Alexander Cleave is a retired actor past middle age. He and his wife Lydia live by themselves in one of the small British towns that almost invisibly dot the landscape. They remain haunted by the death in Italy a decade earlier of their beloved daughter Cass, “who had smashed herself to death on those wave-washed rocks below the bare little church of San Pietro.”
Alex Cleave has never been well known professionally; yet he has been chosen for one of the leads in a film about Alex Vander, literary critic and teacher. Cleave calls Vander “hardly a subject for a major motion picture,” but “a gleeful stirrer-up of controversies.” He even convinces himself that Cass would have embraced Vander’s “kind of arcane and coded specialism” for this film to be called “The Invention of the Past,” already the title of an unauthorized Vander biography.
The film’s other lead is international movie star Dawn Devonport. Before meeting her, Alex decides, “I shall surely shrivel up in the glare of her celebrity.” Dawn Devonport — Alex always uses both her names — is “flagrantly young” and tentative and is smarting from the recent death of her father. Her fragility reminds him of that of his dear Cass, and both actors quickly take to each other.
It is at this juncture that Alex remembers his — possibly — only love. Spoken of only as “Mrs. Gray,” she is the mother of his best friend Billy and becomes the source of everything for a callow 15-year-old boy. Their five-month liaison lives in Alex’s memory as vividly as he needs in order to conjure the affair. It is here that the novel absolutely soars in its depiction of youthful desire — and self-interest: the first kiss in a laundry room, afternoons of sex on an old mattress in a worn-down, seemingly abandoned cottage.
These two story threads intertwine remarkably. Alex remembers (invents?) details of his youthful indiscretion as he remembers (invents?) details of the character he is to play on film. Then as he leaves the film set for Italy to help Dawn Devonport recover from a botched suicide attempt, Alex — and we — wonder if the actress will be the new Mrs. Gray.
Ancient light, we are told, is a householder’s right: “The sky must be visible at the top of a window viewed from the base of the opposite wall.” John Banville sees memory — whether invented or not — as a similar right, a way to clearly understand the “chasm between the doing of a thing and the recollection of what was done.” “Ancient Light,” impishly perhaps, but very movingly, poses a pertinent question: “Since it seems that nothing in creation is ever destroyed, only dissembled and dispersed, might not the same be true of individual consciousness? Where when we die, does it go to, all that we have been?”
And how we have remembered it all.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.