Language always has been paramount for John Banville. For a storyteller, any storyteller, language can drive the plot or get in the way of it. This can be very precarious for the novelist who does not wish his novel to turn into a puzzle not worth solving. Eclipse is certainly one of Banville’s most daring novels. While his 1997 novel, The Untouchable, detailed a vast historical panorama, Eclipse revolves around one man. Banville published his first collection of short stories, Long Lankin, in 1970. This debut was heralded by critics and much was expected of the young Irishman. Banville has been compared to such Irish luminaries as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, as well as to such postmodern masters as Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. It has been argued by such literary critics as Tony E. Jackson that what Banville has set out to do in his novels is to have artistic truth stand alongside venerable historical and scientific maxims. A meticulous and complex writer, Banville certainly has established himself as one of the most original authors writing in English with such novels as Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler(1981), The Book of Evidence (1989), and Athena (1995). Over the years, critics have been both intrigued and baffled by Banville’s complex and experimental works.
For Eclipse, he has stripped away most plot devices and relies almost exclusively on his ability to create the internal world of his narrator. The novel works very much like a confessional. In the tradition of Vladimir Nabokov, Banville relishes in mesmerizing his readers with the seductive and startling internal minefield of the protagonist. The novel is divided in five sections. Since the narrator—Alexander Cleave—is a noted stage actor, it may be more appropriate to think of each section as the act in a play. Since the 1970’s, Banville has focused on refining his novels into something closely resembling sculptured works of art. There is a strong poetic quality to all of his novels. Although he has been criticized for writing novels that tend to be too precious for their own good, Banville has continued to boldly let the richness of his prose and the inventiveness of his vision carry the day. He sees Eclipse as having “the atmosphere of a dream,” for Cleave certainly lives “entirely within his own skull.”
The first section of the novel opens with Cleave already at his childhood home. The self-absorbed narrator of Eclipse has reached the prime of his acting career and yet he becomes overwhelmed by self-doubt. He is a fifty-year-old Irish theater actor who is married and the father of a mentally unstable daughter. While the novel could be dismissed as merely another exploration into the midlife crisis of an over-educated, whiny white male, the author’s character study transcends the solipsism inherent in such a construct through the sheer power by which he employs the English language. Cleave has established himself as a remarkable stage actor who can brilliantly play tragic and conflicted characters such as Oedipus, King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, or Hamlet. At one point, Cleave reflects on his career by stating “I played best the sombre, inward types, the ones who seem not part of the cast but to have been brought in from the street to lend plausibility to the plot. . . .” An internal turmoil wrecks havoc on Cleave and all the insecurity that he had been able to bury beneath the surface while performing suddenly invades him while on the stage. Cleave forgets his lines and realizes that he no longer has control of his life. His solution for this current predicament is to seek refuge in the Irish world of his childhood. Since he can no longer lose himself in the roles that he is given, Cleave deserts his wife, daughter, and career and takes sanctuary in the childhood home located in a small town on the Irish seaside. Like many of Banville’s previous male protagonists, Cleave is a man in search of “authenticity.” Without a drop of sentimentality, Cleave cannot be anything but brutally honest, leave no stone or foible unexamined. No longer able to escape from what he sees as the meaninglessness of his existence, he must now wrestle with the inner demons that will not leave him alone.
In the opening paragraph of the...
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