I wish I could quote out long passages from John Banville’s Eclipse, in lieu of a review. I would enjoy typing them, a kind of slow and careful re-read of the pages I’ve so loved reading. I am a fast reader and Eclipse is a short book but I took over a week working my way through it, savoring the lines and the scenes and the narrator’s reflections.
Before, what I contained was the blastomere of myself, the coiled hot core of all I was and might be. Now, that essential self has been pushed to the side with savage insoucience, and I am as a house walked up and down in by an irresistibly proprietorial stranger. I am all inwardness, gazing out in ever intensifying perplexity upon a world in which nothing is exactly plausible, nothing is exactly what it is.
Narrator Alex has retreated from the world, into his childhood home on the Irish coast to muse over, or, I suppose it would be more accurate to say, to nurse a set of bewildering wounds. Alex is a stage actor who has taken an early retirement, abandoned his family to hide out in a state of hyperaware limbo, conscious of the ghostly presences of his past that have followed him to his retreat. Followed him isn’t quite right; perhaps some of them were already waiting there for him.
Everything here is twilight and half-dream, yet the appearance of these phantoms is naggingly insinuative, as if I should, or would, know them. There is something in them of those ancestral resemblances that will spring unnervingly up at one from the cradle or the deathbed.
Growing domestic disturbances and a traumatic professional event brought Alex to seek solace in his hideaway to sort out the personal ramifications of his crisis. To hear him describe it, his entire self has become wrapped up in an ability to transform into an “other” which necessarily engendered a slow loss of what was originally “him”. Do all actors experience this tension and fear? It’s a wonderful metaphor for helping a non-thespian understand the emotional and personal investment in stage performance.
Eclipse is also about Alex’s relationship with his daughter, a young woman suffering from what must be schizophrenia, although her specific illness is never named. The parallel between these two is stunning – that he needs to create new voices inside himself in order to succeed in his work, that she cannot stop manufacturing similar voices but which threaten to destroy her.
Indeed, such was her calm at times that she would seem to be not there at all, to have drifted off, lighter than air. It is a different air in which she moves, a separate medium. For her I think the world is always somewhere other, an unfamiliar place where yet she has always been. This is for me the hardest thing, to think of her out there, standing on some far bleak deserted shore, beyond help, in unmoving light, with an ocean of lostness all before her and the siren voices singing in her head.
As you can see from the passages I’ve included, Banville writes with rich, vivid prose, filled with complicated words and sometimes twisty grammar. I loved the complexity of his language and the way it forced me to slow down and really think about his word choices and images. And for all of Alex’s intense interior musing and remembering, the book moves forward through a steady procession of tense scenes and dialogues.
Someone with a better background in drama will probably find the novel filled with allusions to the world of the theatre. I found myself looking up a lot of Alex’s references to certain characters, and without that I would have missed some of his emotional orientation. Eclipse was definitely one of the best reads of the entire year so far. Which makes me really look forward to reading Banville’s prize-winning novel, The Sea, already waiting for me on the shelf.