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Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother. Love may be too strong a word but I do not know a weaker one that will apply. All this happened half a century ago. I was fifteen and Mrs. Gray was thirty-five. Such things are easily said, since words themselves have no shame and are never surprised. She might be living still. She would be, what, eighty-three, eighty-four? That is not a great age, these days. What if I were to set off in search of her? That would be a quest. I should like to be in love again, I should like to fall in love again, just once more. We could take a course of monkey-gland injections, she and I, and be as we were fifty years ago, helpless in raptures. I wonder how things are with her, assuming she is still of this earth. She was so unhappy then, so unhappy, she must have been, despite her valiant and unfailing cheeriness, and I dearly hope she did not continue so.
What do I recall of her, here in these soft pale days at the lapsing of the year? Images from the far past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all. Some say that without realising it we make it all up as we go along, embroidering and embellishing, and I am inclined to credit it, for Madam Memory is a great and subtle dissembler. When I look back all is flux, without beginning and flowing towards no end, or none that I shall experience, except as a final full stop. The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage—and what is a life but a gradual shipwreck?—may take on an aspect of inevitability when I put them on display in their glass showcases, but they are random; representative, perhaps, perhaps compellingly so, but random nonetheless.
There were for me two distinct initial manifestations of Mrs. Gray, years apart. The first woman may not have been she at all, may have been only an annunciation of her, so to speak, but it pleases me to think the two were one. April, of course. Remember what April was like when we were young, that sense of liquid rushing and the wind taking blue scoops out of the air and the birds beside themselves in the budding trees? I was ten or eleven. I had turned in at the gates of the Church of Mary Our Mother Immaculate, head down as usual—Lydia says I walk like a permanent penitent—and the first presage I had of the woman on the bicycle was the fizzing of tyres, a sound that seemed to me excitingly erotic when I was a boy, and does so even yet, I do not know why. The church stood on a rise, and when I looked up and saw her approaching with the steeple beetling at her back it seemed thrillingly that she had come swooping down out of the sky at just that moment, and that what I had heard was not the sound of tyres on the tarmac but of rapid wings beating the air. She was almost upon me, freewheeling, leaning back relaxedly and steering with one hand. She wore a gaberdine raincoat, the tails of it flapping behind to right and left of her like, yes, like wings, and a blue jumper over a blouse with a white collar. How clearly I see her! I must be making her up, I mean I must be making up these details. Her skirt was wide and loose, and now all at once the spring wind caught it and lifted it, laying her bare all the way up to her waist. Ah, yes.
Nowadays we are assured that there is hardly a jot of difference between the ways in which the sexes experience the world, but no woman, I am prepared to wager, has ever known the suffusion of dark delight that floods the veins of a male of any age, from toddler to nonagenarian, at the spectacle of the female privy parts, as they used quaintly to be called, exposed accidentally, which is to say fortuitously, to sudden public view. Contrary, and disappointingly I imagine, to female assumptions, it is not the glimpsing of the flesh itself that roots us men to the spot, our mouths gone dry and our eyes out on stalks, but of precisely those silken scantlings that are the last barriers between a woman’s nakedness and our goggling fixity. It makes no sense, I know, but if on a crowded beach on a summer day the swimsuits of the female bathers were to be by some dark sorcery transformed into underwear, all of the males present, the naked little boys with their pot bellies and pizzles on show, the lolling, muscle-bound lifeguards, even the hen-pecked husbands with trouser-cuffs rolled and knotted hankies on their heads, all, I say, would be on the instant transformed and joined into a herd of bloodshot, baying satyrs bent on rapine.
I am thinking particularly of those olden days when I was young and women under their dresses—and which of them then did not wear a dress, save the odd golfing girl or spoilsport film star in her pleated slacks?—might have been fitted out by a ship’s chandler, with all sorts and shapes of rigging and sheeting, jibs and spankers, sheers and stays. My Lady of the Bicycle, now, with her taut suspenders and pearly-white satin knickers, had all the dash and grace of a trim schooner plying fearlessly into a stiff nor’wester. She seemed as startled as I by what the breeze was doing to her modesty. She looked down at herself and then at me and raised her eyebrows and made an O of her mouth, and gave a gurgling laugh and smoothed the skirt over her knees with a careless sweep of the back of her free hand and sailed blithely past. I thought her a vision of the goddess herself, but when I turned to look after her she was just a woman rattling along on a big black bike, a woman with those flaps or epaulettes on the shoulders of her coat that were fashionable then, and crooked seams in her nylons, and boxy hair just like my mother’s. She slowed prudently in the gateway, her front wheel wobbling, and gave a chirrup on her bell before proceeding out into the street and turning left down Church Road.
I did not know her, had never seen her before, so far as I knew, though I would have thought that by then I had seen everyone in our tight little town at least once. And did I in fact see her again? Is it possible that she was indeed Mrs. Gray, the same one who four or five years later would irrupt so momentously into my life? I cannot summon up the features of the woman on the bike clearly enough to say for sure if she truly was or was not an early sighting of my Venus Domestica, though I cling to the possibility with wistful insistence.
What affected me so in that encounter in the churchyard, besides the raw excitement of it, was the sense I had of having been granted a glimpse into the world of womanhood itself, of having been let in, if only for a second or two, on the great secret. What thrilled and charmed me was not just the sight I got of the woman’s shapely legs and fascinatingly complicated underthings, but the simple, amused and generous way that she looked down at me, doing that throaty laugh, and the negligent, backhanded grace with which she subdued her ballooning skirt. This must be another reason why she has become merged in my mind with Mrs. Gray, why she and Mrs. Gray are for me the two faces of the one precious coin, for grace and generosity were the things I treasured, or should have treasured, in the first and, I sometimes disloyally think—sorry, Lydia—only real passion of my life. Kindness, or what they used to call loving-kindness, was the watermark discernible in Mrs. Gray’s every gesture towards me. I think I am not being overly fond. I did not deserve her, I know that now, but how could I have known it then, being a mere boy, callow and untried? No sooner have I written down those words than I hear the weaselly whine in them, the puling attempt at self-exculpation. The truth is I did not love her enough, I mean I did not love her as I had it in me to do, young as I was, and I think she suffered for it, and that is all there is to say on the subject, though I am sure that will not stop me from saying a great deal more.
Her name was Celia. Celia Gray. It does not sound quite right, does it, that combination? Women’s married names never sound right, in my opinion. Is it that they all marry the wrong men, or at any rate men with the wrong surnames? Celia and Gray make altogether too languid a coupling, a slow hiss followed by a soft thud, the hard g in Gray not half hard enough. She was not languid, anything but. If I say she was buxom that fine old word will be misunderstood, will be given too much weight, literally and figuratively. I do not think she was beautiful, at least not conventionally so, although I suppose a boy of fifteen could hardly have been called on to award the golden apple; I did not think of her as beautiful or otherwise; I fear that, after the initial gloss had gone dull, I did not think of her at all, but took her, however gratefully, for granted.
A memory of her, a sudden image coming back unbidden, was what set me stumbling off down Memory Lane in the first place. A thing she used to wear, called a half-slip, I believe—yes, undergarments again—a slithery, skirt-length affair in salmon-coloured silk or nylon, would leave, when she had taken it off, a pink weal where the elastic waistband had pressed into the pliant, silvery flesh of her belly and flanks, and, though less discernibly, at the back, too, above her wonderfully prominent bum, with its two deep dimples and the knubbled, slightly sandpapery twin patches underneath, where she sat down. This rosy cincture encircling her middle stirred me deeply, suggestive as it was of tender punishment, exquisite suffering—I was thinking of the harem, no doubt, of branded houris and the like—and I would lie with my cheek resting on her midriff and trace the crimpled line of it with a slow fingertip, my breath stirring the shiny dark hairs at the base of her belly and in my ear the pings and plonks of her innards at their ceaseless work of transubstantiation. The skin was always hotter along that uneven, narrow track left by the elastic, where the blood crowded protectively to the surface. I suspect, too, I was savouring the blasphemous hint that it gave of the crown of thorns. For our doings together were pervaded throughout by a faint, a very faint, sickly religiosity.
I pause to record or at least to mention a dream I had last night in which my wife had left me for another woman. I do not know what this might signify, or if it signifies anything, but certainly it has left an impression. As in all dreams the people in this one were plainly themselves and at the same time not, my wife, to take the principal player, appearing as short, blonde and bossy. How did I know it was she, looking so unlike herself as she did? I, too, was not as I am, but corpulent and ponderous, sag-eyed, slow-moving, a kind of an old walrus, say, or some other soft, lumbering water-going mammal; there was the sense of a sloped back, leathery and grey, disappearing slidingly around a rock. So there we were, lost to each other, she not she and I not I.
My wife harbours no sapphic inclinations, so far as I know—though how far is that?—but in the dream she was cheerfully, briskly, butch. The object of her transferred affections was a strange little man-like creature with wispy sideburns and a faint moustache and no hips, a dead ringer, now that I think of it, for Edgar Allan Poe. As to the dream proper I shall not bore you, or myself, with the details. Anyway, as I think I have already said, I do not believe we retain details, or if we do they are so heavily edited and censored and generally fancified as to constitute a new thing altogether, a dream of a dream, in which the original is transfigured, as the dream itself transfigures waking experience. This does not prevent me from crediting dreams with all sorts of numinous and prophetic implications. But surely it is too late in the day for Lydia to leave me. All I know is that this morning I woke in the pre-dawn hour with an oppressive sense of loss and deprivation and all-pervading sadness. Something seems set to happen.
I think I was a little in love with Billy Gray before I was a lot in love with his mother. There is that word again, love; how easily it trips off the pen. Strange, thinking of Billy like this. He would be my age now. That is hardly remarkable—he was my age then—yet it gives me a shock. I feel as if I have suddenly taken a step up—or is it a step down?—into another phase of ageing. Would I know him if I met him? Would he know me? He was so upset when the scandal broke. I am sure I felt the shock of public disgrace as much as he did, or more so, I should think, but all the same I was taken aback by the passion with which he repudiated me. After all, I would not have minded if he had been sleeping with my mother, difficult though that would have been to imagine—I found it difficult to imagine anyone sleeping with Ma, the poor old thing, which was how I thought of her, as poor, and old, and a thing. That surely was what so troubled Billy, having to contemplate the fact that his mother was a woman whom someone desired, and furthermore that the someone was me. Yes, it must have been all kinds of agony for him to picture the two of us rolling naked in each other’s arms on that filthy mattress on the floor in Cotter’s place. He had probably never seen his mother without her clothes on, or not that he could remember, anyhow.
It was he who first stumbled on the Cotter house, and I used to worry that one day he would stumble on his mother and me at our love-play there. Was she aware that Billy knew the place? I cannot remember. If she was, my worry would have been as nothing compared to her terror at the thought of discovery by her only son as she was being made love to by his best friend in the midst of ancient squalor on a dirty, leaf-littered floor.
I recall the day I first saw the house. We had been in the little hazel wood along by the river, Billy and I, and he had brought me up to a ridge and pointed out the roof among the treetops. From the height on which we stood only the roof was visible, and at first I could not make it out, for the slates were covered with moss as green as the surrounding foliage. That must have been why it remained hidden for so long, and why presently it would make such a secure trysting-place for Mrs. Gray and me. I wanted to go down and break in straight away—for we were boys, after all, and still young enough to be on the look-out for what we would have called a club-house—but Billy was reluctant, strangely, as it seemed to me, since he had discovered the place and had even been inside it, or so he said. I believe he was a little afraid of that house; perhaps he had a premonition, or thought it haunted, as indeed it soon would be, not by ghosts but by the Lady Venus and her sportive boy.
It is odd, but I see our pockets that day filled with hazel nuts we had collected down in the wood and the ground around us plated with the hammered gold of fallen leaves, yet it was April, it had to have been April, the leaves green and still on the trees and the hazel nuts not even formed yet. Try as I will, however, I see not spring but autumn. I suppose we straggled away, then, the two of us, through the green not golden leaves, with our pockets not full of nuts, and went home, leaving Cotter’s place undisturbed. Something in me had been struck, though, by the look of that sagging roof among the trees, and I went back the very next day, led by love the necessitous and ever-practical, and discovered in the tumbledown house just the place of shelter Mrs. Gray and I were in need of. For, yes, we were by that time already intimate, to put it as delicately as I may.
Billy had a sweetness to his nature that was very attractive. His features were nice, though his skin was poor, somewhat pitted, like his mother’s, I am afraid, and prone to pimples. He had his mother’s eyes, too, of a liquid umber shade, and wonderfully long fine eyelashes, each lash perfectly distinct, so that I thought, or think now, of that special paintbrush that miniaturists use, the business end a single filament of sable. He walked with a curious bow-legged rolling gait, swinging his arms in a hooped fashion that made it seem as if he were gathering invisible sheaves of something out of the air before him as he went along. That Christmas he had given me a manicure set in a neat pigskin case—yes, a manicure set, with a pair of scissors and nail clippers and a file, and a polished ivory stick, shaped at one end like a tiny flattish spoon, which my mother examined doubtfully and pronounced either a cuticle-pusher—a cuticle-pusher?—or more prosaically an implement for prising dirt from under the nails. I was puzzled by this girlish gift yet accepted it with good if uncertain grace. I had not thought to get him anything; he did not seem to have expected that I would, or to mind that I had not.
I wonder now, suddenly, if it was his mother who bought the manicure set for him to give to me, a coy and secret gift, delivered by proxy, that she thought I might guess had really come from her. This was some months before she and I had become—oh, go on and say it, for God’s sake!—before we had become lovers. She had known me, of course, for I had been calling for Billy at the house most days that winter on the way to school. Did I look to her like the kind of boy who would think a manicure set just the thing for Christmas? Billy’s own attentions to personal hygiene were less than thorough. He bathed even more infrequently than the rest of us did, as indicated by that intimate, brownish whiff he gave off on occasion; also the pores in the grooves beside his nostrils were blackly clogged, and with a shiver of mingled relish and revulsion I would imagine getting at them with my thumbnails for pincers, after which I would certainly have had need of that elegant little ivory gouge. He wore jumpers with holes in them and his collars seemed never to be clean. He possessed an air rifle and shot frogs with it. He was truly my best friend, and I did love him, in some way or other. Our chumship was sealed one winter eve when we were sharing a clandestine cigarette in the back seat of the family station wagon parked outside the house—this is a vehicle we shall become deeply familiar with presently—and he confided to me that his given name was not William, as he would have the world believe, but Wilfred, and further that his middle name was Florence, after his dead uncle Flor. Wilfred! Florence! I kept his secret, I can say that for myself, which is not much, I know. But, ah, how he wept, for pain and rage and humiliation, the day he met me after he had found out about his mother and me; how he wept, and I the prime cause of his bitter tears.
I cannot remember the first time I saw Mrs. Gray, if she was not the woman on the bike, that is. Mothers were not people that we noticed much; brothers, yes, sisters, even, but not mothers. Vague, shapeless, unsexed, they were little more than an apron and a swatch of unkempt hair and a faint sharp tang of sweat. They were always dimly busy in the background, doing things with baking tins, or socks. I must have been in Mrs. Gray’s vicinity numerous times before I registered her in any particular, definite way. Confusingly, I have what is certain to be a false memory of her, in winter, applying talcum powder to the shinily pink inner sides of my thighs where they had become raw from the chafing of my trousers; highly unlikely, since apart from anything else the trousers I was wearing on that occasion were short, which would hardly have been the case if I was fifteen, since we were all in longed-for longers by the age of eleven or twelve at the latest. Then whose mother was that one, I wonder, the talc-applier, and what opportunity for an even more precocious initiation did I perhaps let pass?
Anyhow, there was no moment of blinding illumination when Mrs. Gray herself stepped forth from the toils and trammels of domesticity and came skimming towards me on her half-shell, wafted by the full-cheeked zephyrs of spring. Even after we had been going to bed together for some time I would have been hard put to give a fair description of her—if I had tried, what I would have described would probably have been a version of myself, for when I looked at her it was me that I saw first, reflected in the glorious mirror that I made of her.
Billy never talked to me about her—why would he?—and seemed to pay her no more heed than I did for so long. He was a laggard, and often of a morning when I called for him going to school he was not ready, and I would be invited in, especially if it was raining or icy. He did not do the inviting—remember that suffusion of mute fury and burning shame we experienced when our friends got a glimpse of us in flagrante in the naked bosom of our families?—so it must have been she. Yet I cannot recall a single instance of her appearing at the front door, in her apron, with her sleeves rolled, insisting I come in and join the family circle at the breakfast table. I can see the table, though, and the kitchen that it almost filled, and the big American-style fridge the colour and texture of curdled cream, the straw basket of laundry on the draining board, the grocery-shop calendar showing the wrong month, and that squat chrome toaster with a seething gleam of sunlight from the window reflected high on its shoulder.
Oh, the morning smell of other people’s kitchens, the cotton- wool warmth, the clatter and haste, with everyone still half asleep and cross. Life’s newness and strangeness never seemed more vividly apparent than it did in such moments of homely intimacy and disorder.
Billy had a sister, younger than he, an unnerving creature with the look of a pixie, with long, rather greasy plaits and a narrow sharp stark white face the top half of which was blurred behind enormous horn-rimmed spectacles with circular lenses as thick as magnifying glasses. She seemed to find me irresistibly amusing and would wriggle inside her clothes with malignant hilarity when I appeared in the kitchen with my schoolbag, shuffling in like a hunchback. She was called Kitty, and indeed there was something feline in the way she would slit her eyes when she smiled at me, compressing her lips into a thin, colourless arc that seemed to stretch all the way between her intricately voluted, translucent, prominent pink ears. I wonder now if she, too, might have been sweet on me and all the snuffly amusement were a means of hiding the fact. Or is this just vanity on my part? I am, or was, an actor, after all. There was something the matter with her, she had some condition that was not spoken of that made her what in those days was called delicate. I found her unnerving, and was I think even a little afraid of her; if so, it was prescient of me.
About This Guide
John Banville is the author of fifteen previous novels, has been the recipient of the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Award, and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. He lives in Dublin.
About This Book
Alex Cleave, the narrator of John Banville’s previous novel, Eclipse (2000), returns in Ancient Light to tell a story of that sounds the depths of memory and desire. Now sixty-five, Alex is irresistibly drawn to recall his first and only great love, which occurred fifty years ago, when he was just fifteen, with Mrs. Gray, a woman more than twice his age and the mother of his best friend, Billy.
Told from the dual perspective of the older man and his teenage self, the novel has one foot in the past and one in the present, as Alex straddles an emotional abyss that threatens to pull him under at any moment. A stage actor who abandoned the theater after a disastrous performance, Alex has been lured out of retirement to star in a film about the life of the controversial literary critic Axel Vander—a character who lived under an assumed identity and who bears a striking resemblance to the real-life deconstructionist critic Paul de Man. Vander may also have had a hand in the suicide of Alex’s daughter, Cass, who exposed Vander’s wartime writings for a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper. Axel Vander and Cass Cleave are the main characters in Banville's novel Shroud (2002).
But far more than the film, Alex is engrossed in remembering his passionate affair with Mrs. Gray. He recalls the entire trajectory of their relationship, from the moment he first saw her (or a woman he thinks was her) gliding down the street on her bicycle, her dress blown up by the wind to reveal a fascinating glimpse of her undergarments; through the first kiss and all the impetuous trysts that followed; to the indiscretion that would suddenly end their affair. He recalls the details of this early love with incredible vividness. Indeed, some of his memories will strike readers as perhaps too vivid to be believed. Alex himself wonders near the beginning of the novel whether the images that come crowding into his mind “are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all” (p. 4).
The novel offers a narrative told by a man who acknowledges little difference between memory and invention and who plays the lead in The Invention of the Past, a film about a literary critic who erased his personal history by assuming the identity of dead man. Ideas of self, of the veracity of memory, of our ability to truly know ourselves or each other all lose stability in the fascinating hall of mirrors Banville has created in Ancient Light.
Still, the emotional currents that move through Alex as he recounts and relives the past are quite real and compelling. There is a searching, yearning, elegiac quality about the story he tells, a story whose meaning remains mysterious, even to him. He is a man chasing ghosts, as he searches out the fate of Mrs. Gray and makes an impetuous trip to the Ligurian coastal town (where his daughter committed suicide) with his co-star, Dawn Devonport, in the aftermath of her own failed suicide attempt.
Written with Banville’s signature lyricism and subtle emotional intelligence, Ancient Light is a novel of love and loss—the all-consuming thrill of a first love, intensified by illicitness and secrecy, and the loss of a past that nevertheless remains both inescapable and ungraspable.
Question & Answer
1. What are the most distinctive features of John Banville’s prose style? What accounts for its remarkable richness, lyricism, and subtlety of perception?
2. What is the effect of Ancient Light being told simultaneously from the points of view of the teenage Alex and the adult Alex? How does Alex’s present affect his past? How does his past affect his present?
3. Alex frequently interrupts himself as he’s telling his story by asking questions in asides, such as, “She was not a native of our town—have I said that?—and neither was her husband” (p. 66). What is the effect of this kind of self-reflexive, self-questioning narration? In what ways does it feel true to Alex’s character?
4. At the opening of the book, Alex writes: “Images from the far past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all” (p. 3). How reliable is Alex as a narrator? His memory seems extraordinarily vivid and detailed, but how trustworthy is it? Is it possible to discern what he’s remembering and what he’s inventing or embellishing?
5. Why does Alex feel compelled now, fifty years after the fact, to write about his first love? What purpose does writing this story serve for him?
6. After Mrs. Gray flees, Alex feels abandoned and afraid. “This was grown-up territory, where I should not have to be. Who would rescue me, who would follow and find me and lead me back to be again among the scenes and the safety I had know before...?” (p. 264). Has Alex been victimized by Mrs. Gray, in spite of his more-than-enthusiastic involvement in their passionate affair? Has he been prematurely robbed of his innocence or given the gift of a great love?
7. Why does Alex take Dawn Devonport to Ligurian coastal town of Portovenere after her failed suicide attempt? What are his ostensible motives? What deeper reasons might be guiding him?
8. In playing the part of the Belgian literary critic Axel Vander, who lived most of his adult life under an assumed identity, Alex is pretending to be an impostor. What is the significance of this double impersonation?
9. Near the end of the novel, Alex says “People, real people, expect actors to be the characters they play. I am not Axel Vander, nor anything like him. Am I?” (p. 274). Is Alex anything like Axel, beyond their anagrammatic names? Why would he assert that he is not like Axel, and then immediately question that assertion?
10. How has their daughter Cass’s suicide affected Alex and Lydia’s marriage? Does Dawn Devonport serve as a kind of daughter-substitute for them?
11. Alex says that he was happy to listen to Mrs. Gray’s ramblings, “or to pretend to, so long as she consented to lie in my embrace in the back seat of the station wagon or on the mattress in Cotter’s place” (p. 144). Is he a narcissist or merely displaying the passionate impatience of youthful male lust? Could he have loved her less selfishly?
12. Why doesn’t it occur to Alex that when Mrs. Gray wonders aloud what it might be like to not be here, and asks him if he ever thinks about death, she is tacitly referring to her own grave illness? Why does he immediately assume she’s referring to her husband’s impending death?
13. How does learning the fate of Mrs. Gray—the real reason she disappeared from Alex’s life—change the way the novel should be read? How might Mrs. Gray’s awareness of her illness help explain her affair with young Alex?
14. Alex muses, “I used to think, long ago, that despite all the evidence I was the one in charge of my own life. . . . Now I realise that always I have been acted upon, by unacknowledged forces, hidden coercions” (p. 278). Why would he come to this conclusion? What are the “unacknowledged forces” and “hidden coercions” that have acted on him?
15. Why does Banville choose to end the novel with Alex remembering sleeping on the floor next to his mother’s be, in the aftermath of the end of his affair with Mrs. Gray? What might be the “radiant being” he feels approaching the house just before he falls asleep?
About This Author
John Banville is the author of fifteen previous novels, has been the recipient of the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Award, and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. He lives in Dublin.
John Banville, Eclipse, Shroud; Jonathan Coe, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim; Joan Didion, Blue Nights; Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past; Bernard Schlink, The Reader; Scott Spencer, Endless Love.