The Sea by John Banville
John Banville writes beautiful prose, and his Booker prize-winning The Sea is no exception. Even those who disliked the book seem compelled to grant him that (Michiko Kakuktani excepted). In addition to a master of style, Banville also seems like a bit of a jerk:
'It is nice," said John Banville on Monday night, "to see a work of art win the Booker prize."
This, of course, moments after his book had won the Booker. An air of superiority is an expected sin with an artist, though not usually worn so openly as this. Is it deserved in this case?
Banville openly displays the breadth and depth of his intelligence in his writing, but a large vocabulary does not a great novel make (thus Kakutani's complaint that The Sea's narrator "talks like someone with a thesaurus permanently implanted in his brain"). The real question is whether Banville puts his words to worthy effect. The Sea is the second Banville novel I have read, having tangled with The Book of Evidence a couple years back. That novel, short-listed for the Booker, shares the lyricism of The Sea, but is notably more dark and dense, as one might except for a book narrated by a murderer from his jail cell.
The Sea has a more ethereal feel to it, much of it spent in self-conscious memories of the narrator's youth. Max Morden, recently widowed, has recently returned to Ballyless, the seaside village where his family summered when he was a child. He rents a room in a house called the Cedars, which in his childhood had been the vacation residence of the Grace family. After a brief, foreboding meditation on the sea, the narration begins with a foggy introduction to that family:
The first thing I saw of them was their motor car, parked on the gravel inside the gate. It was a low-slung, scarred and battered black model with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood steering wheel... The front door of the house stood wide open, and I could hear voices inside, downstairs, and from upstairs the sound of bare feet running on floorboards and a girl laughing. I had paused by the gate, frankly eavesdropping, and now suddenly a man with a drink in his hand came out of the house. He was short and top-heavy, all shoulders and chest and big round head, with close-cut, crinkled, glittering-black hair with flecks of premature grey in it and a pointed black beard likewise flecked. He wore a loose green shirt unbuttoned and khaki shorts and was barefoot. His skin was so deeply tanned by the sun it had a purplish sheen.
After this teasing glimpse the novel begins its jumbled and irregular rotation between three general timeframes: the youthful summer at Ballyless with the Grace family, the final months in the life of Max's wife Anna, and Max's present stay at the Cedars. The setting switches with little obvious structure, reflecting the troubled mind of the narrator in his struggles to make sense of the recent loss of his wife and the memories that haunt him.
It is only later that we get a fuller glimpse of the Graces: Carlo and Connie, their twin children Chloe and Myles, and Rose, the nanny (of sorts):
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 wind and tides to which their somewhat raffish presence lent a suggestion of the proscenium... Mr. Grace, Carlo Grace, Daddy, was wearing shorts again, and a candy-striped blazer over a chest that was bare save for two big tufts of tight curls in the shape of a miniature pair of widespread fuzzy wings... The blond boy, the swinger on the gate--it was Myles, I may as well give him his name--was crouched at his father's feet, pouting moodily and delving in the sand with a jagged piece of sea-polished driftwood. Some way behind them, in the shelter of the dune wall, a girl, or young woman, was kneeling on the sand, wrapped in a big red towel, under the cover of which she was trying vexedly to wriggle herself free of what would turn out to be a wet bathing suit.. I noticed too that the boy Myles was keeping sidelong watch, in the evident hope, which I shared that the girl's protective towel would slip. She could hardly be his sister, then.
Indeed, that is Rose, whose connection with the family is only vaguely conveyed. The remaining pair, Mrs. Grace and her daughter Chloe, the soon-to-be objects of Max's boyhood affections, are given more extended exposition over the course of the novel. Indeed, the greater portion of the book is spent in memories of that summer, rather than the more recent scenes involving Anna, or the present return to the Cedars.
At first blush this seems odd: why emphasize that the narrator is recently-widowed if the majority of the novel will be spent in the distant past, before he had met his wife? It appears that Max can only approach his recent loss cautiously, tangentially, and for brief moments. The physical return to Ballyless is accompanied by a psychological return to the summer of his youth, which is basically just an escape from his grief and loss: a physical escape from the home he shared with his wife and a psychological escape from thought of her death. As the story of what happened that summer in Ballyless unfolds, it becomes clear why those particular memories remain especially vivid, and why they are brought to the front of his mind by the recent loss of his wife. Interspersed in this extended recollection are the fragments of Max's raw feelings about his wife's death as they bubble to the surface, the memory of his last months with her, and the state he has been left in by her death and his flight to Ballyless.
This study on the motives and machinations of memory is interesting and largely successful. It does seem to this reader that Banville's vocabulary, while no reason for the scorn heaped by Kakutani, unnecessarily weighs down the text. Banville is right to resist the anti-intellectual populist tendency to dumb everything down, but his overcompensation places esotericism on an undeserved pedestal of its own. This book is worth the effort, but bring your thesaurus.