Post Road Magazine #29

John Banville's Eclipse

Howard Axelrod

Critics are fond of placing John Banville among the greatest prose stylists living today, but that term stylist, with its over-bright whiff of the hair salon, its suggestion of artifice rather than art, does Banville a particularly important disservice.  Banville is, undoubtedly, a gorgeous writer. Best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea (2005) and his more recent The Infinities (2009), Banville forges sentences that are both taut and capacious, equally born of a Latin scholar's primer and his view from the library window, of his exactitude and his deeper foreboding of all that his rigorous syntax and lush diction cannot reach.  But to attribute the appeal of Banville's sentences to style is to miss one of the thematic keys to his work.  And nowhere are his sentences and their stylistic and thematic necessity on more naked display than in his novel Eclipse (2000). 

The novel's premise is fairly straightforward.  Alexander Cleave, a famous classical actor, freezes on stage one night, only to realize in a cold sweat that his crisis is not one of memory—he knows his lines perfectly well—but one of identity, a crisis that has been his whole life in the making.  Shortly thereafter, he goes to see a therapist, "feeling inexplicably nervous, my heart racing and my palms wet, as if I were about to go onstage in the most difficult part I had ever played, which was the case, I suppose, since the part I must play was myself, and I had no lines learned."  With no help from the therapist, and unable to show his face in public "after the mask has so spectacularly slipped," Cleave flees to his empty childhood home.  Against long odds of which he's well-aware, he desperately hopes to find "that singular essential self…that must be in hiding, somewhere, under the jumble of discarded masks."

While this may sound like a recipe for narrative disaster—an aging actor alone in his childhood home, with an interior conflict that may or may not be resolved by forays into memory—Banville makes Cleave's struggle, in all its temporal dimensions and complications, surround him in tangible ways.  There are the elegantly pained phone calls from his wife, whom he abandoned emotionally long before his self-exile to the country; there are the unsettling reminders of their emotionally disturbed daughter, Cass, whose future, it becomes clear, is very much in question.  And there are the ghosts.   He hears bumps, perceives disturbances, and catches glimpses both of a woman and of a child:  "That glimpse through the kitchen doorway was the first of many such sightings, brief, diaphanous, gleamingly translucent, like a series of photographs blown up to life-size and for a moment made wanly animate."  The ghosts are not there, he believes, to frighten him or to chastise him.  They are merely at work trying "to assemble [themselves] within the ill-fitting frame of the house and its contents," just as he is.    

While this may still sound like a recipe for solipsism, especially with a first-person narrator, Cleave's chance to save himself (and Banville's chance to save the novel) has less to do with Cleave's musings on the past, or his theories on the house's present inhabitants, and more to do with his powers of attention.  And, to some degree, Cleave knows it.  The day as boy when he first "became aware" of himself, aware of himself as "something that everything else was not," depended not on how he was seen by others, but on how he saw.  On the surface, it was an ordinary day; he was simply walking down the main street under a fine rain.

It was November, or March, not cold, but neutral.  From a lowering sky fine rain was falling, so fine as to be hardly felt.  It was morning, and the housewives were out, with their shopping bags and headscarves.  A questing dog trotted busily past me looking neither to right nor left, following a straight line drawn invisibly on the pavement.  There was a smell of smoke and butcher's meat, and a brackish smell of the sea, and, as always in the town in those days, the faint sweet stench of pig-swill.

But his awareness of himself as a person perceiving all this sparks into the mystery of selfhood:

Taking in all this, I experienced something to which the only name I could give was happiness, although it was not happiness, it was more and less than happiness…It was as if I were carrying some frail vessel that it was my task to protect, like the boy in the story told to us in religious class who carried the Host through the licentious streets of ancient Rome hidden inside his tunic; in my case, however, it seemed I was myself the precious vessel…And so I went on, in happy puzzlement, under the small rain, bearing the mystery of myself in my heart.

It's this quality of attention, with its nod to Joyce's "Araby" and a young man's painful initial sense of selfhood, that is the crux of the book's dramatic tension.  Cleave's not only split, or cleaved, from his past, but he also cleaves to it, to how he perceived his surroundings as a child, so that he might rejoin the present day as himself, as a man rooted in the boy he had been.  The attention with which he observes the ghosts, his memories, and Quirke, the house's shifty caretaker, and Quirke's Lolita-esque daughter Lily, is not incidental or ornamental.  And it is not a style.  It is his one meager hope. 

 Which leads Banville's searching, self-contradicting, tautly lyrical sentences to do what they do.  Proust, often cited as one of Banville's literary forebears, wrote, "Style is by no means an adornment as some people think, it is not even a question of technique, it is—like color for painters—a quality of vision, the revelation of the particular universe which each of us sees, and which is not seen by others."   But it is also, as Banville might add, the particular universe we have each lost and struggle to regain, even as we go on losing more of ourselves in the search.

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