John Banville’s latest novel Ancient Light, set in Ireland in the 1950s, is the story of a secret affair conducted for a few brief months between a 15-year-old boy and the mother of his best friend.
Decades later, ageing and with his own tragedies behind him, Alexander looks back on those youthful months in the arms of Mrs Gray. She made the first move; they met for furtive assignations in an abandoned house. She was maternal and indulgent; he mixed childish petulance with greedy passion.
Looking back, the older Alexander remembers the vibrancy of an experience the significance of which he simply couldn’t comprehend at the time, and wonders anew about the fate of his lover, who soon disappeared from his life forever.
Banville’s friends joke that he should have called his book Fifty Shades of Mrs Gray to optimise its sales – or, given Alexander’s obsession with his lover’s body, maybe Mrs Gray’s Anatomy. But the author said he doesn’t see the book either as controversial in its subject matter, despite its underage protagonist, nor even as erotic, although the encounters between the lovers are a principle focus of the book.
“I see the two of them as completely innocent,” he said. “They are two people clinging to each other for comfort, as we do. The boy is looking for experience, being 15, and we know the woman is seeking distraction from the circumstances of her life. They didn’t harm anybody, it is very good for the boy. I think for any 15-year-old boy it would set him up for life, get rid of all that mythology that teenage boys grow up with.”
Being 15 is “a very odd age”, Banville continued. “You know everything there is to know about life, you’ve got it all but you can’t make sense of it, it’s like a computer being given a huge amount of information that it can’t process, and every experience is new and strange. And therefore it’s an extraordinarily rich time of one’s life.”
Meanwhile the book is so focused on Mrs Gray’s physicality that it can’t be erotic, he argued. “The erotic has to be fantastic, a dream. The rational part of our minds knows that the erotic object is an ordinary human being but the fantastical and desirous side of our mind makes this goddess or god of it. That’s one of the things that fascinates me.
"In an erotic novel, nobody ever goes to the bathroom. And straightaway in your early love affairs, that is one of the most difficult areas. When you have to go to the bathroom you pretend you don’t do it. Whereas Mrs Gray teaches him – and I think this is one of the nicest phrases in the book – ‘to forgive a human being for being human'.”
Banville said the thing he was most concerned about was offending women readers who might think he was writing about a male fantasy. “But I don’t think it is, it is a realistic portrayal of a real woman, she’s not idealised but she’s not demeaned,” he argued. “I’m obviously a bit in love with Mrs Gray – who wouldn’t be, I think she’s wonderful –but she’s perfectly ordinary – she’s not artistic, she’s not articulate, she’s probably more like my mother than anyone else.”
Banville is now in his mid-sixties and said he has been surprised to find the old cliché about the distant past becoming much more vivid than the recent past, quite accurate. He waxed lyrical remembering the pale summer nights of his own teenage years. “Ten o’clock and still bright, that purplish glow in the air, so romantic, so erotic, and those girls were so beautiful. I’m sure they weren’t but they seemed beautiful when you were 15. I started falling in love from the age of 10 and I had a girlfriend from 11 to 17, I would only see her for two or three weeks in the summer, and the rest of the time we would write to each other with pink envelopes smelling of perfume and S.W.A.L.K. [sealed with a loving kiss] on the back. It was wonderful. I was always in love.”
He calls himself “a hopelessly unreconstructed 19th-century romantic” where women are concerned. “I regard them as strange and miraculous beings. I see an old lady in the street scrabbling in her purse, it’s fascinating – because she represents the goddess to me, the eternal feminine.
“People accuse my good friend Martin Amis of being a misogynist, but he is quite the opposite, he is abject in adoration before women and so am I. Strindberg said a wonderful thing: he said, ‘What is my misogyny but a helpless desire for the opposite sex?’ Women have power over us, they really have. They have the secret of procreation, the secret of sex, the secret of sorority, that togetherness which men don’t have. I’ve seen women embracing almost to the point of the erotic, who are just friends.
"Us men sit here going, ‘Oh, if only I could do that’.”
Ancient Light by John Banville is published by Viking.