Is there a difference between memory and invention? That is the
question that haunts Alexander Cleave as he reflects on his first,
and perhaps only, love-an underage affair with his best friend's
mother. When his stunted acting career is suddenly, inexplicably
revived with a movie role playing a man who may not be who he
claims, his young leading lady-famous and fragile-unwittingly gives
him the opportunity to see, with startling clarity, the gap between
the things he has done and the way he recalls them. Profoundly
moving, Ancient Light
is written with the depth of
character, clarifying lyricism, and heart-wrenching humor that mark
all of Man Booker Prize-winning author John Banville's
1. What are the most distinctive features of John Banville's
prose style? What accounts for its remarkable richness, lyricism,
and subtlety of perception?
2. What is the effect of Ancient Light being told
simultaneously from the points of view of the teenage Alex and the
adult Alex? How does Alex's present affect his past? How does his
past affect his present?
3. Alex frequently interrupts himself as he's telling his story
by asking questions in asides, such as, "She was not a native of
our town-have I said that?-and neither was her husband" (p. 66).
What is the effect of this kind of self-reflexive, self-questioning
narration? In what ways does it feel true to Alex's character?
4. At the opening of the book, Alex writes: "Images from the far
past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they
are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference
between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all" (p. 3).
How reliable is Alex as a narrator? His memory seems
extraordinarily vivid and detailed, but how trustworthy is it? Is
it possible to discern what he's remembering and what he's
inventing or embellishing?
5. Why does Alex feel compelled now, fifty years after the fact,
to write about his first love? What purpose does writing this story
serve for him?
6. After Mrs. Gray flees, Alex feels abandoned and afraid. "This
was grown-up territory, where I should not have to be. Who would
rescue me, who would follow and find me and lead me back to be
again among the scenes and the safety I had know before...?" (p.
264). Has Alex been victimized by Mrs. Gray, in spite of his
more-than-enthusiastic involvement in their passionate affair? Has
he been prematurely robbed of his innocence or given the gift of a
7. Why does Alex take Dawn Devonport to Ligurian coastal town of
Portovenere after her failed suicide attempt? What are his
ostensible motives? What deeper reasons might be guiding him?
8. In playing the part of the Belgian literary critic Axel
Vander, who lived most of his adult life under an assumed identity,
Alex is pretending to be an impostor. What is the significance of
this double impersonation?
9. Near the end of the novel, Alex says "People, real people,
expect actors to be the characters they play. I am not Axel Vander,
nor anything like him. Am I?" (p. 274). Is Alex anything like Axel,
beyond their anagrammatic names? Why would he assert that he is not
like Axel, and then immediately question that assertion?
10. How has their daughter Cass's suicide affected Alex and
Lydia's marriage? Does Dawn Devonport serve as a kind of
daughter-substitute for them?
11. Alex says that he was happy to listen to Mrs. Gray's
ramblings, "or to pretend to, so long as she consented to lie in my
embrace in the back seat of the station wagon or on the mattress in
Cotter's place" (p. 144). Is he a narcissist or merely displaying
the passionate impatience of youthful male lust? Could he have
loved her less selfishly?
12. Why doesn't it occur to Alex that when Mrs. Gray wonders
aloud what it might be like to not be here, and asks him if he ever
thinks about death, she is tacitly referring to her own grave
illness? Why does he immediately assume she's referring to her
husband's impending death?
13. How does learning the fate of Mrs. Gray-the real reason she
disappeared from Alex's life-change the way the novel should be
read? How might Mrs. Gray's awareness of her illness help explain
her affair with young Alex?
Alex muses, "I used to think, long ago, that despite all the
evidence I was the one in charge of my own life. . . . Now I
realise that always I have been acted upon, by unacknowledged
forces, hidden coercions" (p. 278). Why would he come to this
conclusion? What are the "unacknowledged forces" and "hidden
coercions" that have acted on him?
15. Why does Banville choose to end the novel with Alex
remembering sleeping on the floor next to his mother's be, in the
aftermath of the end of his affair with Mrs. Gray? What might be
the "radiant being" he feels approaching the house just before he