Suppose, for a moment, that you get to meet Nabokov. It’s no biggie: these days, all the literary journalists get to meet Nabokov when he has a new book out. But still, Nabokov is Nabokov: you don’t want to embarrass yourself, to ask a stupid question, so you read every word they wrote about their encounters with him. A bit of a curmudgeon, some say. A tad abrupt, somewhat dour, definitely intense. Others seem to have got on fine with him, with long spooling conversations about identity, memory, politics and baking bread. So you’re sitting in the restaurant he suggested, at the table he booked, waiting and wondering what kind of man you are going to meet.
That’s me in Dublin the other day, waiting not for Nabokov obviously, but for John Banville. But the comparison isn’t far-fetched: his new novel, Ancient Light, dazzles with a similarly intricate confessional style. “Could any book be better?” asks his fellow Irish writer Sebastian Barry. “Did it even need to be as tremendous as this?”
And he’s right. Even if you just took Ancient Light merely as a reverse Lolita – the story of an aged actor’s remembered affair, as a 15-year-old, with his best friend’s mother in 1950s small-town Ireland – it is a work of commanding artistry, each scene exquisitely realised in burnished prose. I have not met Banville previously, but I have seen him on two occasions when he hit the headlines. The first time was at the Man Booker dinner in 2005 when he won with The Sea (he began his acceptance speech by declaring “It’s about time a work of art won”). Then there was the Harrogate crime writers’ festival four years later when he told his audience how infinitely easier it was to write his crime novels than literary fiction.
Meeting him in person, he seems less aloof and arrogant that I remembered from those occasions, yet there is still a steely self-certainty about him. And it’s this that intrigues me. How did he get to be a writer in the first place? Oddly, none of those interviewers seemed to have even asked. One moment Banville is a schoolboy in Wexford – lower middle-class, no books in the house, no inspirational teacher, no writerly mentor, no creative writing course (the very idea!), not even any university – the next he is crafting unmatchable prose with a sturdy intellectual underpinning. Confidence, arrogance, call it what you will – where did all of that come from?
For as Ancient Light reminds us, Banville is not just a stylist. Behind that is an enormous, cathedral-like internal architecture that links the book to two novels – Eclipse and Shroud – he wrote over a decade ago. That was when we first met actor Alexander Cleave, first learnt about the death of his mentally troubled daughter Cass, and saw his career stumble into the shadows after he broke down on stage.
It was there, too, that we first came across Axel Vander, an influential deconstructionist critic, loosely based on Paul de Man (who was posthumously vilified when he was revealed to have written anti-Semitic tracts). In Shroud, Vander is about to be unmasked by Cleave’s daughter Cass; in Ancient Light, Cleave himself is asked to come out of semi-retirement to star as Vander in a film – “The Invention of the Past” – written by a certain “JB”.
There are reams of PhD theses to be written on the epic interconnectedness of Banville’s work, but for now, let us just look at how he describes “JB”: “Our author … is widely but unsystematically read, and uses the rich titbits that he has gathered from all those books to cover up for the lack of an education – though the effect is quite the opposite, for in every gorgeous image and convoluted metaphor, every instance of cod learning and mock scholarship, he unmistakably shows himself up for the avid autodicact he indubitably is. Behind the gloss, the studied elegance, the dandified swagger, this is a man racked by fears, anxieties, sour resentments, yet possessed too of an occasional mordant wit and an eye for what one might call the underbelly of beauty.”
Is that really, I wonder, as I wait in the Dublin restaurant, the man I am about to meet?
He takes off his fedora, unwraps a long scarf, gives a firm handshake and joins me at the table. For a while we talk about newspapers. It has always amazed me that when Banville was writing his first novels he also was holding down a job as chief sub-editor of the Irish Press. (A newspaper’s chief sub, I should point out, is an incredibly stressful job: essentially, you have to hold the whole newspaper in your head and supervise its creation and change through a whole series of deadlines and editions.) Maybe because I was a hack too on a rival Irish newspaper at the time he was working in Dublin, I find it easy to bond with him. He is, it turns out, a great source of jokes, anecdotes and gossip. I didn’t expect that.
So back to how he first became a writer. He has talked about the influence of reading Joyce’s Dubliners as a teenager, but why was he so certain that wanted to write himself and so sure he was going to leave Wexford behind him as soon as he possibly could that he never bothered to learn the names of its streets?
“I’ve never thought of that before.” (Cue incredulous reaction). “No, I really do wish I could answer. I am not being evasive, but I really don’t know the answer. I think it’s just an adolescent amazement in the face of the world, a bafflement. Even just the sky, these enormous wreckages of clouds against the blue…
“I sometimes think that I might be slightly autistic. There might be a syndrome that hasn’t been named. I don’t seem to see the world in the same way that most people I know see it. They don’t seem to be baffled by it.
“Someone once said to me, ‘You don’t see anything more than the rest of us do, it’s just that you have this knack of being able to describe what you do see.’ And I said, ‘That’s absolutely right.’ But people like me have a compulsion to say, ‘Look at this, this is what I have seen. I am going to describe it to you.’ Why I should need to do that … I don’t know.”
That’s not good enough, I tell him. I lived in Ireland before it became the more open society it is today, and I could see how thoroughly it moulded people. Why wasn’t he moulded too? Why wasn’t he influenced by the Irish writers – Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain etc – that his contemporaries were?
“I did write one Irish book [Birchwood, 1973] where the narrator says, ‘I will live in this house, but I will live a life that is different to any that this house has ever known.’ I think that was my credo. I was very ambitious, very discontent, wanting to make a new life. And Ireland in the Fifties was a closed world. When I first went to eastern Europe in the 1980s, it felt exactly the same.”
But again, we’re back to that early, unfathomable self-certainty. At 18 he decided he didn’t want to go to university, instead taking a job as a clerk for Aer Lingus, which offered employees flights at massively discounted rates. Did he ever have any regrets about not going to university?
“My wife, who went to Berkeley, says that my strength is the very fact that I didn’t go. Now I feel silly. I should have gone. But it would have tied me to my family for three or four years which I couldn’t bear. Not that I hated them – I just didn’t want to be tied to their world. And that’s what writers do – they go out and devour the world.”
Ironically, for all the acclaim of his Revolutions Trilogy (Doctor Copernicus, Kepler and the Newton Letter) or even The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable, much of Banville’s more recent work revisits the Ireland of the Fifties from which he was so keen to escape. Not only are his five Benjamin Black crime novels firmly set in 1950s Dublin, but in both The Sea and Ancient Light an elderly narrator looks back on formative memories from his childhood or adolescence that he has never been able to slough off. Indeed, it is their very permanence that marks them out: whatever shifting identities the world imposes, these are shown as being the ones around which his characters’ essence is rooted.
“Yes,” he says, “but we invent the past. I know some of my memories are made up and they are far more powerful than the things that actually happened. For example, I always remember my brother posting me a copy of Dubliners from Africa, but he says he never did. For memory, we use our imagination. We take a few strands of real time and carry them with us, then like an oyster we create a pearl around them.
“When I look back on my summers on holiday with my family in Rosslare, I know in my mind that there were rainy days when I was bored and we might have played cards all afternoon. But all I have kept are the luminous moments, those moments of illumination. They were very, very few, but as you grow older, the past becomes more vivid, with this almost luminous halo. It becomes a hallowed place, and we keep replaying it and projecting it in our heads.”
That’s what, in Ancient Light, the 65-year-old Alex Cleave is doing when he thinks back to his months with Mrs Gray, his best friend’s mother. It is in these moments that one realises one is reading a work of genius. Somehow, in the old actor’s remembrance of time past, amid all his arch phraseology (“Lady Venus and her sportive boy”, etc) an impossible – or almost impossible, in wholly Catholic 1950s Ireland – love comes into focus across the decades, burning with the blind egotism of that old man’s youth
For all its apparent implausibility, this affair is wonderfully described. First, there’s that pitch-perfect double narrative, a story told simultaneously from the old man’s and the teenager’s point of view. Then there’s Banville’s unmatched descriptive artistry, fixing every fleeting moment and sensation mind with painterly precision. But this time there’s something else: a greater emphasis on story and characterisation that may well, Banville concedes, be the influence of now having five Benjamin Black crime novels under his belt (“although I’m the last person to be able to talk about what’s going on in my own fiction”).
From the start, one knows the affair between Mrs Gray and Alex affair is going to come to grief. Alex is impulsive, petulant, obsessed, sulky when she does not accede to his requests. And because love really is blind to danger, he is quite prepared to risk everything for her. That tension – not just will they be found out but how will their lives be wrecked when they are? – fuels the novel.
“My wife says Mrs Gray is a bit of a male fantasy – and of course she is. I never had any experience like that, so I don’t know where she came from. She is so determinedly ordinary, yet she is like a mother to Alex, giving him everything and forgiving him everything.”
Behind all the post-modern tricksiness of the story of the film-within-the-novel, which is itself within two other novels; behind all Alex Cleave’s anxious circling around his own identity, this is a powerful book about loss and love. Banville isn’t a sentimentalist, so there is no easy consolation. Alex’s only daughter has already committed suicide, so what happens to his love when its object vanishes into the void? What was it for in the first place? Why do we ever love when death makes love look as absurd as, well, a 15-year-old boy’s manic fumblings?
At the end, after Ancient Light has taken us into howling tragedy – the death of one’s only daughter, the death of one’s only love – there is a scene of such haunting beauty that I shan’t defile it by attempting to describe it. It takes us back to a 15-year-old boy, to memories dredged up with luminous clarity.
And of course that boy isn’t John Banville, and he isn’t even “JB”. For all my efforts to find out more about the 67-year-old writer’s 15-year-old self, I have drawn a blank. One of those ordinary, everyday blanks that also contains the mystery of life and the secrets of art.
• Ancient Light by John Banville is published this week by Viking, price £18.99. John Banville will be appearing at the Edinburgh book festival on 15 August.