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 extraordinary works.
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 great love?
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 falls asleep?