Monday, 8 October 2012

The imbrications of John Banville

Not only is there “an imbricated array of banana sandwiches” in John Banville’s Ancient Light, the book itself is imbrication upon imbrication: from  Nabokov,  Dostoevsky,Yeats, Shelley, Leopardi, Paul de Man, the characters and narrative of preceding books Shroud and Eclipse and The Infinities (via the reference to Kleist’s Amphitryon) to Banville’s long-standing preoccupation with the mirror-to-mirror unreliability of memory, even to Banville himself in the person of the biographer JB, the “somewhat shifty and self-effacing fellow” who writes “like Walter Pater in a delirium.”

All this in the strangely stagey Banville style in which characters and even Nature herself seem to be kept in the wings waiting to be called forth to strut and fret their hour upon the stage. It’s no accident that Banville is attracted to stories of gods, as in The Infinities, based on Amphitryon; there are few authors who play the deus ex machina more overtly.

Many readers will respond to the relationship between the young Alex and Mrs Gray, and to the unresolveable sorrow of Alex and Lydia’s loss of their daughter Cass. It’s harder to be interested in the Alex Vander narrative, and the outcome of the Mrs Gray story is verging on the banal. There is an uncharacteristic impatience, a loss of the control of tone, in the way Banville bundles her off by way of a condensed explanation from her daughter.

The end of the book suggests there’s more to come of the tale of Alex Cleave, his lost daughter, and Alex Vander. I wonder how long Banville can go on mining this particular seam.

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