CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Is it a double standard to be less shocked by an affair between a 15-year-old boy and his best friend’s mother as between an underage girl and an adult man? Let’s face it, “Summer of ‘42” and “Lolita” exist in different moral spheres in the minds of most people. Whether they should or not is another question.
So John Banville wasn’t facing an angry crowd when he reads from his latest novel, “Ancient Light,” at the Brattle Theatre as part of the Harvard Book Store author series. Nor should he have been. Banville’s writing about an aging actor looking back at his first love — his best friend’s mother — is, if anything, too tasteful. We have met this character, Alexander Cleave, before, and while you could see this as part of a trilogy with “Eclipse” and “Shroud,” you don’t need to read those books to come to terms with the new one.
Coming to terms with “Ancient Light” is no easy matter, even for die-hard fans of Banville and of his alter-ego mystery persona, Benjamin Black. For starters let’s talk about sex, shall we? This is not for the “Fifty Shades of Gray” set — though the older woman is called Mrs. Gray. There isn’t a lascivious note in this modernist scale.
But is it for the Vladimir Nabokov set? Banville might be the closest thing we have to Nabokov today, a masterful writer whose love of language is tied elegantly to the philosophical constructs of each novel. If good writing is its own reward, then “Ancient Light” — like all his novels — is as good as it gets. And there are subplots with the character he’s playing in the movie and with the guilt he feels about his daughter’s suicide that are reminiscent of Nabokov’s writing.
What’s missing, though, is a strong sense of the inner life of Alexander Cleave as he remembers Mrs. Gray’s attraction. That he doesn’t go into detail about Alexander’s sexual awakening isn’t the issue. It’s more problematic that Alexander’s obsessiveness, jealousy, love all have to be taken at face value, hidden behind Banville’s overly ornate nostalgia. Though, ironically, it’s nostalgia that Banville seems to want to avoid with such almost silly descriptiveness: “Her body displayed, disconcertingly, a range of muted tints from magnesium white to silver and tin, a scumbled sort of yellow, pale ochre, and even in places a faint greenishness and, in the hollows, a shadowing of mossy mauve.”
If this is an example of what he later describes as “her inexhaustibly desirable flesh,” I wouldn’t want to hear about a woman he wasn’t attracted to.
There’s another quasi-romance in the book, between the aged Alexander and a young, sexy actress. I won’t say whether it’s consummated or not, but I will say that here, too, Banville hardly has us on pins and needles about the outcome. Alex is not that far removed a character from Banville/Black’s mystery protagonist, Quirke, but Quirke is the more interesting character of the two, despite the lack of navel-gazing. Maybe because of it. (Banville, as Black, will be writing a Philip Marlowe novel in 2013.)
Banville is after different mysteries than he is in the books that are called mysteries. In those, after all, somebody killed somebody. But what our memories tell us, in “Ancient Light,” are not so cut and dried. The title refers to the fact that light travels for billions and trillions of miles to get to us so we are always looking into the past and, perhaps, not with accuracy.
For all that, Banville writes like a dream, at least when he’s not writing about sex:
“The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage – and what is a life but gradual shipwreck?”
“Swans in their outlandish and grubby gorgeousness always seem to be keeping up a nonchalant front behind which they are really cowering in a torment of self-consciousness and doubt.”
He also takes us to a hair salon called “Curl up and Dye.” It’s the kind of writing that, as stated above, is its own reward. We’re just used to even greater rewards from Banville.
To read an excerpt of “Ancient Light,” click here (PDF).