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Ancient Light Reader’s Guide

By John Banville

Ancient Light by John Banville


John Banville is the author of fifteen previous novels, has been the recipient of the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Award, and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. He lives in Dublin.


Alex Cleave, the narrator of John Banville’s previous novel, Eclipse (2000), returns in Ancient Light to tell a story of that sounds the depths of memory and desire. Now sixty-five, Alex is irresistibly drawn to recall his first and only great love, which occurred fifty years ago, when he was just fifteen, with Mrs. Gray, a woman more than twice his age and the mother of his best friend, Billy.
Told from the dual perspective of the older man and his teenage self, the novel has one foot in the past and one in the present, as Alex straddles an emotional abyss that threatens to pull him under at any moment. A stage actor who abandoned the theater after a disastrous performance, Alex has been lured out of retirement to star in a film about the life of the controversial literary critic Axel Vander—a character who lived under an assumed identity and who bears a striking resemblance to the real-life deconstructionist critic Paul de Man. Vander may also have had a hand in the suicide of Alex’s daughter, Cass, who exposed Vander’s wartime writings for a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper. Axel Vander and Cass Cleave are the main characters in Banville’s novel Shroud (2002).
But far more than the film, Alex is engrossed in remembering his passionate affair with Mrs. Gray. He recalls the entire trajectory of their relationship, from the moment he first saw her (or a woman he thinks was her) gliding down the street on her bicycle, her dress blown up by the wind to reveal a fascinating glimpse of her undergarments; through the first kiss and all the impetuous trysts that followed; to the indiscretion that would suddenly end their affair. He recalls the details of this early love with incredible vividness. Indeed, some of his memories will strike readers as perhaps too vivid to be believed. Alex himself wonders near the beginning of the novel whether the images that come crowding into his mind “are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all” (p. 4).
The novel offers a narrative told by a man who acknowledges little difference between memory and invention and who plays the lead in The Invention of the Past, a film about a literary critic who erased his personal history by assuming the identity of dead man. Ideas of self, of the veracity of memory, of our ability to truly know ourselves or each other all lose stability in the fascinating hall of mirrors Banville has created in Ancient Light.
Still, the emotional currents that move through Alex as he recounts and relives the past are quite real and compelling. There is a searching, yearning, elegiac quality about the story he tells, a story whose meaning remains mysterious, even to him. He is a man chasing ghosts, as he searches out the fate of Mrs. Gray and makes an impetuous trip to the Ligurian coastal town (where his daughter committed suicide) with his co-star, Dawn Devonport, in the aftermath of her own failed suicide attempt.
Written with Banville’s signature lyricism and subtle emotional intelligence, Ancient Light is a novel of love and loss—the all-consuming thrill of a first love, intensified by illicitness and secrecy, and the loss of a past that nevertheless remains both inescapable and ungraspable.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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?

About this Author

John Banville is the author of fifteen previous novels, has been the recipient of the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Award, and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. He lives in Dublin.

Suggested Reading

John Banville, Eclipse, Shroud; Jonathan Coe, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim; Joan Didion, Blue Nights; Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past; Bernard Schlink, The Reader; Scott Spencer, Endless Love.
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