An actor assesses his legacy
The Irish novelist John Banville has published more than a dozen books and won a number of prizes. Reviewers have begun to promote him as an inevitable member of the Irish pantheon that includes Joyce and Beckett. There is no question of Banville's literary worth. His use of language is as lyrical and beautiful as that of any novelist writing in English today, and his plumbing of the moral confusions of humanity relentless and unblinking. But he is also simply fun to read.
Eclipse is the story of Alexander Cleave, a well-known actor who has begun to lose control of his work and his life. He does not understand what is happening to him. Despite the resistance of his wife, Cleave returns to his childhood home to rest in peace and quiet. Naturally, he finds neither. What awaits him in the family house are disturbing human beings and even more disturbing visions which may or may not be literal ghosts. Like most of Banville's novels, Eclipse is told in first person, which permits not only a deeply personal, confessional tone, but also narrative options unavailable to the assumed truthfulness of sober third person. A narrator may misinterpret impressions or events, misremember the past, even fictionalize out of confusion or a deliberate attempt to mislead.
As he struggles to figure out what has happened to his life, Alexander Cleave reveals his momentary misperceptions, his history of emotional disconnection, even his erotic dreams. In his intimate way long on thought and short on dialogue Banville paints a picture of the interior life of a man who has always been acting, always presenting one version of himself to the world without even realizing the extent to which the true Alexander Cleave was locked somewhere within.
Cleave's narration veers toward and away from his theme. "See how I parry and duck, like an outclassed boxer?" he asks the reader. "I begin to speak of my ancestral home and within a sentence or two I have moved next door. That is me all over." Like all of Banville's narrators, Cleave learns about himself through thinking aloud. Fortunately he is a John Banville creation, and every word is worth listening to.
Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt) and Adam's Navel (Viking).