Queer how much of a stranger I am in this town. It was always that way, even when I was a child. I was hardly here at all, just biding my time: the future was where I lived. I do not even know the names of half the streets, and never did.
If only Gabriele Annan had quoted this brief passage in her review* of John Banville's new novel, Eclipse, I would have suspected that I'd be an unsympathetic reader. I had an awful time with 'Eclipse.' Although it's every bit as well written as Annan says it is, I found, re-reading the review, that the following observation sounded an alarm that I wished I'd heard: "But [Banville's] specialty is letting the reader squirm along with him, rhythmically groping toward the right words for a recognizable but possibly never before recognized experience." It was certainly not a novel for bedtime. At least by the mental light of day I can grab a pencil and make a note of my squirming.
Alexander Cleave, the narrator, is an actor who, having suffered the professional catastrophe of drying up in the middle of a performance, has retired to his childhood home, now supposedly vacant. Cleave describes his onstage trauma, but doesn't explain it; I don't think that it could be explained. Unlike sleight-of-hand, acting is real magic, and can't be deconstructed for the edification of laymen. For all I know, there's very little, beyond stuffers for the bag of tricks that veterans like chuckling over, that actors can really teach one another. If the rest of us can witness, but not experience, the transfiguration that powerful acting entails, at least Banville's hero gives us some idea of the terror attaching to this, as to every, form of wizardry.
There is no fear like the fear that one knows up there [on stage]. I do not mean the anxiety of fluffed lines or a wig coming unstuck; such mishaps mean less to us that an audience imagines. No, what I speak of is a terror of the self, of letting the self go so far free that one night it might break away, detach entirely and become another, leaving behind it only a talking shell, an empty costume standing there aghast, topped by an eyeless mask.
This seems a fair description of what happened to Cleave not just as an actor but as a man. (There seems no reason to assess the accuracy of Banville's portrait of a professional actor.) In place of pity, however, I felt revulsion. As his ignorance of the names of the streets of his town suggests, Cleave doesn't find the world around him particularly interesting (he only notices the variety of unpleasant odors), although he likes to study people and has been likened by every lover to a young boy who takes a watch apart to see how it works. His detachment becomes downright odd when he waxes nostalgic about (of all things) waiting for his daughter after her music lessons:
I found to my surprise that I missed my twice-weekly dawdles there in that cold bleak anteroom. What is it about such occasions of timeless time that afterwards makes them seem touched with such a precious, melancholy sweetness? Sometimes it seems to me that it is in those vacant intervals, without my being aware of it, that my true life has been most authentically lived.
Two characteristics that nobody who knows me would hesitate to acknowledge are (1) the habit of developing a mental map of any new neighborhood within hours of arrival and (2) an impatience with waiting of any kind, but most especially in waiting rooms. The appreciation of timeless time lies absolutely beyond the limitations of my nervous system. Every now and then, Cleave would do something that I could understand from within, as when a bit of painful truth from his wife inspires a tantrum:
Of course, I could think of no reply to that, and came up here to my cubbyhole in a sulk, nursing an irrational and infantile satisfaction at having refused to eat a crumb of breakfast, the foul aromas of which followed me like a taunt up the three steps and through the green door, and which linger faintly even yet. I flung myself down at my bamboo table, ignoring its squeal and crackle of apprehensive protest, and snatched up my pen and scrawled an extended passage of invective against my wife, which when I had finished it I immediately struck out. Terrible things I wrote, unrepeatable, they made me blush even as I set them down. I do not know what it is that comes over me at such moments, this frightening red rage that might make me do anything.
But even here I had to wonder, because I always have a very clear idea of what it is that comes over me at such moments, and I'd expect an actor to be aware of the pleasures of histrionic display. I couldn't read this passage without a ghost of the thrill of putting on a scene running up my spine ('Terrible things I wrote' - !), or, in Banville's fresher phrase, "swarming between my shoulder blades," but poor Cleave can't get more out of it than 'infantile satisfaction.'
Aside, then, from a few reminders of my own graver defects, Cleave presented a character that I could never respect. He seemed like an alien, unwillingly dropped among us. Perhaps all actors feel this, although I suspect that few do as steadily as Cleave. (I don't happen to know any actors, and would rather like to keep it that way, so as not to spoil the magic of the theatre - more about that some other time.) As a man in the world, Cleave seems not only to be helpless but to be sneakily pleased about it. At one point, he seeks out the company of a young woman simply because she's "the only one left in this house, seemingly, whom I can depend on to be as irresponsible as I am." Cleave's irresponsibility isn't general but focused on domesticity. When he was a boy, his mother took in lodgers, and this appears to have compromised his ability to feel at home anywhere. The extent to which he lacks privacy, even when he's alone, Banville sums up in the following quasi-maxim:
But then, I have always had the greatest difficulty distinguishing between action and acting.
I don't believe that there's a real distinction to be made here. We associate action with sincerity and acting with its opposite, but this is merely the reflection of a discomfort with self-consciousness that age and wisdom ought to lift. To be aware of what you are doing is not tantamount to being false, and most action requires some premeditation to be effective. We have developed the idea of the hero precisely to embody our dream of involuntary, unstudied excellence, and because this is a fantasy of effortlessness, it's not a very helpful idea. If there's a useful distinction haunting the vicinity, it's between action and sensation. We can't control our feelings, and while hiding them might occasionally be prudent, counterfeiting feelings that we don't have usually leads straight to trouble. Such counterfeiting is perhaps what Cleave means by 'acting.' But where taking action is called for, execution is vastly more important than motivation.
I've avoided outlining the plot of 'Eclipse' because knowing what was going to happen (from the review) rather spoiled it for me. According to Gabriele Annan, 'Eclipse' is a ghost story, and that's what I expected it to be until I saw that it wasn't. There are ghosts in this novel, and they're not merely atmospheric. But 'Eclipse' is the portrait of an actor as a perplexed centipede. (March 2001)
* New York Review of Books, Vol. XLVIII No. 4 (3/8/01), p. 22.
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