Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Garden of the Unknowable: 'Ancient Light' by John Banville



            "Since it seems that nothing in creation is ever destroyed, only disassembled and dispersed, might not the same be true of individual consciousness?" John Banville's narrator, an aging actor, asks himself this question in his 2012 novel "Ancient Light." And continues:
            "Where when we die does it go to, all that we have been?"
            Don't we all ask ourselves this question?
            There really are no suitable answers, are there? Perhaps, even, no 'reality.'
            And maybe thinking this way is something of an occupational hazard for the profession of 'fiction writing.'
            The Irish novelist (and also literary journalist, writing book reviews and literary articles for an Irish newspaper) -- has written so many remarkable, beautifully phrased and thought-provoking sentences that's it's a mistake to get hung up on any one sentence or  passage (or even one book) as the quintessential Banville.
            Still, I particularly love the concluding phrase in this perfectly formed question: "all that we have been."
            If I had to come up with an answer to a question on the subject of this, or any, of this author's novels, this might be it. What are John Banville's novels about? 'All that we have been.'
            Or, perhaps, might have been. Since, as many others have pointed out, his narrators are always of the unreliable sort. And their tales have been skewed, undercut, overlaid, wrapped and themselves, with a trail of little time bombs going off here and there with the effect of blowing up any confidence that what we are hearing is intended as the 'simple truth.' There is no simple truth.
            Given this author's freedom with the post-modernist philosophical -- one might almost say 'post-Einsteinian,' or 'post Quantum Theory' -- skepticism that abounds in the storytelling of our times, it is almost a naive question to ask of his book "what happens?"
            Yet I can't escape a brief attempt to summarize the plot of "Ancient Light."
            In the book's most beautiful passage the dawn light enters the room as just the right angle to create a perfect reflection of itself on the bedroom ceiling: a mirrored or twin universe. Is this the "Ancient Light" of the title? Or does the title simply acknowledge that source of some of the light reaching our solar system originates from galaxies millions or billions of light years away. From the distant past, that is, of other worlds. 
            That passage follows the novel's opening in which we learn that the narrator spends his nights walking the dark passages of his ancient house in search of his endlessly weeping wife. Are we in the House of Usher? Or the House of Atreus where some ancient tragedy is afoot?
            In fact, the cause is that both parents are unreconciled to the death of their daughter by apparent suicide in circumstances that could be judged mysterious, but which reason would simply term 'unknowable.' The daughter, we learn, was always a little disturbed.
            For seemingly unrelated reasons, our narrator has chosen to examine in detail all of his fully fleshed-out memories of his teenage initiation into adult sexuality by the mother of his best friend. Their enigmatic affair (why should she do such a thing?) persists for many months, leading to inevitable discovery and the Mom's ruin. Or so the boy believed. I remain astonished by the author's detailed reconstruction of a fifteen-year-old's state of mind and conduct during these Rabelaisian backseat and abandoned-hut encounters; perhaps because at that age I was still working on my first kiss.
            I am less assured these revisitations have anything to do with mourning or investigating the death of his daughter, or his own current life. Ah, we think, but the connection is thematic, philosophical, having to do with the nature of time, the role of memory, the possibility of ever knowing 'what really happened.'
            In the third stand of the novel's action, our narrator, a retired stage actor, is summoned out of the blue by a Hollywood producer to play the lead in a film about a morally compromised European literary critic of the post-structuralist 'critical theory' school. I cannot find words to express how unlikely it is that an American film company would make a movie about a 'critical theory' academic, however compromised. Still, a troubling coincidence connects this figure to the time and place of the daughter's death.
            Yet it almost beyond the point -- and sometimes wholly pointless -- to worry about the plotting of Banville's novels.
            In an interview with Paris Review, the author himself states that the central concern of his fiction is the construction of beautiful English sentences. He says:
            "It’s only now and then, maybe once every three or four days, that I manage to write a sentence in which I hear that wonderful harmonic chime that you get when, say, you flick the edge of a wine glass with a fingernail. That’s what keeps me going."
            The art lies, that is, in the way you put the words together. The play of the syntax. The rhythm of the phrases winding through the resources of Banville's sometimes head-scratchingly wide vocabulary. The sound of the words melding finely with the changing and always nuanced tone of their narration.
            For me, the singular 'chime' in Banville's unrivaled prose is the boffo, self-mocking play of words weaving themselves into a fully intelligible declaration, the various possible meanings of which can be expressed in no other words than those still resounding in the reader's ear and mind.
            Here's our narrator recalling his 15-year-old self 'in love' -- can that be the fitting phrase? Well, contentedly busy, at least, with the occupation of enjoying the charms of his adult mistress.
            "Certainly she granted me full freedom of her body, that opulent pleasure garden where I sipped and sucked, dazed as a bumble-bee in full-blown summer."
            I have seen such bumble bees in their capacity as eager visitors to the flower garden of my own full-blown summers. At times they appear dazed indeed by the wealth of opportunity offered them; for the most part they show little hesitation in getting on with the job. And, yes, I sometimes envy them.