Alexander Cleave has never been able to rid himself of the feeling that he is in a perpetual state of being watched, even when alone. So he became an actor and successfully performed his way through life until suddenly, at the peak of his career, he corpsed in the middle of the last act and staggered off stage, never to return. Self-banished to his childhood home and cut off from his wife, Cleave begins to unravel the past and disinter his own identity.
Eclipse is gentler by far than its sequel. Alex Cleave is a stage actor in the twilight of his career. His marriage is failing, and he returns to stay in the empty boarding house that he had inherited from his mother. In this place, he is subjected to a variety of hauntings. He has profound feelings of loss, but he is seeking solitude to identify their object, which remains obscure to him. As in Shroud (and even more so the novel which Banville wrote after that, the award-winning The Sea) much of the text consists of the reminiscences of an older man immersing himself in a nostalgic solitude.
This might be my least favorite of the Banville novels I've read to date, but it's still impressive and engaging.
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
The story itself is about an actor called Alexander, a rather disjointed figure who has never actually managed to live in the real present day world. Symbolically, he abandons everything to live in the house where he was raised, a house that is somewhat haunted. One could argue the real ghosts are the living - they are the people who seem out of place in the novel. Identity is very problematic in this book. Every character is marked by a big empty void, a lack of motivation/inspiration/etc. Fascinating, but not really a book that will leave you smiling.
Which, of course, doesn't mean you should avoid this novel. It's quite well written and has some interesting ideas. Probably won't leave a lasting impression though.