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John Banville’s Ancient Light: Of Memory And Invention

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Alison Wells © 25 July 2012.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Literary Fiction ).

Ancient Light is John Banville’s seventeenth literary novel in a career spanning forty two years. He has been literary editor at the Irish times,The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the Booker prize and his novelThe Sea won it. In 2011 he won the Franz Kafka prize. Ancient Light has been described by The Independent as ‘bedazzling’ and by the Emer O’ Kelly at The Irish Independent as being as much about “the uncertainty of memory as anything else.”

In Ancient Light Alexander Cleave revisits both the memory of a teenage affair with a much older woman and looks further into the enigma of his daughter Cass’ fate previously touched on in Eclipse (2000) and Shroud(2002). I was keen to talk to John Banville about Ancient Light and the tricky art for the writer, of negotiating memory and invention.

On reading Ancient Light I felt that it had the cohesion and integrity of a short story. I asked Banville how he achieved this, but he is sceptical thatAncient Light had that kind of coherence. “I’m not sure that any novel could have. I think of the short story as something like Zen archery, or Japanese print-making: a long period of reflection and preparation, then a rapid, fluid gesture and the thing is done. The writing of a novel is a far messier, more incoherent process. But I’ll accept your flattering judgement,” he says. Whether or not he believes he has achieved this intensity and clarity of message, he tells me that he does try to make his “novels as dense and demanding as poems” (Apparently his publishers despair when he says this) “but it’s true – and perhaps a poem is rather like a short story, with the same kind of thereness.”

Ancient Light indeed succeeds in getting across that quality of “thereness”. Written in the historic present the incidents between the young Cleave and his lover Mrs Gray are alive and immediate, contrasting perhaps with the more sedate trajectory of the older man’s life, shaken up briefly by his involvement in an attempt to film a biopic of the life of Axel Vander, someone who may or may not have been involved in his daughter’s death. Like a good short story this novel leaves work for the reader to do, questions about his daughter are never fully answered, the past, of course, is a place that is never quite resolved.

Having recently read his story “Summer Voices” from the Granta Book of Irish Short Stories, I wondered whether there was, for Banville, a difference in how he approached writing short stories and novels. But he admits it is some while since he has written a short story and “the two forms are so very different in intent and manufacture that I wouldn’t know how to compare them.”

Mindful of our readers on writing.ie I ask John Banville about his working day and whether he sticks to a particular writing routine. He is self-deprecatingly when he replies: “Boringly, I keep office hours, 9am to 6pm, with a brief break for a glass of water, a cracker, a piece of cheese. A mouse-like existence, now that I think of it.” Given the body of his work – both literary fiction and his crime novels under the name Benjamin Black it is no surprise to hear that he works so intensively. “Work is everything” he adds, “ I agree with Noel Coward, who always insisted work is more fun than fun.”

Ancient Light deals with many of Banville’s favoured themes, the duplicity of memory and the impossibility of holding onto to the essence of times and of loved ones.

The main protagonist of the book, Alexander Cleave wonders ‘nothing in creation is ever destroyed, only disassembled and dispersed, might not the same be true of individual consciousness? Where when we die does it go to, all that we have been?” I ask Banville whether, in his opinion, writing is an attempt to witness such consciousness, to mark down what is human? “I suppose writing is an act of preservation,” he replies. “Preservation, and witness, in the old, Christian sense. For me, a novel is a way of saying, Look, here is what one man, in his brief moment on earth, saw and felt and thought. In a way, all my books could be called The Book of Evidence.”

So for Banville then, his novels are an act of testimony to the act of being alive. Surprising then that his prose has sometimes been described as detached, particularly as in my opinion Ancient Light exuded an affection for humanity. I put the charge to Banville and asked him if it was ever true – whether his prose has been misunderstood – or does his style soften, depending on topic.

He answers emphatically and honesty. “I cannot understand why anyone would think my prose is ever detached – quite the opposite, embarrassingly so, for me. Read a page of my prose and then read a page of, say, Evelyn Waugh, or Gibbon, or Joyce, and you’ll see what detachment is. My prose constantly has its nose pressed up against the window of the world, gazing rapt at all that is on offer. Shameful, really, in its neediness. “ Testimony again then, and very much involved. But again we are faced with the imprecision of the writer in reaching for the ‘truth’ of experience just as inAncient Light, Cleave is aware of the unreliability of recall. How does Banville see this dilemma in the quest of the writer to “preserve” the thoughts and feelings of human experience?

“All art is an attempt to capture the moment,” he tells me “to stall time in its terrifyingly unstoppable flow. Memory is a kind of back-door way of doing that. But I no longer believe that we remember – I think we invent, and take our inventions for ‘what really happened’. It’s a harmless and consoling bit of self-deception.”

So both for the writer and the person in their everyday lives, memory is relative, part invention, nothing quite certain. I wondered if this relativity of recall was one of the reasons why Banville often revisits certain characters across novels, telling their story from different times and angles? But Banville isn’t certain why he writes these series of connected novels. “I suppose I must have a sense of unfinished business,” he suggests, “Or perhaps I’m just not as inventive as I should be.” He goes on to tell me that “a friend of mine, Rodrigo Fresan, an Argentinian writer, has been nagging me for years to write a novel devoted to Cass Cleave, that would tell her story, but I’m not capable of it. Cass is an enigma to me. But I supposeAncient Light shines forcefully in her direction. By the way, Rodrigo asked me to give him a walk-on part in the book, and I did. Try spotting his anagrammed presence.” Here’s an interesting and playful challenge for readers of this new work.

A challenge also, as any writer will know, is realising their original conception of a novel. I asked Banville how much Ancient Light conveyed what he wanted it to convey or whether most novels are approximations. Banville’s response may be gratifying for aspiring writers. “Oh, of course, one never gets anywhere near what one set out to do. A novel is a wilful beast, and keeps insisting on its own agenda. And language is a terribly slippery, treacherous medium. As I always say: we think we speak, whereas really we are spoken.” I pressed further, wondering how he settled on a particular topic for a novel to begin with, and how the idea for a particular novel coalesces out of all the possibilities? But even Banville isn’t sure. “I just can’t answer this,” he says. “The evolution of a novel is entirely mysterious to me. If it’s good it will grow organically, like a tree.”

Banville’s responses are honest and display his continued interest in engaging with the ‘wilful beast’ of the novel despite its mysteries. He continues to be prolific and inventive after forty two years as a novelist. So I ask him if there is any advice he can give our writers, out of this experience? His answer is straightforward and eschews all mystery. Writers, take note:

“Rodin’s advice to Rilke is still the best: Il faut travailler, toujours travailler. “ Banville emphasises. “No substitute for work, not even, or especially not, inspiration.”

Ancient Light Viking Penguin (Hardback) is available in all good bookshops


(c) Alison Wells July 2012

Alison Wells is a communications and psychology graduate who lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow. She blogs here at www.writing.ie in Random Acts of Optimism and at www.alisonwells.wordpress.com.

Her short fiction has appeared in the Sunday Tribune, Crannóg, Metazen and in several anthologies including the Higgs Boson and UK National Flash Fiction Day’s Jawbreakers She has been shortlisted for Hennessy New Irish Writing and for the Bridport and Fish Awards and recently won the fiction category of the Irish Big Book of Hope. She has just completed a literary novel. Her comedy novel Housewife with a Half-Life  is available in Hughes & Hughes nationwide, Dubray Books Bray, Amazon Paperback and Kindle:

Susan Strong is a suburban housewife who is literally disintegrating. When, Fairly Dave, a biker jacket & kilt wielding spaceman arrives through the shower head to warn her, she knows things are serious. When she and her precocious 4 year twins Pluto and Rufus get sucked through Frozen Peas into another universe it gets even messier. In a world where household appliances are more alive and dangerous than they seem, where the Geezers have Entropy Hoovers and the Spinner’s Cataclysmic convertor could tear the world apart, Susan Strong is the only thing holding the world together.

Through this madcap, funny and feel-good adventure, Susan Strong and Fairly Dave travel the alternate universes where Susan has to find her many selves, dodge the Geezers and defeat the evil memory bankers. From dystopian landscapes and chicken dinners, to the surreal world of Las Vegas and bubble universes, can Susan Strong reintegrate her bits and will it be enough to save us all?

Alison blogs right here on writing.ie at Random Acts of Optimism, or to read Alison's full blog, visit Head Above Water. Find out here, in her Random Acts of Optimism how she manages to juggle writing, children and life.
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