SO STARTS the 19th novel by the Booker Prize winner, John Banville. The narrator, actor Alexander Cleave, takes the reader through the summer months of the affair between his teenage self, and the woman in her 30s, but the book isn’t really about sex.
It’s not even, particularly, about love.
“I don’t think this couple are in love in the accepted sense,” say Banville, sipping his carefully chosen sauvignon blanc.
“At 15, he is self-centred and selfish and blind, and Mrs Gray is looking for a diversion from the painful circumstances of her life. There’s certainly mutual comfort; and in many ways the giving of comfort to one another is more important than love.”
Ancient Light portrays Alex Cleave and his wife in their ’60s. A retired actor, Cleave is offered a film role opposite a troubled Hollywood star. Meanwhile the couple struggle with grief for their daughter, who drowned herself some years before. This darkness is lifted by the novel’s playfulness, and its exploration into the frailty of memory.
In describing such an affair, though, isn’t the author dabbling with sensationalism? Banville looks puzzled.
“The affair between the two seems to me entirely innocent. You could only think it wasn’t if they had hurt lots of people, which they didn’t. There’s no erotic power. It’s not pornographic, and there are no four letter words. Can you imagine anyone being corrupted by that?”
The town, back in the ’50s, though, would surely have been scandalised?
“That never occurred to me,” he says. “If they had been caught, the town would have covered it up. I grew up in a small town in the ’50s. There was a family in Wexford where the teenage daughter would disappear for about five successive years. She’d be away for a few months then would come back. And my mother told me, years ago, it was her father’s children she was having. Ireland has changed so much in the intervening years, and we forget. The scandal wouldn’t have come out.”
Cheering up a little, he says, “There will be a certain amount of prurience, but I won’t defend the book. I’ve made a work of art, and it doesn’t need defending. People will say, ‘he must have had this experience.’ I certainly did not. I wish I had. There was no Mrs Gray. It’s all fiction. But the notion that it might be scandalous, let’s hope it is. A huge scandal. This disgraceful book. Then everybody will read it.”
For the record, Ancient Light is as near perfect as a novel can be. I read a proof copy back in January, when I was stranded at Stansted Airport courtesy of Ryanair. It kept me enraptured and amused all night, and a second reading only reinforced the brilliance of Banville’s structure, characterisation and glittering prose.
He bats away my praise, but smiles when I mention an early scene I liked involving a woman on a bicycle.
“I did see that woman,” he says. “It’s the only experience in the book that is mine. I remember turning in the church gates on a windy day, aged about ten, and this woman came riding by. Her skirts blew up, she went, ‘oh,’ and rode on. That was my first glimpse into the generosity of women, the insouciance of her and the gaiety of her.”
Banville, famously, says he hates all his novels once they are written. But he does admit to liking the structure and time sequences of his new one.
“But everything I write could be so much better. Hilaire Belloc said, ‘no work is finished, merely abandoned,’ and I think he’s right. There comes a time when you can’t face it anymore. When it makes you feel nauseous. Then I usually rush the ending and have to rewrite it. This is one of the reasons so many novels have bad endings. Writers let them go.”
Banville fans have met Alexander Cleave and his wife Lydia before. They appeared in Eclipse, and were mentioned in Shroud. But Banville swears it hadn’t occurred to him that these three books make a trilogy, however loose. “I don’t remember how I came to write about Alex again. I never remember the early days, they seem to have been dreamed. But it was quite fun to make a crossword puzzle between the other books and this one.”
Interviewing Banville can be perplexing. He talks with passion about words, and the writing process, but has a tendency to drift off on a tangent, and then, a few minutes later, to repeat your question, and answer it. He’s easily distracted too.
“Isn’t that beautiful,” he says, indicating a space behind my head. A white gauze curtain is being blown inwards, through the Merrion Hotel’s French Windows. “There’s a scene in the Great Gatsby where he comes into a room just like this. The curtains are billowing and it’s probably one of the most beautiful scenes Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote.”
Remembering that early affair, Cleave wishes he could fall in love again, just once. Does Banville share that desire?
“Good God no! I’m glad that’s all over. In love was so different to loving. Being in love was this mad process which is like two mirrors clasped facing each other. We look at ourselves in the other, preening in front of each other, and it doesn’t last long. If love takes the place of that, one is lucky. So yes, I love lots of people, and things.”
He claims to have few friends.
“I don’t find the company of writers congenial. We are always moaning about money, and how bad our publishers are. Writers don’t talk about writing. They couldn’t. I have lots of great acquaintances, and one or two people I suppose I consider as friends, but I never quite knew what was meant by friendship. I felt there was either acquaintance, or there was love.”
The book is dedicated in memorandum to Caroline Walsh, the Irish Times literary editor, who died, so tragically, last December.
“I hesitated about that. I went ahead because I miss her. I loved her in a way. I didn’t realise how much I cared for her. I didn’t see enough of her. I loved her disenchantment. She had a very ironical eye she’d cast upon the world. I miss her.”
With the Booker Prize, as well as the Franz Kafka Prize under his belt, does Banville still have an ambition?
“To write a perfect novel. Every time I start a novel I think, ‘this will be the one.’ One side of my brain says, ‘don’t be ridiculous, this is just another book,’ but the other side is saying, ‘this is going to be a luminous masterpiece, and the world will fall down before it’.”
He laughs. “I write to get the sentences right. To get them as near to perfection as I can. I want them to sing. I want a ring, like when you hit your nail against a wine glass.” He demonstrates, and says, “Ping!”