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John Banville novel plots the need to poeticize memory

Tuesday, 9 Oct 2012 | 6:56 PM ET

By Andrea Burzynski

NEW YORK, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Booker-prize-winning author John Banville explores the nature of memory or, as he would prefer to call it, imagination in his latest book.

In an interview the Irish novelist said he intends for "Ancient Light" to stand alone, but those who have read his previous novels will recognize the character of Alex Cleave from "Eclipse" and "Shroud," which explored other facets of his life.

This time out, Cleve, now a washed-up actor in his sixties, relives the affair he had with a friend's mother at age 15 in their small Irish town.

Cleave's present life finds him developing a bond with a troubled young actress that drives him toward making peace with his daughter's suicide, but his vivid recollection of his illicit first love is the larger plot.

The novel, recently published in the United States, was described as "an unsettling and beautiful work" by the Wall Street Journal. The Daily Beast likened its sensuously detailed recollections to the work of Proust.

As Cleave richly narrates his adolescent erotic awakening by the 35-year-old Mrs. Gray, hesitations about the accuracy of those memories and their missing fragments interrupt.

Banville, 66, said he wanted to write in a way that mirrors the way memory works.

"I think that we don't remember, I think that we invent," he said. "I think that imagination is a more accurate word for what we do than memory."

Cleave describes the colored leaves of autumn only to reason that the incident he is recounting couldn't have taken place then. He recalls the scratchiness of the suit he wore while sitting on Mrs. Gray's sofa on a late summer Sunday, but not what brought him there.

Banville said memories allow for "a more poetic perspective on the world," whether what is remembered is accurate or not, and serve as an anchor.

"The past seems the thing on which we rest our sense of ourselves and our sense of the world," he said. "We don't experience the future until it arrives. All we have is the past."

He cited this as the reason people focus on the past.

"We fixate on it because it seems so much more vivid than the present," he said. "A few years on, suddenly the most banal experiences take on this extraordinary glow."

Though Cleave's past losses - of Mrs. Gray, of his daughter, of his own full memory of his experiences - loom large, the tone of "Ancient Light" is neither somber nor regretful.

"We're constantly losing - we're losing time, we're losing ourselves," he said. "I don't feel for the things I lost. I love the notion that there's all this stuff piled up behind me, and the pile keeps getting bigger and bigger."

(Editing by Christine Kearney and Prudence Crowther)

((andrea.burzynski@thomsonreuters.com))

Keywords: BOOKS JOHNBANVILLE/