Sunday March 10, 2013
Prose that sings
Review by MARC DE FAOITE
This wordy, weighty book demands effort but repays that hard work more than adequately.
Author: John Banville
Publisher: Penguin Viking, 245 pages
JOHN Banville needs no introduction, but to paraphrase the writer himself, I’m not going to let a little detail like that stand in my way. He has written more than 20 novels, both under his own name and as his dark alter-ego Benjamin Black. Former literary editor of The Irish Times, Banville has won dozens of prizes and awards for his books, including the Booker prize, the Whitbread and the Guardian Fiction Prize, to name but a few. He is perhaps not only Ireland’s most prolific and accomplished living writer, but indubitably one of the most important writers in the English language today.
Ancient Light was winner of last year’s Irish Book Award and is a fine piece of work.
I first came across Banville in my early 20s (The Book Of Evidence, I believe) and found his writing too crammed and substantial to swallow down in the hungry gulps that the voracious appetite of my youth demanded. His was the voice of the 1950s, my parent’s generation (Banville was born the same week as my father) and their poetry came from the likes of Patrick Kavanagh and Louis MacNeice, while the words in my world were more informed by Muppets Ernie and Bert.
Now that I’ve doubled in age I can still chew through a book in a week, but I’ve also learned to take the time to savour each delectable mouthful of a book such as this (somewhat to the exasperation of my editors) and enjoy the echoing voices of a place I once called home.
Banville is a writer’s writer; each line is a thread, each word a stitch in the intricately embroidered tapestry of this book.
I found myself so taken by his use of language that I read several chapters aloud, deliberately thickening my somewhat diluted Irish accent just for the sheer pleasure of sounding out the mesmeric internal rhythms and resonances of Banville’s prose.
His sentences are skilfully and meticulously constructed. His writing, though substantial and imaged – his aim is to write with “the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has” – fair trips off the tongue with a musicality that belies the inherent complexity of his often loquacious turns of phrase.
The narrator, an ageing actor, resigned to the slowly declining stasis of old age, recounts the amorous dalliances of his distant youth with the mother of his once best friend. Banville uses his pen like a fishing rod, casting his lines out into the murky waters of late 1950s Ireland, then reeling them back in to the present day, before sending his lure towards the past once again and reliving with bitter-sweet nostalgia the narrator’s youthful initiation, if not into love, at least into the hedonic realm of pure lust.
The narrator, Alexander Cleave, will be familiar to Banville’s more devoted readers as this book forms part of a trilogy that includes Shroud and Eclipse. Ancient Light, though, stands on its own merits and not having read the previous two books (which I must confess I have not) in no way detracts from the power and beauty of this exceptional piece of work.
The more sensitive reader might find the premise of a 15-year-old boy committing adultery with his best friend’s mother a little shocking. If so, then this is not the book for you. To my mind this is Banville’s literary wink at Nabokov’s Lolita, paying homage to one of the writers whose influence he has felt most. However, at the same time the reader will find that Banville’s 1950s Ireland, which provides much of the setting of the earlier part of this book, is a far more censorious and conservative place than present day Malaysia, as indeed it remained until well into the 1990s, with all the censorship and book bannings and religious fervour and zeal that have forged the peculiar Irish psyche.
The narrator unexpectedly finds himself pulled out of the wallowing complacency and decay of his involuntary retirement and the lurid reminiscences of his lustful youth when he is offered a role in a film. The plot unfolds from there onwards and intertwines with the narratives of the previous two books in the trilogy.
In summary, this is a wordy, weighty book that demands considerable time and effort on the part of the reader, but repays that hard work more than adequately.