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Book Review: The Sea, by John Banville

One-line summary: A middle-aged Irishman returns to the scene of his childhood to remember the only important thing that ever happened in his life and get drunk.



Knopf, 2005, 195 pages


In this luminous new novel about love, loss, and the unpredictable power of memory, John Banville introduces us to Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife.

It is also a return to the place where he met the Graces, the well-heeled family with whom he experienced the strange suddenness of both love and death for the first time. What Max comes to understand about the past, and about its indelible effects on him, is at the center of this elegiac, gorgeously written novel—among the finest we have had from this masterful writer.



Cross-posted to books1001 and bookish.

See that cover? Isn't it pretty? Luminous and elegiac and gorgeous? Yes, it's the sea. But what's going on? Is anything happening? What does this cover tell us about the book? Well, there's a sea, obviously. So it takes place near the sea? Maybe the sea is involved somehow? It's a perfectly nice cover but what is the book about?

John Banville is one of those literary authors who's routinely described in superlatives: "an extraordinary writer," "a master prose stylist," etc. He's frequently compared to Nabokov. And The Sea is beautifully written. You know those readers who don't care that much about storytelling, who think any drunk in a tavern can tell a story, that novels that condescend to entertain as their primary objective are a cheapening of literature? People who primarily want to read books that demonstrate mastery of the literary art, who want to read prose by stylists who can do things with words that lesser writers cannot, and who cares what they say with them? They're the sort of readers who would love The Sea.

That is not to say The Sea is a bad book. And yes, there is a story. And I will get to its virtues in a moment. Yes, it has virtues; in fact, it really did make me understand the kind of readers I mentioned above a little better, and it made me think a little more deeply about what literature is supposed to accomplish. Banville accomplishes some really exceptional things in this book, and he does so in such a casual way as to make it seem effortless, like he just sits down to write and bangs out a few thousand words of prose so polished and "elegiac" (that is my new favorite word, it sounds half-laudatory, half-mocking) as to make other writers want to give up and take up guitar instead. (I have no idea if Banville really does just sit down and bang out words -- maybe he agonizes over every sentence and rewrites and polishes them over and over. But it reads like it just came out naturally.) It is a work of art. It is literature.

It is so effing boring.

So, one of the reasons I started the books1001 challenge was to get over my own prejudice against "literary" fiction. I've long been convinced that there are too many books written to win prizes and earn glowing reviews in important magazines, and give book clubs that imprimatur of haughty culturedness when they say they're reading Proust or Nabokov or, well, Banville. But I've come to realize that's unfair -- a lot of those snooty "literary" novels are really damn good stories after all. It's kind of like the people who reflexively sneer at Oprah's Book Club, on the assumption that all she endorses is lightweight chick-lit (Jonathan Franzen could have saved himself much embarrassment by looking at Oprah's previous selections before deciding that he was too good for the likes of her audience) when in fact if you look at her list, it includes an impressive and diverse variety of great works (and yeah, some lightweight chick-lit and crap by Bill Cosby). So I realized I haven't been fair to literary fiction, and there is something to be gained, die-hard sci-fi and fantasy fan (and would-be writer dreaming of someday maybe being published like 93% of all sci-fi and fantasy fans) that I am, by getting my nose out of the mass-market paperbacks now and then.

And then my next assignment for books1001 was The Sea by John Banville, and he's this really prolific highly acclaimed author whom I'd never heard of before, so great, another book to expand my horizons. And boy is this not the book to try to overcome one's anti-"literary fiction" prejudices with. It is exactly the sort of book that wins literary prizes (The Sea won the Man Booker Prize in 2005) and bores the hell out of anyone who really wants to read a story.

The past beats inside me like a second heart.


The Sea is pretty short, but it's not as quick a read as you'd think because it's so full of elegiac prose written in long, long blocky paragraphs that ramble off into the distance. And when I wasn't admiring the writing, in a detached, writer-analyzing-a-writer way, I was trying to pay attention and wondering if a plot would ever appear, or if it was just going to be endless reminiscing by Max Morden about his dreary childhood and his dreary marriage and his dreary daughter and his dreary career and the dreary but prolonged death by cancer of his dreary wife.

A plot finally does appear, kind of, or rather, the point of the story appears, in the last twenty pages. Everything preceding it is set-up, exposition, John Banville painting a picture of Morden's childhood, his mother, his wife, his daughter, the Graces, the beachside town where he spent his childhood and to which he returns to mourn. By the time we get to that last twenty pages, we understand: he's not mourning his wife, he's mourning himself. And we really don't care.

But boy can he write.

I first saw her, Chloe Grace, on the beach. It was a bright, wind-worried day and the Graces were settled in a shallow recess scooped into the dunes by the wind and tides to which their somewhat raffish presence lent a suggestion of the proscenium. They were impressively equipped, with a faded length of striped canvas strung between poles to keep the chill breezes off, and folding chairs and a little folding table, and a straw hamper as big as a small suitcase containing bottles and vacuum flasks and tins of sandwiches and biscuits; they even had real tea cups, with saucers. This was a part of the beach that was tacitly reserved for residents of the Golf Hotel, the lawn of which ended just behind the dunes, and indignant stares were being directed at these heedlessly interloping villa people with their smart beach furniture and their bottles of wine, stares which the Graces, if they noticed them ignored.


Stylistically, I don't actually find Banville's prose perfect, but that's probably because I've been drilled too thoroughly in mantras like "avoid unnecessary adverbs" and "avoid the use of passive tense." And boy does he love him some commas. But everything he writes paints a vivid detailed picture until you can literally see the scene in your head (the above quote is the first part of a paragraph that goes on for a page and a half). He doesn't write with the affected creative writing student's over-use of adjectives to give color and needless detail (and in particularly painful cases, name brands) to every item of a person's clothing and long, red, flowing, curly red hair framing a pale oval face in which gleam dark, sparkling, chocolate brown orbs -- no, his words are skillful, quick, numerous but carefully, expertly chosen, brush strokes painting a word-picture. A very big, detailed word-picture with many, many strokes of the brush.

Where Banville almost -- almost -- won me over, though, was the way in which he captures personalities. He paints pictures of people with as much detail as he paints scenes. People's thoughts and feelings and sentiments are murky, nebulous, chaotic and contradictory and not easily condensed into a few character traits or illustrative thoughts, which is how most writers capture them. No one can really know what's in someone else's head; we barely understand what's in our own. But Banville does a damn good job of making us think we know what's in Max Morden's head, poor pitiful middle-aged schmuck that he is, and by the end of the book we understand him, we know what makes him tick, we know what a futile person he is and what a fuck-all end he has reached. It's such a pity we don't have any reason to like him. He had a defining, tragic moment of childhood, and then went on to marry a woman with whom he was comfortably if never passionately and lovingly married to and they had a daughter whom we also get to know (at a much more superficial level but still with great clarity) whom he also loves vaguely but without much trace of true, deep devotion or affection, and then his wife died and now he's come back to that place where his childhood and the last important thing in his life happened, he meets some more incidental people we get to know in Banville's studied character portraits, he gets falling-down drunk because there's nothing left for him, and basically, the end. Oh, there's a little more detail than that, there are revelations at last about what really happened that summer of his childhood, there are even a couple of "twists" -- all in the last twenty pages. But this isn't a story to enthrall you. If anything enthralls you, it will be the words. Max Morden is a sad fellow who will depress you if you see anything of yourself in him, and thanks to Banville's writing, you probably will.


It was the end of one of these sad little galas displays that I had my first inkling of a change in Chloe's regard for me, or, should I say, an inkling that she had a regard for me, and that a change was occurring in it. Late in the evening it was, and I had swum the distance -- what, a hundred, two hundred yards? -- between two of the green-slimed concrete groynes that long ago had been thrown out into the sea in a vain attempt to halt the creeping erosion of the beach. I stumbled out of the waves to find that Chloe had waited for me, on the shore, all the time that I was in the water. She stood huddled in a towel, shivering in spasms; her lips were lavender. "There's no need to show off, you know," she said crossly. Before I could reply -- and what would I have said, anyway, since she was right, I had been showing off -- Myles came leaping down from the dunes above us on wheeling legs and sprayed us both with sand and at once I had an image, perfectly clear and strangely stirring, of Chloe as I had first seen her that day when she jumped from the edge of that other dune into the midst of my life.


The most resonant portion for me was the way Banville absolutely nailed childhood and first loves, awkward and not really romantic but, to a young teen's mind, epic in scope for all its small, mundane details, something that has never before happened in the history of the universe as far as the individuals involved are concerned, even though it's as common to the human experience as dirt.

Happiness was different in childhood. It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things -- new experiences, new emotions -- and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be the marvelously finished pavilion of the self. And incredulity, that too was a large part of being happy. I mean that euphoric inability to believe one's simple luck. There I was, suddenly, with a girl in my arms, figuratively, at least, doing the things that grown-ups did, holding her hand, and kissing her in the dark, and, when the picture had ended, standing aside, clearing my throat in grave politeness, to allow her to pass ahead of me under the heavy curtain and through the doorway out into the rain-washed sunlight of the summer evening.


But this isn't a love story, certainly not a story about a childhood love. Yes, that's part of the story, it's part of what builds Max's "pavilion of the self," and what turns him into the man he becomes. His relationship with Chloe is reflected in his adult life, not precisely duplicated, but just as he spends his summer with the Graces, a wealthy family who sort of "adopts" him, trying to escape his shabby life with his unloving mother embittered by the abandonment of his father, so he spends his adulthood clinging to a wife whose shady father leaves her enough money for him to be a dilettante scholar at her indulgence.

Yes, I was falling in love with Chloe -- had fallen, the thing was done already. I had that sense of anxious euphoria, of happy, helpless toppling, which one who knows he will have to do the loving always feels, at the precipitous outset. For even at such a tender age I knew that there is always a lover and a loved, and knew which one, in this case, I would be. Those weeks with Chloe were for me a series of more or less enraptured humiliations.


Oh yeah. Truth. Banville knows his characters, knows the messy, ecstatic, painful ways humans collide and intersect with one another rather than unite.

Again, it's a mistake to think this is a book about young love. There's very little that's sweet or heartwarming in The Sea.

And if all this made such an impression on me, why did I not like it that much? Because, again, all these moments, all this poignancy, all these marvelous prose illustrations, ultimately tell a story about a rather contemptible schmuck (he's not quite a bad person, certainly not evil, and has never done anything dramatic enough to be villainous or worthy of spite, but at the same time, he gives off just that slightest frisson of creepy nastiness to make you not want to like him), and it's a story that takes its slow, sweet time getting there, all at the end. Because this isn't a book about a story, it's a book about people and feelings and memory and love and death and that's all very nice, but I also want to feel a compulsion to keep turning pages to see what happens next -- yes, I want to be entertained -- so I'll be damned if that makes me too lowbrow for pure literary gold.

After reading this and The Tartar Steppe, I think I've read enough books about meandering do-nothings who realize they've wasted their lives at the end of it.

And the thing of it is, there are four other books by John Banville on the 1001 books list, and every one of them (from their summaries) looks more interesting than The Sea. I read the "also by John Banville" list in the back of The Sea, and he's written literary thrillers, historical fiction, and ghost stories, so obviously he can tell a story when he wants to. Except apparently he feels a need to go slumming under a pseudonym if he wants to tell a story that risks being tainted with a "genre" label.

So, that's an awful lot of teal deer about a writer who's left me ambivalent. I have had this reaction to other literary lions, like Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami, who did not impress me on my first encounter with their work, but left enough of an impression to keep me coming back for more. At some point, I know I'm going to give Banville another try, but honestly, I'm left wondering why an author who's so obviously talented won the Man Booker Prize for this novel in particular, which seems (based on my admittedly unfounded opinion since I haven't read any of his other stuff) to be his least impressive book, and it makes me cynical about assaying other books on the Man Booker list.


Verdict: Beautiful writing displaying mastery of the prose of human feelings and the picturesque in the mundane, but The Sea is full of characters you can't love and tells a story that's thin and all bound up in the last twenty pages. If you luuuuuurve capital-L Literary Fiction then definitely read this, but I am not sure this is the best book with which to be introduced to John Banville.

This was my fourth review for the books1001 challenge. We're up to 38 reviews out of 1001; come check out the other reviews, and help us read 1001 books by the end of the year!
Tags: books, books1001, john banville, literary, reviews
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