Saturday, October 15, 2011

Eclipse by John Banville

John Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea. Of his 14 novels, Eclipse is the 7th I have read. At first, I feared this one did not have the interesting characters I have come to expect from Banville, but as I traveled more and more deeply into the novel, I realized my fears had no basis when confronted with the power of his prose. Banville always provides an interesting plot, characters drawn in great and interesting detail, with lots of introspection – exactly the kind of novel I love.

Alexander Cleave has built a career as an acclaimed actor performing all over the world. One day, he steps onto the stage and goes “dry.” He can “see” his lines, yet he cannot utter a word. He skulks off the stage to a falling curtain and some cat calls from the audience. He retreats to his abandoned childhood home by the sea to escape his shame. As an actor, who has spent his life living an imaginary existence in the clothes and character of strangers, he has difficulty separating reality from fantasy. He lives mostly in the past.

Banville used the idea of a retreat in his Booker Prize novel. In The Sea, Max has lost his wife to divorce, and travels to his boyhood home to sort out the ruins of his marriage. Alex retreats to sort out the ruins of his career. Banville’s prose delves into all the minutiae of Alex’s life as well as his deep-seated psychological self-examination.

The use of detail can be overwhelming, but in order to travel through Alex’s life, it becomes necessary to an understanding of how he arrived at the house by the sea. Here is an example as Alex begins to unpack when he arrives at his retreat:

“Things to do, things to do. Store the kitchen supplies, set out my books, my framed photographs, my lucky rabbit’s paw. Too soon it was all done. There was no avoiding upstairs any longer. Grimly I mounted the steps as if I were climbing into the past itself, the years pressing down on me, like a heavier atmosphere. Here is the room looking out on the square that used to be mine. Alex’s room. Dust, and a mildew smell, and droppings on an inside sill where birds had got in through a broken windowpane. Strange, how places, once so intimate, can go neutral under the dust-fall of time. (17)

Whenever, I read Banville, I must have a dictionary close at hand. Every novel helps me add five or six words to my vocabulary. For example, in Eclipse I learned “anaglyptal,” “tannoys,” “verrucas,” “crepuscular,” “sizar,” and “leverets.” I will leave the adventure of a dictionary search to my faithful readers.

Banville writes, “It was that torpid hour of afternoon in summer when all falls silent and even the birds cease their twitterings. At such a time, in such a place, a man might lose his grip on all that he is” (76). Having spent many, many summer days by the ocean, I understand this sentiment entirely. Banville has heightened my desire to get back near the ocean, for night time walks on the beach and lazy fall and spring days reading under an umbrella with the soft breeze in my face. 5 stars

--Chiron, 10/15/11

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