Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.


11 Responses to “John Banville – Eclipse”

  1. Amateur Reader

    Banville says he writes sentence-by-sentence. He only moves on to the next sentence when the one he is working in is done.

    “Shroud” is related to “Eclipse” – it’s not a sequel, exactly, but more like “Eclipse”‘s evil twin.

  2. Ann Darnton (Table Talk)

    I have always had tremendous problems with Banville and I think the key is in your comment that his writing forces you to slow down. Being someone who reads first and foremost for plot this is very difficult for me. ‘The Sea’ nearly drove me to distraction although one of my closest reading friends loved it. I think perhaps I should try ‘Eclipse’ because I do have a theatre background and this might help me to appreciate him more. It will take a very definite act of courage, however, to pick it up.

  3. Leah

    I am definately going to look up this book, it sounds fascinating. I love books that force you to ruminate within its words and imagery. I also work in the theatre too so it sounds very interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. verbivore

    Amateur Reader – apparently John Updike does the same, I can’t imagine working that way and I can hardly believe they don’t do any revision. You’ve made me curious about “shroud” so will have to find it and see what I think…evil twin?

    Ann – With a theatre background you may get much out of the book, but I can see where he might not be your cup of tea. He does really force a slow read and although there was a plot, it was subtle.

    Hello Leah – thank you for leaving a comment. I do hope you like the book if and when you get a chance to read it.

  5. Amateur Reader

    Some of the “offstage” events in “Eclipse” are brought “onstage” in “Shroud”. “Shroud” also features Banville’s most unpleasant narrator, a gleefully horrible fellow.

    Banville has said that he has had to learn another method for the Benjamin Black books. Less attention to each sentence, more attention to getting on with the story.

  6. Colleen

    Your review of Eclipse has inspired me to bring The Sea much closer to the front of my reading queue – thanks!

  7. Jeane

    I just went and checked my local library’s catalog- sad to say they have a copy of The Sea in the system but not Eclipse. I read an excerpt from The Shroud there and the prose is just beautiful. I’m adding everything from this author (that my library has) onto my TBR.

  8. verbivore

    Amateur Reader – how interesting, this makes me think about writers who can’t let go of their characters after one book, not saying this is a bad thing but its a phenomenon I find interesting. I can why he’d have to radically change his style to write his BB books, I’d like to try one – have you read any? Any recommendations?

    Colleen – We’ll have to compare notes then, as I think I will start reading The Sea sooner than later.

    Jeane – How sad they didn’t have Eclipse, of course I say that without having yet read The Sea, so many its even better!

  9. Smithereens

    I discovered Banville with The Sea and absolutely loved his sentences! I moved on with Christine Falls which was great too, but now I must check on Eclipse! (btw, it’s really a matter of style and rhythm, because I didn’t appreciate him in translation!)

  10. Dorothy W.

    I passed up the opportunity to buy a cheap copy of The Sea, and I’m still not sure if I was right or not — I can’t tell if I will love him or hate him. I like books that make you slow your reading down, but I wonder if I wouldn’t find some of the writing irritating. Only one way to find out, I guess! I did enjoy the one Benjamin Black novel I’ve read.

  11. verbivore

    Smithereens – Such good news, if you like The Sea, I’m sure I will too. That’s so interesting that you didn’t think the translation did him justice, I always assume that French to English and vice versa can’t cause too much of a problem, but I suppose he would be difficult to translate well, his writing is so rich.

    Dorothy – I should definitely try one of his Benjamin Black novels, I like a good mystery from time to time and I’m already convinced he’s a great writer.

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