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Ancient Light by John Banville: Reading Group Guide

Ancient Light by John Banville: Reading Group Guide

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Published by Alfred A. Knopf
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Ancient Light, the new novel by Man Booker Prize winner, John Banville.
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Ancient Light, the new novel by Man Booker Prize winner, John Banville.

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Published by: Alfred A. Knopf on Aug 13, 2012
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 Ancient Light 
John BanvilleReading Group Guide
About the Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed toenliven your group’s discussion of 
 Ancient Light,
the new novel by Man Booker Prize winner,John Banville.
Introduction
Alex Cleave, the narrator of two of John Banville’s previous novels,
 Eclipse
(2000) and
Shroud 
(2002), 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 occurredfifty years ago, when he was just fifteen, with Mrs. Gray, a woman more than twice his age andthe mother of his best friend, Billy.
 
Told from the dual perspective of the older man and his teenage self, the novel has one foot inthe past and one in he present, as Alex straddles an emotional abyss that threatens to pull himunder 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 literarycritic Axel Vander—a character who lived under an assumed identity and who bears a strikingresemblance to the real-life deconstructionist critic Paul de Man. Vander may also have had ahand in the suicide of Alex’s daughter, Cass, who exposed Vander’s wartime writings for thecollaborationist paper
Vlaamsche Gazet.
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 awoman he
thinks
was her) gliding down the street on her bicycle, her dress blown up by the windto reveal a fascinating glimpse of her undergarments; through the first kiss and all the impetuoustrysts that followed; to the indiscretion that would suddenly end their affair. He recalls the detailsof this early love with incredible vividness. Indeed, some of his memories will strike readers asperhaps
too
vivid to be believed. Alex himself wonders near the beginning of the novel whetherthe images that come crowding into his mind “are memories or inventions. Not that there ismuch 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 memoryand invention and who plays the lead in
The Invention of the Past,
a film about a literary criticwho erased his personal history by assuming the identity of dead man. Ideas of self, of theveracity of memory, of our ability to truly know ourselves or each other all lose stability in thefascinating 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 quitereal and compelling. There is a searching, yearning, elegiac quality about the story he tells, astory whose meaning remains mysterious, even to him. He is a man chasing ghosts, as hesearches 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 anovel of love and loss—the all-consuming thrill of a first love, intensified by illicitness andsecrecy, and the loss of a past that nevertheless remains both inescapable and ungraspable. 
Questions for Discussion

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