Tag Archives: John Banville

Ancient Light

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ancient Light by John Banville.

Banville Ancient Light

John Banville’s two previous novels about Alexander Cleave and his daughter Cass (Eclipse and Shroud) were synchronized with one another, so that neither was needed to appreciate the other, but either would “spoil” the other’s ending. I expected this third book, focusing on Alexander Cleave a decade later, to be a continuation of Eclipse for which Shroud would not furnish any explicit background. I had not reckoned on Banville’s ability to construct one of the most elaborate instances of dramatic irony I have ever encountered on the printed page. It started early, and continued for nearly the entire book within one of the two major plot strands. I don’t know how the book would have read in the absence of that very vivid irony, which depended entirely on familiarity with Shroud.

“Cleave” is aptly named in this book, split between memories of his sixteenth summer, when he had an affair with his best friend’s thirty-five-year-old mother, and his first movie role fifty years later, coming out of retirement from his stage acting career. Just as the titles of the previous books applied to their contents in over-determined polyvalent ways, so too does “ancient light.” The other titles appear again, subtly worked in to the closing passages, where Banville also quite overtly opens towards a possible further volume.

I liked Ancient Light better than Eclipse and perhaps not quite as much as Shroud. Consistent with the others, the prose is writerly, but still tailored to the voice of the principal character, and the book is filled with sensuous observation along with both epistemological and emotional difficulty. Critic Keshava Guha derided Ancient Light for its “vagueness,” but I found it to have a real precision in the construction of its characters and the development of its themes.

Shroud

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Shroud by John Banville.

In this thirteenth of the Irish author’s novels, central character Axel Vander is a valetudinarian professor who is—at first appearance—derived fairly directly from the posthumously unveiled Paul de Man. A writer and lecturer of savvy charisma emerged as an apparent refugee from Nazi Europe and rose to celebrity in the American academic establishment. In 1987, four years after his death, De Man’s actual complicity in Nazi anti-Semitism was revealed through the recovery of scores of articles that he had written for the pro-Nazi press in occupied Belgium. In Shroud, it first appears that the same scenario is being replayed with a slight variation: the exposure is threatened while Vander is still alive. A young Irish woman, Cass Cleave, has contacted him to let him know that she has discovered the compromising newspaper articles.

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Cass Cleave is not a simple character either. She is prone to hallucinations, and she is working out her own complicated biographical plot. Vander meets Cleave in Turin, where the Holy Shroud provides one meaning of the “shroud” of the title, with an aura of mystery and magic. But it proves less important than the many biographical and psychological shrouds that are described throughout the novel. The great significance of Turin is that it is the town of the twilight of Nietzsche, whom Vander simply calls N. Vander and Cleave do not manage to visit the Shroud, but they do attempt to see the former apartment of “Il grande filosofo.” The prophetic alter ego of Nietzsche even appears in the minor role of “Dr. Zoroaster,” a local physician. Nietzsche’s writing is a preferred object of study for Vander just as it was for de Man.

De Man quotes Nietzsche’s “On the Use and Misuse of History for Life”: “[W]e try to give ourselves a new past from which we should have liked to descend instead of the past from which we descended. But this is also dangerous, because it is so difficult to trace the limit of one’s denial of the past, and because the newly invented nature is likely to be weaker than the previous one…” (Nietzsche in de Man, Blindness and Insight, 149-150).

Vander ruefully entertains “a tale I had thought to think of no more until you brought it back.” He dispenses to Cleave, whom he designates as his biographer, not only memories of his old life but of his recent dreams. Banville’s novel does not promise any sense of esoteric mystery, but it reveals a startling depth in the anamnesia of personal secrets, and ultimately, an awareness that individuals are separated from each other by a chasm as deep as death–a divide that love simply makes visible. The shroud of the title is thus a display of false history, a shroud of concealment, and a funereal shroud. [via]

Doctor Copernicus

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Copernicus by John Banville.

John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus is a fiercely interior historical novel about the Renaissance polymath and astronomer. It is divided into four parts, one about his childhood and youth, a second about his mature career, a third regarding the publication of his masterwork De revolutionibus, and a final section on his death. All but one of these are delivered in a third-person omniscient narration that includes glimpses of Copernicus’ own perspective. The exception is part three, where the narrator is Copernicus’ disciple and editor Rheticus (Georg Joachim von Lauchen). Banville makes Rheticus out to be a rather unsympathetic character, and certainly an unreliable narrator.

The novel does good work in exposing the intellectual and cultural backdrops of Copernicus’ life: a Hermetic Renaissance in Italy, and Catholic Orders menaced by Reformation in Prussia. The achievement of his “system” is presented as ambivalent in his own regard, and he is repeatedly shown in the grips of epistemological despair.

The final section of the book, though brief, is very effective. It does not perpetuate the sanguine legend that Copernicus happily took in the first sight of the published and bound De revolutionibus on his deathbed. It does, however, fold his subjective impressions back onto the images and persons established in the earlier sections of the book, so that there is an awful symmetry to this last reckoning. [via]

The Sea

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sea by John Banville.

John Banville The Sea

This short novel by John Banville is a character-centered “literary” production. Max Morden, in whose voice the entire text is recounted, is recently widowed, and coming to grips with mortality in ways that are gradually revealed to be anything but indirect. His reminiscences form much of the substance of the story, so that it is told backwards and forwards until the pieces join.

The sea of the title is probably death, figured recurrently by the actual sea in the coastal village of the story. The village was the site of a notable family vacation in his childhood, and there are thus four temporal orbits for his memory and attention: the childhood vacation, his marriage, his wife’s terminal illness, and the present retreat for his grief.

There are some quasi-theological (atheological?) elements in the story, which opens with the declaration, “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide” (3). Much later, Morden remarks, “I do not entertain the possibility of an afterlife, or any deity capable of offering it. Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him” (137). But there’s no disbelieving in the sea.

Banville’s prose deserves the awards that it has won. It is rich and revealing, and deeply personal, so that the unreliability of Morden’s account is securely bound up with his cares and character. “I think I am becoming my own ghost,” he says (144), and The Sea is certainly a novel capable of haunting readers. [via]