John Banville writes about the deception of surfaces, about the fragility of knowledge. His characters are, invariably, people who pretend, people whose life is a sort of performance. (At one point, in Ancient Light, his narrator quotes the old saw: to live is to act; then realises that it contains a pun.) That’s why his characters are so frequently criminals (The Book of Evidence), traitors (The Untouchable), frauds (Shroud), or actors (Eclipse, The Infinities). They are also people who turn again and again to the unreliability of memory, where the past shifts so much that we can never be quite sure what has led the characters to the point at which we read their story.
These characteristics link the novels one with another. This is partly structural, in that he has produced two loosely linked trilogies, The Book of Evidence, Ghosts and Athena, and Eclipse, Shroud and Ancient Light. But there are other linkages. The central character in The Book of Evidence is trying to steal paintings, in Ghosts this same character encounters an art forger, while The Untouchable is a fictionalised version of the story of the art expert and spy Anthony Blunt: art is both the reason for and the expression of criminality. In Eclipse the central character retreats to his childhood home where he surrounds himself with memories of his past (and perhaps with ghosts of his future); in The Sea the central character retreats to the scene of his childhood holidays, where he wallows in memories that seem idyllic but are not entirely reliable; in Ancient Light the aging narrator spends his time recalling a childhood affaire only to discover how much he missed, or misinterpreted, or forgot. He repeatedly interrupts his own narrative to say, for instance, that he remembers autumn leaves but it was in April. These are not unreliable narrators so much as reliable narrators of an unreliable world.
It is these thematic and sensory linkages, as much as the exquisite use of language, that makes it feel as though all these disparate novels are really just volumes in one single, massive novel. The latest volume in this magnum opus is Ancient Light, which is more of the story of the actor Alexander Cleave. Eclipse ended with Cleave receiving the news that his estranged daughter, Cass, had committed suicide. Tangentially, Shroud told Cass’s story in which she is a researcher who uncovers uncomfortable truths about the noted academic Axel Vander, chief among which is that Vander is living a lie having assumed another man’s identity (Vander is loosely based on Paul DeMan). Now it is ten years later. Cleave is living in his old home in Ireland, not so much retired from the stage as feeling that the stage has given up on him. Then, out of the blue, he is hired to star in a film based on the mysterious life of Axel Vander. Cleave does not know the full circumstances of his daughter’s suicide, so he has no knowledge of the connection between the role he is playing and the defining tragedy of his life. We know, because we have read the previous books, but Cleave remains ignorant throughout. And though there is clearly a symbolic connection between Alex and Axel, it is one that Banville never makes overt.
During the making of the film he forges a relationship with the actress who plays the leading role. We don’t know for sure (we learn little about the film, other than the fact that it is scripted by someone called ‘JB’), but we might guess that this character is based on Cass. When the actress, Dawn Devonport (not her real name, yet another layer of deception, of performance), tries to commit suicide, echoes between role and actress proliferate. In an odd and impulsive attempt to help her recover, Cleave whisks her away for a sad little holiday in a wintery Italian resort that just happens to be where Cass jumped to her death. Cleave knows that Vander was at the resort at roughly the same time his daughter died; he is trying to find some sort of connection, but fails. The mystery of Cass remains impenetrable, as does the mystery of Dawn. Banville’s characters don’t know each other, they see only the surface, the performance. But then, they see no more deeply into themselves either.
Counterpointing all of this, illustrating more levels of performance and deception, Cleave is writing a memoir of the summer when he was 15, the summer in which he had a passionate affair with the mother of his best friend (memories of childhood and of sex seem to be becoming more common in Banville’s work). For all their intimacy, including for instance tender descriptions of the way the elastic of her underwear has pattered her skin, she remains Mrs Gray throughout. We learn her first name in passing, but Cleave never uses it in his reminiscences. It was a summer in which he grew apart from Billy Gray as he grew closer to Billy’s mother, and it is a summer that clearly has a profound and shaping effect upon his life. At yet his reminiscence is marked by constant failures of memory, how and where and in what order things happened seems to be eternally contingent. He is remaking the past as much as remembering it.
All of which is a build up to the great and horrendous scandal when the affair is discovered. But when that moment is finally reached, it seems oddly anti-climactic. And then we learn that even this anti-climax is a false memory, or rather a false interpretation of what actually did happen. What Cleave learns at the end of it all is how little he knew of Mrs Gray even at the height of what seems to have been a shared passion. But that is a typical discovery for Banville’s characters: they learn that the past is not a foreign country but a work of fiction, that everything is a story we tell ourselves in order to make sense of things we barely understand.