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ECLIPSE A Novel; By John Banville; Alfred A. Knopf: 212 pp., $23

March 04, 2001|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

Nothing in the theater is more terrifying in the eyes of the audience than when an actor forgets his lines. Nothing. Not a missed lighting cue nor a popped bodice. Even the onstage death of one of the singers at the Metropolitan Opera during a performance of "The Makropoulos Affair" a few years ago was merely horrible. At the start of Irish writer John Banville's latest novel, "Eclipse," hero Alexander Cleave, famous thespian, feels this particular terror and thrill. "My mind was whirling and flailing like the broken belt of a runaway engine. I had not forgotten my lines--in fact, I could see them clearly before me, as if written on a prompt card--only I could not speak them."

Cleave's personal account of every actor's nightmare leads quickly into ghost story. Soon after he walks off the stage, Cleave walks out of his house and away from his wife Lydia. He returns to the home of his childhood, a haunted wrack he shared first with his parents, then with his aging and intolerant mother and a gaggle of lodgers and finally with Lydia and their afflicted daughter, Cass, in the earlier happier years of their family.

He moves into the deserted house, drawn by ghosts, ghosts whose histories he tries to unravel in his solitude. Later, when he discovers that some of the voices he hears belong to very corporeal others who are also inhabiting the house, he engages them in this search for the roots of the voices and figures he hears and sees, the voices perhaps that drove him off the stage. Gradually Cleave comes to identify origins closer to home. Cass, with whom he hasn't spoken in some time, has, since early childhood, been haunted by voices--an epileptic troubled by delusions. "Here now in this for me transfigured house," Cleave says, "I have an inkling of how it must be for Cass, moving always in the midst of familiar strangers, uncertain as to what is real and what is not, unable quite to recognise the perfectly recognisable, spoken at by voices out of the air."

The original caretaker of the house, Quirke, and Quirke's skimmed milk of a daughter are first among these familiar strangers, a pair whose own performances convince Cleave entirely of the portrayal of an innocent father-daughter team, until he discovers that not only have they been living in his house all along but that it is Cleave, perhaps, who is the lodger. Lily in particular, the daughter Quirke foists on Cleave as an unwilling domestic, has a dramatic pull on her employer. Still a girl, she plays siren at one moment and infant at another. Above all, she stands in for Cleave's own daughter, as Cleave clothes her in the rags of an understudy, taking her to the circus, watching over her sleep.

But Cleave makes little headway in his quest for an answer to his breakdown and his flight from the stage. "I have always had the greatest difficulty distinguishing between action and acting," he says with the diagnostic skill of a true artist. It isn't until the real world haunts his present, finds him in his hideaway and confronts him with unequivocal tragedy that Cleave can recognize his own epiphany. A true father of a Cassandra, Cleave too is doomed not to listen carefully enough to the voices, warning him of what is yet to come. Cleave of "the famous eyes whose flash of fire could penetrate to the very back row of the stalls" at age 50 finds himself blind. "I was looking the wrong way, I was looking into the past, and that was not where those phantoms were from, at all."

The talented Mr. Banville, author of a dozen novels, including the Booker short-listed "The Book of Evidence," performs a neat act of disguise as he puts a stilted, self-conscious language into the pen of his hero. "Red-eyed and crapulent," Cleave describes himself in long Jamesian set speeches at the beginning of his journey, "standing in my drawers at the window of my boyhood bedroom, above the morning-empty square, in bewilderment and inexplicable distress, I wondered when exactly the moment of catastrophic inattention had occurred and I had dropped the gilded bowl of my life and let it shatter."

An actor to the end, Cleave in the account of his retreat owes much to the classical roles of his repertoire, mixing Shakespeare with Sheridan: an actor searches for his own restoration. With a caretaker named Quirke and a daughter Cassandra, Cleave fills out his library of associates with the Dickensian and the Sophoclean. Yet beneath the costume is visible a man who slowly rends his costumes until he is as naked as Lear on the heath and as insightful as Oedipus in Colonus. The result is an unveiling that is terrifying, and no figment of an overheated playwright or an actor in crisis, no party trick like a mere eclipse of the sun. The true nightmares, Cleave discovers--solitude, loneliness and loss of loved ones--come to us offstage and in full light of day.

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