A Review of Eclipse by John Banville

This book, though short, demands slow, close reading. It is a difficult book as much from the artfulness of the author as from the tragic
subject. All critics have commented on the beauty of Banville’s writing and this beauty sustains the reader through formidable difficulties. For
a reader that is both careful and persistent this will prove not only a rewarding but an enlightening experience.
Reviewed by Bob Williams

by John Banville
Picador 2000
214 pages ISBN 0 330 48222 X

John Banville is a major Irish author. This suggests thoughts of Joyce, of colonialism and provincialism. And at first Banville seems to be a
glib Irishman with nothing in particular to say. Even his choice of subject – a man without affect that has withdrawn from life – seems to support this. What subject could better give a writer a chance to strut his stuff? But Banville surmounts the difficulty of this difficult material and ultimately writes a very human and very moving book.

Alexander Cleave, noted actor and one-time matinee idol, returns to his family home after a disastrous incident at the climax of a play. He had
frozen and left the stage. He wants nothing. He has left his wife Lydia who berates him but he is immune to her scorn. They have a daughter,
Cass, and she is very like her father, tormented and driven. The family home was a boarding house. Alex sees ghosts, a woman and, he senses
rather than sees, her child. In an important and characteristic passage Alex reflects on their appearance:

No, the phantoms will not come when I bid them, and that puzzles me. For I do not seem to have control over them, as one has control, however weak or contingent, over the riotous tumble of happenings in a dream. They depend on me for their autonomy, however paradoxical that may sound, They yearn toward me, one of the living, toward my living light,
like invisible plants invisibly at feed on the sky’s radiance. This is the pathos of their predicament. I seem to be the engine of action for them, the source that feeds them the sustenance for their frail existence. The woman’s manner, if it is possible to speak of such an evanescent being as having a manner, is one of surmise and vague
expectation; she is tentative, bemused, uncertain. Oh, I am not so deluded as not to know that these images are the product of my imagination – but they ARE a product: they are not in my head, they are outside; I see them, clear as anything I cannot touch, the sky, clouds, those far hills. At night they press into my dreams, wan shades mutely clamouring for my attention. In the daytime there are passages when they will flicker about me like wildfire. As I step through this or that picture of their doings I seem to feel a crackle of faint, falling energy, as if I had broken the tenuous connections of a force field.
Something is expected of me here, something is being asked of me. They are not even proper spectres, bent on being terrifying or delivering
awful warnings. Shrieks in the darkness, groans and clanging chains, such effects, however exhausted or banal, might at least succeed in
frightening me, but what am I to make of this little ghost trio to whose mundane doings I am the puzzled and less than willing witness?

Trio? Why do I say trio? There is only the woman and the even more indistinct child – who is the third? Who, if not I? Perhaps Lydia is
right, perhaps at last I have become my own ghost.

There is about this something of the air of a ghost story by Sheridan LeFanu, that great Irish writer of ghost stories. But two intruders,
Quirke and his daughter, prove to be at least as disturbing as the ghosts. Quirke is the caretaker of the boarding house. He is an insinuating man, careless of his duties and not much bothered by
responsibility. He fastens himself on Alex and places his daughter Lily in the house as a hired girl.

Alex is the narrator and he takes the story where he will. Much of his time is spent in the remembrance of the past, the death of his parents, especially of his mother. It is significant that Alex early decided to become an actor, a characteristic postponement of the responsibility of finding a true identity for himself. The number of figures are few at this early stage and they will never truly become more. Later figures
will be shadowy, vehicles of sinister and threatening forces. Banville shapes up to his duties as a writer as the first (of five) sections
ends and he strives to vary the task that he has set for the reader who would otherwise have succumbed to boredom at what appear to be formless reflections by the narrator.

Alex follows Quirke and discovers that he is secretly living in the boarding house. It seems very implausible that Alex could not have noticed this sooner and he himself finds it inexplicable, one way to meet an obvious problem head-on. Later we will discover that fifteen-year-old Lily is sleeping in Alex’s mother’s bed.

The eclipse of the title is an actual event that takes place during the time that Alex – and his uninvited guests – are living in the boarding
house. It threatens to become a slightly heavy-handed metaphor for the knowledge to be gained by darkness but the eclipse is not seen since a
rainstorm hides the sun during the crucial moments.

The question of first person narration underlines the impossibility of its consistency. There must be a point in the novel when the pretense of an author-narrator must break down and the expression become direct. Banville ignores this slight problem as do most other writers that use

Lydia comes to the boarding house. She comes to stay. She notes Lily’s presence with hostility but surprisingly is friendly to Quirke. When she
talks to Alex it is about their mutual burden Cass, their brilliant but unstable daughter. Their encounter is that of a woman who does not want
to hear and a man who does not wish to communicate.

Banville manages movement by the masterly use of overlaps. He creates anticipations and juxtapositions that carry forward situations and
experiences that he uses instead of plot in the conventional sense. In the central event of the novel he uses the conflation of elements to
draw a significant emphasis. Alex and Lily have walked out to see the eclipse but are prevented by the shower. On their return they find the
circus at intermission. A very sinister figure that has watched Alex with a knowing leer lets them in. He is the clown but it is a small circus and all the performers assume “poorly” multiple roles. The clown is also the hypnotist and Lily volunteers to be his subject. It becomes uglier and uglier as the performance continues and Alex leaps upon the stage. He tells the audience that he is Alexander Cleave and that this is his daughter. He rescues her from the circus and they
return to the boarding house.

Here they find a wake in progress. Lydia attacks Alex. Quirke appears as pacifier, as a priestly figure. There is a woman in the kitchen
preparing tea, a funeral meal. Banville refuses to tell us that it is Cass who is dead but we know that this is so. Alex and Lydia leave on a pilgrimage to the Mediterranean locale where Cass had worked and where she had taken her life. Alex, wrapped in a sterile and unfeeling state, is now once more alive, however painfully, through his daughter’s death.

This book, though short, demands slow, close reading. It is a difficult book as much from the artfulness of the author as from the tragic
subject. All critics have commented on the beauty of Banville’s writing and this beauty sustains the reader through formidable difficulties. For
a reader that is both careful and persistent this will prove not only a rewarding but an enlightening experience.

For more information about Eclipse or to purchase a copy, visit: Eclipse

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: