Memory and Desire
Chance will have us discover patterns, but then we also believe that there are no coincidences. Do those two statements demand the admission that we read what we have to? To be less riddling: I posted admiring comments on Richard Ford’s Canada over a week ago. In particular I admired the narrative voice: Del Parson looks back after fifty years at his experiences at fifteen. Apparently irresponsible decisions by adults in his life had defining and inescapable consequences. The very next novel I took up was John Banville’s Ancient Light in which the narrator, Alex, looks back over fifty years to the time he was fifteen; he also has to come to terms with defining experiences - in this case an affair in which he was seduced by the mother of his best friend. Clearly an adult acted in ways that affected his life forever. The two plot outlines are similar, and the two narrative first person voices give the respective novels their extraordinary appeal, and yet the two books could not have greater differences in artistic effect.
Ford’s Dell retains his ingenuous, almost naïve tone, allowing the fifty years of adult reflection to heighten the immediacy of experience long since passed. Banville’s Alex never loses the stance of memorialist. Surely the intensity of the recollection is clear, but the meditative and self-castigating adult consciousness never fails to censure the actions of the teenager. As Ford’s narrator waxes philosophical, attempting to draw out of the displacement and violence sustaining truths, Banville’s offers poetic assurances to himself, ones that open wider his already yawing sense that the past has left him washed in “ancient light.”
As a narrative, Banviille’s book is more convoluted than Ford’s. It is the third installment in a trilogy involving Alexander Cleave, a retired actor, and his daughter Cass. The shifts in time both measure the effects of the past and indicate the motivation behind the examination of incident and character. Alex’s sexual relationship at fifteen with the mother of his best friend has left him with a sense of unsurpassed emotion overlaid with guilt. He contends as well with the suicide of his daughter, Cass, ten years before the commencement of the narrative, and with the reanimation of his acting career. He comes out of retirement to take a leading role in a motion picture that sets him opposite a beautiful actress who almost inevitably appears to recapitulate the life of his daughter. Finally, there is the history of Axel Vander, detailed at length in the earlier book, Shroud, the philosopher/literary critic whom Alex impersonates in the biopic for which he has been cast. Vander’s sinister presence adds a further touch of desperation and the possibility of redemption to this extraordinarily rich tale.
The interplay, if not downright confusion, of memory and imagination lies at the center of Alex’s recreation of his – and he often hesitates over the term to use to describe his relationship – affair with Mrs. Gray. Again and again he notes the contradictory associations that he remembers as stunningly evident but clearly impossible when he traces significant moments in his time together with his lover. He is unforgiving in analyzing his callow desires and his selfishness, granting only that, giving the circumstances and his age, he could not easily have acted in any other wise.
Incident after incident is rapturously recalled, but that rapture always qualified by admission of failure: potential failure of accuracy in memory, failure to understand himself, and failure to fathom the motivation that drove Mrs. Gray. But the real fascination in the work seems to me Banville’s ease in letting memory take its own way, in the divergences, the filigree touches of his associations, where event triggers further event in that web that is the stage for all out internal dramas. Frankly, I found myself almost abandoned at the end of the tale, no longer able to listen to Alex follow the associative traces of his memories, in their sensuous and metaphor rich meanderings. Given the fullness of the created fictional world summoned by the Cleave trilogy, it is little wonder that Banville won the Booker prize a few years ago.
I began with a comparison of Richard Ford and John Banville, at least in terms of their strikingly similar narrative stances in their two most recent publications. Reading just a page or two of one or the other would indicate the strong differences in narrative voice and tone. Yet in every way both authors give testimony to the power of memory in the imagination.