“The Invention of the Past”: An essay on the novel Ancient Light by John Banville

When fifteen-year-old Alexander Cleave first catches sight of Mrs. Gray – the mother of his best friend – what he sees is a reflection of a reflection. As he waits in the hallway of her house, he sees her naked, “not nude”, in the full-length mirror fixed to the outside of her bedroom door. It is only a reflection of her image caught in the mirrors of the three-paneled dressing table before which she idly stands. Each panel fragments her body, but she is made whole by the fourth mirror on the door – the one at which he has paused, “gaping at an angle”. When he recounts this event, a half-century has elapsed.

Ancient Light - John Banville
Ancient Light – John Banville
Banville’s obsession with plurality is scattered throughout his oeuvre – reflections, twins, doppelgangers, ghosts, subplots that mirror the primary, and narrators who invariably are cleft personalities. Even characters in seeming opposition share parallels and bear resemblances; they are, in a sense, fragmentary mirror images of one another. Consider the anagrammatic relation between Alex (Cleave) and Axel (Vander) – characters featured in the trilogy Eclipse, Shroud, and Ancient Light and the preternatural connection between these two men who never meet. Banville describes his fascination semantically, in words that contain doubles – and opposites – of meaning. Of particular significance is the word ‘cleave’, which can refer either to being split apart or to strong attachment. Alexander Cleave, then, is deeply divided: between his real self and his actor self, between the present and the past, between the ideal and the real. His narrative is replete with mirrors that reflect, mostly the identical, but somehow are not the same, not quite true.

The three panels of the dressing table call to mind the books of the trilogy: Eclipse, Shroud, and Ancient Light. Each is a fragment, a particular version of the whole, which is reflected in the mirror on the door. It is primarily the reader’s interpretive desire that is implicated here, as the force that unifies the fragments, an attempt to impose subjective meaning and objective resonance to the text. The reader finds irresistible the empowerment that ‘meaning making’ affords. It provides order and singularity even if such interpretations are arbitrary and, at times, miss the point completely. Banville has always subscribed to the notion of ‘two books’: the book the author writes and the book the reader reads. The literary reader, therefore, is excluded from the hidden work within the text, and, instead, opens a space – one of assumption, belief, and experience – in which to distinguish that which he cannot discern.

And if the readers invent their version, so does the writer.

Banville’s oeuvre grapples with the limiting nature of language and the problem of memory. In Copernicus, when the narrator expresses his ideas in words, they become “gross ungainly travesties of the inexpressibly elegant concepts blazing in his brain.” Kepler cannot communicate the “speechless uproar in his heart.” To Banville, it is not merely sublime thought and imagination that is inexpressible in language but also the real. He subscribes to the foundational premise of the phenomenologist: the real world is incomprehensible. “I find the world to be odd,” says Gabriel Godkin in Birchwood, echoing the core philosophy of almost every character in the oeuvre. For a detailed discussion of his views on this estrangement from the world and the incapacity of language to bridge that chasm, I would refer the reader to the book titled John Banville by John Kenny.

The mirrors in the scene from Ancient Light relates most explicitly to memory. It – memory – is the mirror that reflects the past, implausibly at times, in fragments and most alarmingly, suggests multiple possibilities about a single instance. The light that comes to Cleave, has spanned over a half-century, is ancient, and is changed.

Early in the book, concerning another memory of Mrs. Gray, Cleave writes,

“Confusingly, I have what is certain to be a false memory of her, in winter, applying talcum powder to the shinily pink inner sides of my thighs where they had become raw from the chafing of my trousers: highly unlikely since apart from anything else, the trousers I was wearing on that occasion were short, which would hardly have been the case if I was fifteen, since we were all in longed-for longers by the age of eleven or twelve the latest. Then whose mother was that one, I wonder, the talc applier …”

He constantly questions his recollection of the scene with the mirrors. Even as he begins his description he notes, “Time and memory are a fussy firm of interior decorators, though, always shifting the furniture about and redesigning and even reassigning rooms.”

Later he asks, “[H]ow can I account for these anomalies, these improbabilities? I cannot. What I have described is what appears in my memory’s eye, and I must say what I see.”

This last sentiment extends to Banville’s other aesthetic concerns. In his essay Thou Shalt Not Kill, he poses “the question of the authentic, of how to write authentically in the medium – art, that is.” His conclusion is, “All that an artist can do is present the evidence. Here is what happened, that is how it felt, this is how the light fell, how the characters spoke, it is all made up but strangely real.” He regards the human condition as one of estrangement from the world. In an interview with David Hanly, he reiterates his literary solution: “Look, all I can do is give some evidence about this, is present the evidence, but I can’t present any explanation or acceptance of it.” Alexander Cleave takes the same stance on the vicissitudes of memory: “What I have described is what appears in my memory’s eye, I must say what I see.” The providing of evidence is a central characteristic of Banville’s writing.

Cleave’s recollection of the past is unstable, altering continually, and he grows to doubt his memory even as he seeks solace in it again and again. The effect of this uncertainty on Cleave – and the reader – is to suggest a form of errant, endless wandering among a mosaic of possible pasts: nothing is what it seems. There are moments – scattered throughout the book, but especially among the mirrors – in which he appears to get more profoundly lost with each step he takes into the past. As with Cleave, the reader finds these recollections resist comprehension because they defy chronological and spatial order, and there is always the hint of at least one more reading of an event.

Half-century after his affair with Mrs. Gray, Cleave is offered the lead role in a movie. He must portray Axel Vander who, unknown to him, was romantically involved with his daughter Cass, in the months leading to her death. In Shroud, Eclipse, and Ancient Light, the lives of Axel and Alex, though they have never met, intersect in curious ways. Their parallel narrative is replete with coincidence. In addition to the remarkable concurrence in which Alex is cast in the role of his daughter’s lover, the actress who portrays her, Dawn Devenport, is suicidal in real life, as was Cass. In the end, she and Alex journey to the same town in which Cass met with her untimely death.

It is difficult to overlook the contrast between the two narratives in Ancient Light. The remembrance of Mrs. Gray, with its indefinite mirroring, is suggestive of limitless possibilities that could extend even beyond the boundaries of the text. On the other hand, the narrative around the movie production is anything but arbitrary; rather, it appears self-consciously ordered, over-determined, even contrived: such a structure is unusual for Banville. One explanation for this stylistic departure is that Banville has assumed the two contrasting narrative styles to juxtapose a strongly held autobiographical belief with the meaning- making impulse we share. In Thou Shalt Not Kill, Banville quotes The Book of Evidence:

“A washed blue dawn was breaking in Madrid. I stopped outside the station and watched a flock of birds wheeling and tumbling at an immense height, and, the strangest thing, a gust of euphoria, or something like euphoria, swept through me, making me tremble, and bringing tears to my eyes. It was from a lack of sleep, I suppose, and the effect of the high thin air … I was at a turning point, you will tell me, just there the future forked for me and I took the wrong path without noticing – that’s what you’ll tell me isn’t it, you who must have meaning in everything, who lust after meaning, your palms sticky and your faces on fire! But calm, Frederick, calm. Forgive me this outburst, your honour. It is just that I do not believe such moments mean anything – or any other moments, for that matter. They have significance, apparently. They may even have value of some sort. But they do not mean anything.”

There now I have declared my faith.

The movie production subplot in Ancient Light fits together, is linear, and makes sense to the novel. And yet even as such orderliness comforts the reader, the carefully methodical text with its coincidence and concurrence can also feel unsettling in its suggestion of disregarded possibilities. It may even be unconvincing. This is especially so when in juxtaposition with Mrs. Gray, about whom nothing is what it seems. By emphasizing the process of meaning-making, Banville exposes its reductive nature: the writer and reader are under pressure, constantly, to discard competing scenarios, to create a singular narrative, and much is eliminated. The truth disappears in this type of self-constructivism, and what remains is at best a version of certainty.

On the other hand, the retrieval of Mrs. Gray in memory is both spontaneous and complex. Despite the atmosphere of uncertainty and chronological confusion in the text, Cleave acknowledges, “somehow I have gathered up all the disparate parts of her … and assembled them into a working model sufficiently complete and lifelike for memory’s purposes.” He speculates as to the cause of Mrs. Gray’s intense palpability despite the passing of five decades: “Or perhaps, in her case, my memory works in a special way. Perhaps it is not memory at all that thinks it holds her fast inside me, but some other faculty altogether.” This “other faculty” – one treasured by Banville – is imagination.

For Banville, memory and imagination are inextricable, and his regard for their power is literary lore. “God and the imagination are one,” he writes, quoting Wallace Stevens in Thou Shalt Not Kill. It is the God of our minds. In this context, the relevance of the title of Cleave’s movie becomes clear. Based on an unauthorized biography of Axel Vander, it is called The Invention of the Past. “What do I recall of her, in these soft pale days at the lapsing of the year?” Cleave asks on page 2 of his recollections of Mrs. Gray. “Images from the far past crowd in my head, and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all. Some say that without realizing it, we make it all up as we go along, embroidering and embellishing, and I am inclined to credit it, for Madam Memory is a great and subtle dissembler.”

If memory fragments and dissembles, then it is the imagination that makes whole and vivid: the necessary invention of the past.

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