Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Book Review - The Sea by John Banville - "...all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it."

The Irish novelist, John Banville, is well known as one of today’s greatest prose stylists. Although his early books – Doctor Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton – all featured scientists, his later books have explored the world of criminal aesthetes and art experts, and most of them employ the fascinating, though sometimes frustrating, device of the unreliable narrator. This is true of his fourteenth novel, the 2005 Man Booker winner, The Sea.

The protagonist of The Sea is sixtyish art historian, Max Morden (names are always very significant in Banville’s novels). Plunged into a deep and seemingly endless sea of mourning over the death of his wife, Anna, from untreatable stomach cancer, and alienated from his only daughter, Claire, Max returns to Ballyless, a small town on the rugged Irish coast where he once spent a life altering childhood summer. Although as a child, Max stayed in the simple, inexpensive, and rustic “chalet,” the adult Max has ensconced himself in the far grander boarding house known as “The Cedars,” a place that, fifty years ago, was the summer home of a family the young Max worshipped, the Graces.

Although Max found Carlos Grace, the head of the family, to be nothing more than an arrogant boor, he was mesmerized by Constance Grace, Carlos’ wife, and later, by Chloe, Constance’s eleven-year-old daughter. (Fascinatingly, Chloe’s twin brother, Myles, is a constant presence through the book, though he never utters a single word.) It is Max’s recent tragedy – the loss of Anna – that has caused a much earlier tragedy – one directly involving the Graces – to haunt both his waking and his sleeping hours.

Like many of Banville’s protagonists, Max Morden is disparaging to the point of sheer exasperation. Stalled in the monograph he’s writing on French painter, Pierre Bonnard, Max describes himself as:

…a person of scant talent and scanter ambition, greyed o’er by the years, uncertain and astray and in need of consolation and the brief respite of drink induced oblivion.

Many times during the reading of this gorgeous book, one must stop and ask himself if Max is victim or predator. Perhaps he’s both. It’s rather difficult to tell because Max is so intent on inhabiting a world of ghosts – Anna’s and the ghosts of the Graces, for example – that he becomes rather ghostlike, himself, losing form and substance and becoming something of an amorphous shapeshifter, much like the sea, itself. This comes as no surprise. Anyone familiar with Banville’s work knows that ghosts are one of his favorite literary devices. They flit and flutter through his fiction like moths to a flame – melancholy, lonely people searching for a past they want to believe in, but sadly, a past that never really was.

As Max attempts to recreate his past at Ballyless, or what he believes to be his past, the major themes of The Sea – memory and loss – begin to emerge. The storyline is a simple one, though the structure of the novel is subtle and complex, always moving back and forth, back and forth, in and out, in and out, rhythmic as the tide. Max’s voice, though at times infuriating, is, more often than not, mesmerizing. The message of this book, I think, can be summed up in one sentence, a sentence uttered by Max:

…all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it.

From The Sea’s very beginning, readers can tell they are in for some tragic soul searching, albeit exquisitely beautiful soul searching.

As already mentioned, John Banville is a prose stylist par excellence. He’s as Nabokovian as Edna O’Brien is Joycean. And, though his novels are, without a doubt, unspeakably sad, and feature sometimes mortally wounded protagonists, they are written in prose that keeps us glued to the page, prose that’s luminous, glittering, beautiful, lyrical, and hypnotic. Banville’s books often wound emotionally, but they’re difficult to impossible to put down.

Some people mistakenly call Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, Jose Saramago, a “difficult” and “demanding” author. While Saramago’s sentences can continue for pages and pages, once a reader “falls into” the cadence of the narrative, the reading flows as quickly and as easily as a snowball down an Alpine mountainside.

If any author’s prose is difficult, it’s Banville’s, gorgeous though it is, and this may be the book’s only shortcoming, if it can be considered a shortcoming at all. The Sea contains many mythic allusions and numerous embedded quotations from Yeats, Keats, Milton, Tennyson, Conrad, Shakespeare, Eliot, and Stevens, as well as recurrent analogies from the world of art. Some readers will love this, however those not familiar with the above authors names as well as the art world, won’t be able to unravel The Sea completely. Still, it’s going to be a life-altering read.

Sometimes, Banville’s prose seems a bit too gorgeous. It’s possible for a reader to find himself paying too much attention to the excruciating beauty of the metaphors and too little to Max. However, considering the tragic beauty of The Sea and its overall impact on the reader, this is but a quibble.

Most people believed Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George would win 2005’s Booker, or if not Arthur and George, then Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful exploration of cloning, Never Let Me Go. And both, of course, were worthy contenders. However, considering the violent beauty, the exquisite tragedy, and the depth of crystalline clarity contained in The Sea, it’s obvious this autumnal elegy was the right choice.

As Banville, himself, wrote in the glorious Gothic novel, Birchwood:

We imagine that we remember things as they were, while in fact all we’ll carry into the future are fragments which reconstruct a wholly illusory past. The first death we witness will always be a murmur of voices down a corridor and a clock falling silent in a darkened room, the end of love is forever two cigarettes in a saucer and a white door closing.

So it is in The Sea, only more so.


Recommended: Definitely, especially for those readers who love literary fiction.

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