotten to happen in them.”
By the book’s end, Cleave, our narrator, has begun to believe in a multiplicity of universes where, finally, what’s been done is undone: “somewhere in this infinitely layered, infinitely ramifying reality Cass did not die…somewhere, too, Mrs. Gray survived, perhaps is surviving still, still young and still remembering me, as I remember her.” The ancient light coming from deep space seems to illuminate—these are the closing words of the novel—the room as if a “radiant being…advancing towards the house, over the grey grass, across the mossed yard, great trembling wings spread wide….”
You can’t raise the stakes much higher than that. The narrator, resting at last, finds himself contemplating the possibility of an angel conjured out of a simile. This conjectural angel has emerged, robed in light, from a transfigured realm. Any reader of this novel is free to believe such a vision or to doubt it, but either way, the book demands a response at the highest levels, aesthetically and spiritually.
Benjamin Black makes no such demands. Even the violence in his fifth novel, Vengeance, is fun to read. A guy shoots himself (in the heart!) while out in a boat that has been disabled somewhere in the ocean, and he makes sure that he has a witness to his bloody suicide. The witness is a younger guy who has…but that would be telling.
And this is all about, what? Sex and money! Corporate money, family money, that has…but I can’t disclose that particular plot point either without spoiling a reader’s pleasure in finding out who has been deceiving whom. The novel has a tricky omniscience with a bad case of the jitters, but if the reader is paying attention, he can figure out fairly quickly who among the cast of characters is up to no good, because these particular ne’er-do-wells (hint: corrupt aristocrats) are never open-minded, which is to say that the reader is never told what they’re thinking from their own point of view. Through a process of elimination, you can deduce pretty quickly who they are. One other particular villain is given the point-of-view reins for a while, long enough for the reader to figure out that she’s crackers and homicidal to boot, though largely oblivious to her own wrongdoing, thank goodness.
The novel has a lovable-but-fallible pathologist, Quirke, who has figured prominently in the other Benjamin Black novels, along with Quirke’s police inspector pal. Together the two men sniff out the criminals, though one gets away, probably to America, where bad guys go to die. The reader, having a perfectly good time making his way through all these intrigues, may find himself getting concerned over the fate of Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, who “rather liked the idea of being the menaced innocent in a gothic tale.” She quickly learns that that particular ambition is not praiseworthy, though I’m happy to say that she survives the experience.
In the matter of daughters, Black almost wanders into Banville territory. Vengeance is an enjoyable carnival ride until Phoebe is endangered, at which point something else briefly enters the narrative: the smell of true evil, “the faintest hint of something sickly” and “something else, sharp and sour, a faint acid reek.”
After the ambitions of Ancient Light, its gut- and spirit-wrenching downward and upward journeys, Vengeance is, for the reader and probably for Banville-Black, something of a relief. Compared to the fate of the soul and the problem of temporality, murder (at least the murder of business types) doesn’t seem like such a big deal. The terror, as Hemingway might say, is never false, and the entire enterprise is rather lighthearted. Digressions abound. Occasionally the tone switches gears, however, as if Banville were shoving Benjamin Black out of the way, and sentences with the old sufferings, the old longings for transcendence appear, as if imported from someone else’s book.
In Fermoy they stopped again, Quirke having run out of cigarettes, and while he was in the tobacconist’s Rose sat in the car and watched in dismay a man belaboring a cart horse with a stick. He was a coarse-looking fellow with a red face and a lantern jaw and a prominent forehead—he might have been modeled on a Punch cartoon—and he wore an old coat with a belt of plaited straw. The horse stood between the shafts of the cart, its head hanging, suffering the blows without flinching. Oh, my Lord, Rose thought, this poor benighted country!
One thinks of the mare beaten to death in Crime and Punishment, and of Nietzsche rushing to save a cart horse being beaten in Turin in 1889 before his collapse into madness. And note that “belt of plaited straw.” Hack writers aren’t interested in belts of plaited straw or in cultural commentary configured by dramatic imagery on the state of Ireland. And they don’t write sentences like this: “The squat refrigerator stood in a corner murmuring to itself, like a white-clad figure kneeling in rapt prayer.”
Patricia Highsmith, who was very canny about suspense narratives, noted that they “provide entertainment in a lively and usually superficial sense” but that “profound thoughts” can be inserted in such narratives “because the framework is an essentially lively story.” She is also acute about criminals: “I rather like criminals and find them extremely interesting, unless they are monotonously and stupidly brutal.” Why are they interesting? They are “active, free in spirit, and they do not knuckle down to anyone.”
The villains of Vengeance have too much power and freedom, but they’re quite loathsome and unlikable, and, except for one of them, they’re finally detected and caught in the webs of justice. Actions do have consequences, as it turns out, and in the world of plot and events, meaning arrives on the scene once we know who did what and who will be brought to justice.
The only angels in the novels of Benjamin Black are the patient earthbound characters who follow the clues in order to locate guilt and responsibility. In Banville’s Ancient Light, those responsible for wrongdoing are often untraceable, slippery, and impossible to find, because evil and loss are systemic and can’t always be located in one person. And the only angels rise out of similes, and they come from a visionary world that is not our own.