[2 September 2005]
That author would be very good at crosswords.
—My mum on John Banville
No book has made me question my ability to distinguish great writing that John Banville’s Booker Prize nominated, The Sea. With reviewers singing its praises all over the world, noting specifically its astounding quality and Banville’s mastery of language, I fairly raced to find a copy, to discover these treasures for myself. As it turns out, my idea of literary gold is apparently quite different to the Booker judges, and guys like Lewis Jones from London’s Telegraph who labeled The Sea Banville’s “best novel so far”. I’m sure Banville’s book is that and more, but his storytelling style shuts out readers like myself who might expect a bit more action and involvement beyond flinging the book aside every few paragraphs to fetch the thesaurus. (For the record, I discovered while doing this that I’m not stupid; more hebetudinous.)
It began beautifully. “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide,” Banville writes, his initial paragraphs instantly captivating as they shape the narrator, Max Morden. In that masterful way of his, Banville immediately allows the reader a grasp on Max. He’s revisiting a time from his past, a house called the Cedars where he spent a summer as a child, getting to know the mysterious and charismatic Grace family, mother and father and children, Myles and Chloe. Max oversees his past in these early stages of the book, recalling with a kind of reserved melancholy how it was he ended up in the Grace’s lives that summer. And, more importantly, the present effects of that time:
So much of life was stillness then, when we were young, or so it seems now; a biding stillness; a vigilance. We were waiting in our as yet unfashioned world, scanning the future as the boy and I had scanned each other, like soldiers in a field, watching for what was to come.
There’s that mastery again; that control. Banville’s phrasing demands attention. Every single sentence is just like those quoted above, rich and textured, like glitter they simultaneously twinkle and flash and explode with significance. These sentences can be complex, stuffed to paragraph-length with visual and emotional description:
Behind him I could see all the way down the narrow garden at the back of the house to the diagonal row of trees skirting the railway line—they are gone now, those trees, cut down to make way for a row of pastel-colored bungalows like dolls’ houses—and beyond, even, inland, to where the fields rose and there were cows, and tiny bright bursts of yellow that were gorse bushes, and a solitary distant spire, and then the sky, with scrolled white clouds.”
Or they can be as simple and effective. “The past beats inside me like a second heart,” Banville writes at the close of Max’s initial reverie. In nine words, the author sums up just why Max is compelled to reflect, while evoking the novel’s entire theme.
These blissful moments, though, didn’t last. Following my swallowing-up of the book’s first 20 pages, I began to stumble. Those populated sentences became meandering and nonsensical near-poems filled with words I’d never seen before and became convinced no one had used in a hundred years. I’d close the book, turn off the lamp, and fall asleep with no knowledge whatsoever of what I’d read. It was horribly frustrating, not least of which the fact that I couldn’t convince myself otherwise that I wasn’t wasting my precious before-bed reading time, but that I couldn’t find those damn treasures promised to me by every review outlet ever invented. This was John Banville—I knew, though hesitated to admit, the problem was surely mine.
(I became further frustrated when, ranting to my mum that no one in the whole wide world knew what “velutinous” meant except bloody John bloody Banville, she turned to me and said, “Covered with fine hairs”. She said it, too, with an air of refinement, as though such a word were too beautiful to simply blurt out its meaning.)
But this is Banville’s style; to toss the reader in a room with a problem-soaked narrator as he attempts to sort shit out. The single-character narration with almost no other character dialogue is an effective technique. The reader and the narrator—Max, in this case—are entirely as one, experiencing everything simultaneously. There’s no way to jump ahead and no time to reflect on what’s been. Banville forces the reader to stay with him, to whirl and twirl through Max’s emotions as he pieces his story together. It’s up the reader to keep the hell up.
I couldn’t, not even at story’s end with the revelation of the event that affect Max so dramatically. When it finally arrives, it’s as powerful and mysterious as everything else in The Sea, but after so much slumping along to get there, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference if you, like me, haven’t quite grasped its meaning or the toll it all eventually takes on Max.
I did find myself scrutinizing Banville’s style in these closing moments, though, mainly because I was slightly drawn in, as, I realized, I had been during several key moments in the book. While I was left out of much of Banville’s consideration of theme—transformations, aging, death, memory, etc.—I was absolutely with the author when he described his daughter, for instance, and the culmination of Max’s obsession with Mrs. Grace. These, I’ve come to figure, were the moments I truly cared about Max and his experiences by the sea. I identified with him, with his longings and his fearless divulgence of his most private secrets and thoughts.
That, for me, is what this book is about. It’s a man’s confession of his humanness. I only wish I could state with Banville’s authority exactly how I came to such a conclusion. Lewis Jones says this is Banville’s best novel so far—take his word for it.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sea-2005/