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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


John Banville

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To purchase Eclipse

Title: Eclipse
Author: John Banville
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 212 pages
Availability: Eclipse - US
Eclipse - UK
Eclipse - Canada
Eclipse - France
Sonnenfinsternis - Deutschland
Eclisse - Italia
Eclipse - España

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Our Assessment:

A- : writing so rich that it is almost overwhelming, but a fine story ultimately emerges from it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 9/10/2000 Matthew Ryan
The Atlantic Monthly B- 2/2001 Christina Schwarz
Daily Telegraph A- 15/9/2000 Francis King
Evening Standard . 18/9/2000 Adam Piette
FAZ . 8/10/2002 Ingeborg Harms
The Guardian . 16/9/2000 Alex Clark
The Independent C 30/9/2000 Michael Arditti
The LA Times . 4/3/2001 Jonathan Levi
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 28/5/2003 Uwe Pralle
New Statesman B+ 9/10/2000 James Hopkin
The NY Rev. of Books . 8/3/2001 Gabrielle Annan
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 4/3/2001 Jim Shepard
The Observer A+ 17/9/2000 Robert MacFarlane
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2001 Irving Malin
The Spectator A+ 23/9/2000 John de Falbe
The Sunday Times A 1/10/2000 Tom Deveson
The Times A 13/9/2000 Russell Celyn Jones
TLS . 29/9/2000 Christopher Tayler
Voice Lit. Supp. B 3/2001 J. Yeh
Die Welt B- 4/1/2003 Herbert Grieshop
Die Zeit . (2/2003) Friedhelm Rathjen

  Review Consensus:

  No real consensus. Some are very enthusiastic, a number are quite disappointed. All acknowledge that Banville writes very well, but most think there is very little plot here.
  There is also a tendency here to compare it with Banville's other writings, rather than consider the novel on its own.
  And note that a number of reviewers give away far too much of what does happen in the book.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Banville has drawn from the cultural store of Irish Gothic, sending his character back to the neglected family home in order to expose him to the eternally returning past. The boundaries between past and present, objects and people, words and thoughts, all become permeable. Things begin to bleed into each other." - Matthew Ryan, The Age

  • "Unfortunately, in Eclipse the superb writing has to carry the story pretty much alone. (...) (S)uch a quest requires so much self-absorption that not even the most interesting ideas and extraordinary writing can save it from becoming tedious." - Christina Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "As anyone who has ever read him will know, John Banville writes like an angel. (...) Concerned more with atmosphere than with action and more with Cleave’s internal monologues than with his conversations with those around him, this is not merely a disquieting but also a mysterious book." - Francis King, Daily Telegraph

  • "If there is a fault to the book, it is that you can't quite believe an actor could be so eloquent, but Banville needs Cleave to be an actor because he's interested in that other kind of ghost, the little kernel of being we call our self, the evanescent soul hidden away in our nerves and synapses." - Adam Piette, Evening Standard

  • "Banvilles Buch handelt von einer seltsamen Form der Trauerarbeit, einem prophetischen Abschiednehmen, das dem Unglück vorauseilt. Insofern diese Arbeit in einer an literarischen Anspielungen und Zitaten reichen Sprache stattfindet, hat der irische Autor die Aufgabe der Dichtung neu beschrieben: Sie bereitet den Toten einen Raum, in dem sie wohnen können." - Ingeborg Harms, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Banville's flighted prose, in which atmosphere is evoked through a dripfeed of lyricism, is superbly suited to his subject matter; his willed patience and defiant wordiness resonate with an almost unbearable sense of claustrophobia and the lurid excess of breakdown. (...) Eclipse avoids the doomy territory of the morality tale by its constant playfulness, and by maintaining a certain degree of detachment that, at times, infects the reader with its own ennui." - Alex Clark, The Guardian

  • "Far too many arbitrary memories extend what might have been a charming short story way beyond its natural length, to a lame conclusion. It is ironic that a novel that makes so much of fantasies and phantoms should itself be so insubstantial. Coming from a writer of Banville's stature, Eclipse is a deep disappointment." - Michael Arditti, The Independent

  • "The talented Mr. Banville (...) performs a neat act of disguise as he puts a stilted, self-conscious language into the pen of his hero. (...) (B)eneath 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." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Es gibt heute wenige Schriftsteller, die wie der in Dublin lebende John Banville nur mit einer Handvoll von Figuren und Motiven eine so dichte und poetisch schwingende Atmosphäre erzeugen können. (...) Zwar wirkt der Glanz von Banvilles Sprache oft fast schon zu vollkommen für die bitteren Wahrheiten dieses Schauspielers, doch meisterlich ist der Roman vor allem, weil er zeigt, aus wie wenig in der Literatur sehr viel entstehen kann." - Uwe Pralle, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Banville's studied register complements the fusty yet histrionic atmosphere of the haunted old house, and is the perfect medium for representing the inner life and all its speculation. There is little plot here. (...) At times, a paragraph can seem like a mouth with too many teeth, with Banville still trying to find room for the wisdoms. Still, in an age of brightly coloured disposable fiction, Banville's verbal fastidiousness is something to be savoured." - James Hopkin, New Statesman

  • "Banville's fin de siècle-ish rapture with words is positively provocative; but you also sense a stern intellectual authority reigning it in, or at least trying to." - Gabrielle Annan, The New York Review of Books

  • "If, throughout Eclipse, perception has been rendered as a single, small attic window looking out onto an immensity of blue air, through which we can barely glimpse one another's incommensurable losses, the novel's triumph is to have contrived for us, by its finish, the piercing sadness of having connected to a man who can't connect to anyone, as he bears a punishment that turns out to have been more infernally ingenious than even he could have supposed." - Jim Shepard, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Eclipse is Banville's boldest book to date precisely because there is so little plot to it. (...) Here, however, there is nothing at all to distract from the language -- the novel is a carefully made display-case for Banville's burnished prose. Fortunately, it stands up to scrutiny. (...) In Eclipse, Banville has created another important, challenging fiction. The book is ornately written, heartless in an honest fashion, profoundly interrogative of ideas of identity and, above all, spectacularly beautiful. It is, in ways that so many contemporary novels are not, a work of art." - Robert MacFarlane, The Observer

  • "The novel, like James's ghostly tales, is more than an entertainment. It is, like Banville's historical novels, an epistemological mystery." - Irving Malin, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "The narrative's sudden jumps and digressions are unsettling and yet peculiarly natural, expressive of urgent distress. But it is the imaginative intensity which he applies to others that shapes the narrator for the reader, and this depends on Banville's astonishing language. Every page yields a crop of amazing images (.....) Banville's prose is immensely rich, but not flashy. He makes you see things in fresh, vivid ways so that you repeatedly want to applaud -- not because the image is clever (although it is) but because it is so resoundingly true." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "Alex's mind dwells on memory and its insidious ability to blend with what's happening now, so that present, past and future sometimes collapse together, provoked by a trick of the light, an evening smell or a strain of circus music. He watches the past dwindle and listens to the future as it speaks of something he doesn't want to know. The effect is one of uncanny intimations and heart-stopping nostalgia, blended into something more powerful and more enigmatic than either. The reader is invited to work hard, but the rewards are great." - Tom Deveson, The Sunday Times

  • "Banville writes about the present through memory. What is all his own is the confessional style, dealing with the emptiness of existence, the tyrannical force of destiny, the destructiveness of human desire. The end result is a powerful and claustrophobic novel that is as disconcerting as it is mesmerising." - Russell Celyn Jones, The Times

  • "Where there is dialogue, there are strained silences broken by the narrator saying precisely the wrong thing. And, most predictable of all, every page of the book is extraordinarily well written, countering Nabokovian lushness with Beckettian asperity and seemingly composed all the way through with the kind of attention usually reserved only for opening and closing paragraphs." - Christopher Tayler, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Unfortunately, ghosts and humans alike are no match for Cleave's existential navel-gazing (.....) His emotions seem so bloodless and detached, so anesthetized, that it's hard to care, elegant though Banville's prose may be." - J. Yeh, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "Bei mehr als 300 Seiten reicht diese stilistische Meisterschaft jedoch nicht aus, um über eine Handlung hinwegzutrösten, die man als solche kaum bezeichnen kann. Die Story besteht im wesentlichen aus nicht zu Ende geführten Erzählsträngen und geheimnisvollen Andeutungen." - Herbert Grieshop, Die Welt

  • "Banville erzählt nicht cool, sondern unterkühlt (was bei Lichte besehen das genaue Gegenteil ist), und die Härte seiner Prosa ist die Härte abweisender Strenge." - Friedhelm Rathjen, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       John Banville has written novels with titles such as Ghosts, The Untouchable, and Nightspawn, so it comes as no great surprise that the first part of Eclipse is filled with dreamy scenes and spectral visions. Alexander Cleave, who narrates the story, has fled the world at large and retreated to his childhood home. An actor, "he died in the middle of the last act and staggered off the stage in sweaty ignominy just when the action was coming to its climax." The stage was all the world for him, and now he warily tries to find his place away from it.
       His childhood home is perhaps not the ideal setting. It might offer a sense of security, a return to a place (if not time) before he was a true actor, but it is also an unsettling stage. From the first he feels and sees presences: spectres, phantoms, ghosts, dreams. He sees himself as "the haunted one", and haunted he is, never quite sure of what it is he feels and sees. His wife, Lydia suggests: "You are your own ghost", which already seems closer to the mark. Of whatever sort, otherworldliness certainly dominates the first sections of the book.
       Banville's writing is rich and evocative, as he effortlessly conjures with language. He handles words and expression with consummate skill. It's fine stuff, throughout, but when the focus is on the intangible it is also a bit much. The dreamy wondering of what is real and what is not, of what is seen and what imagined -- Banville plays it for all its worth. And his estimation of that worth is probably higher than that of most readers.
       Surprisingly, then, the book eventually finds itself on more solid and substantial ground (as at least some of the apparitions and presences are explained) and there blossoms into a gripping, touching tale. Banville perhaps works too hard at some of the groundwork early on, but the edifice he then constructs makes up for any earlier missteps.
       Eclipse is both artfully written and constructed. What exactly happened to Cleave that caused him to leave the stage is only detailed about halfway into the book. Throughout the novel he revisits the past, slowly filling in the details of his background, the inevitability of his becoming an actor, and his personal and professional successes and failures.
       Eclipse is presented in five acts, a proper drama, dominated completely by Cleave. He has gone through a rough patch -- "my bad time" he calls it --, his career apparently over. He is not a particularly cheerful fellow: "What is happiness but a refined form of pain ?" he wonders.
       There are few figures that are important to him. His dead mother is a presence, especially there in the house he grew up in, but she is only a memory. Cleave's wife comes with him to his retreat at the beginning, but she leaves again, returning to the scene only after a longer absence. Locals Quirke and his fifteen year old daughter, Lily, are the only people with whom Cleave has much interaction. His daughter, Cass, is a strong presence, promising to appear but remaining just out of reach.
       An actual eclipse figures prominently in the book, but it is very nicely handled, nowhere near as portentous as one might fear. There is more than the actual eclipse itself, of course: the novel is full of shadows and shades. Little turns out to be what it initially seemed -- especially to Cleave. Matters are obscured, obfuscated, and adumbrated at every turn, but Banville handles this play of light and shadow expertly.
       Cleave is sympathetic and human in his failings. He is helpless, the actor who has forgotten his lines -- not only on the stage, but in everyday life. He flails about, trying to gain some foothold again, uncertain of so much, unable to break free of old habits and personal weakness. His relationship with his wife is an uneasy one, but he still finds comfort with her. He loves his estranged and vulnerable daughter but is powerless to help her. Banville shows him compassion, but never opts for the easy solutions: Lily, for example, becomes a daughter-substitute for Cleave, but the actor remains painfully aware that nothing can take Cass' place. Cleave is a flawed hero, but a grand one nevertheless.
       Memory, delusion, and reality mix throughout Eclipse, with Cleave uncertain of which to trust and which to focus on. Cleave hopes to locate "the singular essential self, the one I came here to find, that must be hiding, somewhere, under the jumble of discarded masks." In the childhood home and in his memories he hopes to revisit the time before he donned the masks that carried him through to the present, but he was an actor from early on, always performing and playing.
       At one point he finds: "I have stepped through the looking-glass into another world where everything is exactly as it was and at the same time entirely transformed." These shifts -- this is not the only one -- do help him along, and Banville presents this slow, odd transformation very well.

       The beginning of Eclipse seems somewhat overdone, but it settles down nicely into a surprisingly powerful tale. Banville unlooses not a torrent but a bubbling brook of language. The story moves along beautifully, with constant shifts, ripples, and sparkles, right to its dramatic end.
       A fine book, certainly recommended.

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Eclipse: Reviews: John Banville: Other books by John Banville under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Irish literature at the complete review
  • See Index of contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Irish author John Banville was born in 1945. He has written a number of highly acclaimed novels.

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© 2001-2021 the complete review

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