Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ancient Light

If any of you are like me and are fans of watching The Voice on NBC, then you'll be familiar with the "battle rounds" of the competition. For any of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, that's the point in the show where the celebrity singing coaches/ judges pair up two singers from their teams who have similar styles and make them sing duets. Whoever gives the best performance gets to move on to the next round. If I were judging a literary version of The Voice, I would probably have to pit John Banville's new novel, Ancient Light, against a novel I read at the beginning of this year, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Both books share narrators who are older men looking back at pivotal moments from their youth, torn between their memories and their awareness of the unreliability of memory.

In Ancient Light, the older man in question is Alexander Cleave, an aging British stage actor. In the novel's present tense, Cleave is acting in his first ever film role, forging a friendship of sorts with the young starlet who is his costar. During the course of this acting job, Cleave also undertakes the task of recording in his journal the events of an inappropriate affair he had with his best friend's mother when he was a teenager. The action jumps back and forth between these two story lines, mingling in Cleave's more recent memories of the unexpected and unexplained death of his troubled adult daughter ten years prior.

Banville has a very lyrical style of writing that's in full force here and it gives an elegiac quality to the memories that are are dealt with in the novel. As a narrator, Cleave frequently points out bits of memories that he knows are inaccurate, such as the way that he pictures an incident unfolding against the backdrop of a spring day when he knows for a fact that it happened in the fall, or the way that characters in his memory wear very specific articles of clothing that would have been outlandish had they worn them in reality. Cleave often comes across as being bemused or charmed by these tricks of the mind, and is at the very least resigned to accepting them as an integral part of the history he's constructed for himself. This attitude is somewhat different than that of the narrator in The Sense of an Ending. Although that narrator was also very forthcoming about the possible inaccuracies of his memories, he also seemed to be more suspicious of them, and certainly not resigned to accepting them. There's the sense that he thinks he can somehow get to the bottom of his memories and reconstruct the true version of events, which is ultimately played out in the way the plot of that novel progresses.

It's tough for me to decide which treatment of memory I prefer. Banville's might be more beautiful but Barnes's has a certain tension to it that I also liked. If it did actually come down to a head to head competition, I think it would be a real toss up.

(And yes, I did just spend an entire post connecting two Booker Prize-winning authors to a reality singing competition show. You're welcome.)

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