Booker Prize-winning author John Banville presents a sensitive and remarkably complete character study of Max Morden, an art critic/writer from Ireland whose wife has just died of a lingering illness. Seeking solace, Max has checked into the Cedars, a now-dilapidated guest house in the seaside village of Ballyless, where he and his family spent their summers when he was a child. There he spent hours in the company of Chloe and Myles Grace, his constant companions. Images of foreboding suggest that some tragedy occurred while he was there, though the reader discovers only gradually what it might have been. While at the Cedars, he contemplates the nature of life, love, and death, and our imperfect memories of these momentous events.
As Max probes his recollections, he reveals his most intimate feelings, constantly questioning the accuracy of his memory, and juxtaposing his childhood memories with his recent memories of his wife Anna's "inappropriate" illness and her futile treatments. Through flashbacks, he also introduces us to his earlier life with Anna and his fervent hopes that through her he could become someone more interesting. "I was always a distinct no-one, whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone," he says, confessing that he saw her as "the fairground mirror in which all my distortions would be made straight."
More a meditation than a novel with a strong plot, The Sea brings Max to life (as limited as his life is), recreating his seemingly simple, yet often profound, thoughts in language which will startle the reader into recognition of their universality. To some extent an everyman, Max speaks to the reader in uniquely intimate ways. In breathtaking language, filled with emotional connotations, he captures nature in perfect images, often revealing life as a series of paintings--"a Tiepolo sky," a hair-washing scene reminiscent of Duccio and Picasso. He objectifies his thoughts about memory through Pierre Bonnard's many portraits of "Nude in the Bath," paintings of Bonnard's wife in which she remains a young girl, even when she is seventy years old. Images of the bath and the sea pervade the novel--cleansing, combined with the ebb and flow of life.
Lovers of plot-based novels with snappy dialogue may find that the lack of external action and the novel's focus on the interior battles of an ordinary man of about sixty fail to engage their interest. Other readers, who may have faced the deaths of family or friends and recognized the limitations of memory, however, may see in Max a kindred spirit to whom they respond with empathy. I have rarely read such a short book so slowly--or reread with pleasure so many passages of extraordinary beauty and import--and I felt a connection with Max that I have never felt before in any of Banville's previous novels. I loved this novel. n Mary Whipple
Once in a while a novelist totally captures the reader with his exquisite, finely wrought language. John Banville in THE SEA, the recent winner of the Booker Prize, is just such a writer. If you are not careful, you will be so taken by the beauty of his words, that you may miss the nuances of meaning so important to fitting all the parts of his story together.
The narrator is Max Morden, an Irishman who a year after the death of his wife, returns to a town by the sea where he spent his summers over 50 years ago and fell under the spell of the Grace family, composed of the mother, father and twins: Chloe and Myles, a strange young lad who has never spoken. In a style reminiscent of Proust, Thomas Mann, Henry James and the best of Edmund White, Banville's narrator goes from the summers in the past to the recent "plague year" of his wife's terminal illness to the present where he rents a room in the Cedars, where once the Graces lived, and is now inhabited by the mysterious Miss Vavasour, the current landlady, and her only other tenant, the Colonel.
You can open the book to almost any page and read beautiful, poetic language. On our memories of our youth: "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 the field, watching for what was to come." Or on Banville's description of the sea: "Down here, by the sea, there is a special quality to the silence at night. I do not know if this is my doing, I mean if this quality is something I bring to the silence of my room, and even of the whole house, or if it is a local effect, due to the salt in the air, perhaps, or the seaside climate in general."
I would have been content if this novel had just been about Morden's musings on first love, the inexactitude of memory, the taking care of and losing in death of a wife far too early, the mild sorrow of what he might have done differently-- he opines that if Bonnard, the artist whom he is attempting to write about, didn't have all the answers then neither should he: "Why should I demand more veracity of vision of myself than of a great and tragic artist? We did our best, Anna [his wife] and I. We forgave each other for all that we were not." Many a decent writer would have let it go at that. Banville does not. In the last few pages of this small novel, he delivers at least three body blows that the reader-- at least this one-- was not prepared for. Looking back, I see that the writer does drop clues along the away about the possible ending. Read carefully or Mr. Banville will take your breath away.
on January 28, 2006
Grieving for his dead wife, Anna, the recently widowed - widowered? - art critic Max Mordern returns to the seaside village where he passed the summers of his childhood. He doesn't move into the old family chalet, but rather into a room of the large holiday house once occupied by the wealthy family of his childhood friend, Chloe Grace. There he's supposed to be writing about the artist Bonnard, but instead - or perhaps as well - pens a meditation on the past, exploring the nature of memory and loss... Sounds depressing, but this novel actually made me laugh out loud several times. Banville virgins coming to this direct from the Man Booker winners list might find the absence of a compelling plot off-putting, not to mention the knowingly unreliable narration and the lurking sense that the reader is being elaborately toyed with - especially in the final pages where melodramatic revelations are self-consciously, almost wryly, deployed. It isn't you. It's Banville. As David Mehegan reported recently in the Sydney Sun Herald, most of Banville's novels are like this: relatively thin in terms of plot, scene and dialogue, and virtually all of them are told in the first person by a more or less dislikeable male narrator in an overwrought, lyrical style. His tormented men see everything, and what they see and think unrolls in dazzling verbal pyrotechnics, thick with arcane words and startling metaphors (you'd best keep a dictionary handy). Mehegan quotes other critics as saying that Banville does stretch the reader at times, looking for exactitude and precision, always searching for the mot juste. At its most intense, there is a kind of preciousness in his work. When it's most liberating it reveals the resources of the language and how much is going on in things that look like still life: the light coming in the window, someone sitting in a chair. For some readers, it's not the style that's a problem but the want of traditional novelistic elements. Banville's response to this complaint: "I'm not really interested in fiction. I don't regard the novel as a very interesting art form." Asked if that means that his books aren't novels or aren't interesting, he says, "If I had the choice of what kind of artist I would be, it would be a composer or a painter, but I have no skill whatsoever." That's perhaps the best way to think of "The Sea" and most other Banville novels: as something akin to a painting or a piece of music. The thrill isn't in the tale, but in the exquisitely rendered details. It takes some getting used to, but once you know what to expect - once you work out that the artful pomposity is a deliberate function of the character-narrator, and not a failing of the author - then Banville's work is amazing. Lovers of language will adore it. Lovers of plot will be dozing. Lovers of Dan Brown will be furious - which is a nice change, considering they're usually so infuriating.
on September 22, 2006
John Banville's The Sea has had such a profound effect on me that I have decided to write my first Amazon review. I picked it up out of curiosity, knowing it had won the 2005 Booker Prize and it has lived up to its prize-winning reputation.
I have rarely, if ever, had the pleasure of reading such beautifully constructed prose. It's almost poetic at times. The words paint an image, meticulously shaded by simile and metaphor, that haunts the reader, much as the memories of the protagonist haunt him. And the sea of the title is a presence on every page, whether it is mentioned in the text or not. At times you can feel the language rolling across its undulating surface. It's this feeling which propels you on.
I found it to be a moving treatise on loss, grief and the way we deal with it. At the same time, it offers a glimpse at the way memories can bend and fracture until one can't distinguish between what one remembers and what one thinks one remembers.
The comparisons to Nabokov's style have been made about Banville for quite some time, but I'll add a comparison to Virginia Woolf here, particularly with To the Lighthouse, based on the vivid descriptions, keen observations and strong internal monologue.
I'd recommend it for fans of The Lovely Bones, as well, for the way it shows a character dealing with tragedy and grief.
on May 25, 2006
_The Sea_ is quite a bit like Virginia Woolf's _To the Lighthouse_ in conception & also in its relatively prolix use of language. As in Woolf's masterpiece, "Several times on every page the reader is arrested by a line or sentence that demands to be read again," as _The Sunday Telegraph_ says. I found this to be true in the first half of _The Sea_ as I grew used to Banville's distinctive style. By the second half of the book my interest began to wane in Max Morden's itinerant consciousness, no matter how extraordinary Banville's way with words. Either I was not in the mood for a relatively pretentious old man's often sexual stream of consciousness (which, believe me, I am definitely open to) or something is missing in Banville's equation. It could well be a combination of the two. I find that what _To the Lighthouse_ has that _The Sea_ doesn't is soul. One is never far from passion with Woolf, whereas in Banville it seems Morden is in the midst of a lifelong search for something to be passionate about. Again, this could be gripping, but in Banville's hands it ends up seeming like so much finely-wrought blather by the end.
And the end is about as overwrought and predictable as high modernist style gets. I think I've read more or less the same ending in maybe five or so other novels. Not as "innovative" as some would have you think. Some critics and writers complained when Banville won the Booker, saying something like a book this difficult shouldn't win a major award. That piqued my interest, 'cause sometimes the more difficult the better. It's not its difficulty that should have held it back from the Booker; it's more like the fact that the life ebbs out of it by mid-point. A novel like that should never win a major award and there were plenty of novels last year that managed to keep life in their pages through to the end.
One of the highlight reviews anticipated a view like mine, and I can acknowledge that this book could be someone else's cup of tea, specifically someone who has gone through the death of a significant other. Still, though I've never lost a significant other to death, I know a writer can do a lot better than this. We only get to certain parts of Max Morden's psyche, not what Robert Olen Butler would call his "white hot center." I can't help but think that this has something to do with Banville's use of his skills.
on May 23, 2006
_The Sea_ is a beautifully written book, but one that ultimately left me cold. It follows the narrative of Max Morden, who returns to the seaside resort where he spent many childhood summers after his wife dies of cancer. As he descends further and further into isolation and alcoholism, he ponders his wife's recent death of cancer (and the way she often seemed to reject what comfort he had to offer toward the end) and a childhood tragedy, the exact nature of which we only learn at the end of the book. Some time is also devoted to his rather unsatisfactory relationship with his daughter Claire, toward whom he is sometimes surprisingly emotionally cruel (e.g., making unkind comments about her single state, blaming her for not being more present during her mother's illness even though the circumstances were somewhat beyond her control) and his relationship with the other boarder in the house and the proprietress.
Since this novel follows the inner story of a man who ultimately seems to be evaluating his own perceived failures, on some level, it is slightly reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro's _The Remains of the Day_, but it is nowhere near as compelling. Whereas the reader of _The Remains of the Day_ cannot help but pity Stevens for his frustrating emotional blindness and his all-too-late realization of what he has missed in life, Max Morden is too self-satisfied to be particularly compelling; he recognizes his weaknesses, to be sure, but you don't get the feeling that they wound him to core. And there is no particularly compelling epiphany in this book, in my view.
I was also a little bothered by the stuffiness of Max's inner voice, and by his only partially explained meteoric rise in class position. His wife's family had money, to be sure, but her father was an underworld type figure, and Max himself was from a working-class background. How in the world does Max wind up as an upper-middle class elite writing a scholarly book on Bonnard? Do writers always have to write about writers?
In short, while I certainly admire Banville's writing style, I did not find myself particularly caught up in the tale being told, and I can't imagine this is a book I will return to again and again.
Much of the criticism of this wonderful book accuses Banville of being pretentious, his language overblown. But that is to miss the point of the style. Mr. Banville respects his readers and doesn't dumb down his prose. His narrator Max uses obscure words because he is a writer and is himself fascinated by words. In one case, almost as an aside, Max admires a particularly well used word. Like Graham Swift, Banville makes the reader stretch his mental muscles. And get rewarded.
This book is a reverie, an internal meander through the past, near and far. The present kindles memories of his recent devastation, which leads to a pivotal summer from the past, which leads to his family's history, which leads back to the present. And with a logical twist in the final pages. I loved this book and was so glad when it won the Booker. He was due.
on November 18, 2006
John Banville finally won the Man Booker prize in 2005 with this beautifully crafted and brief novel (nearly a novella) about the pleasures and sorrows associated with the play of language, memory and secrecy. Although Banville is often considered a literary descendant of Nabokov, with his love of rich mellifluous language and obscure diction, he might be more comfrotably compared to other great Irish writers such as James Joyce and Elizabeth Bowen, who also share Banville's evident pleasure at (and grace with) the pliancy and luxury of words. THE SEA might be an expected, yet disappointing choice for winning Banville the Booker, given that its plot so closely apes the structure of one of the most crowdpleasing of all narrative arcs of highbrow fiction from the last forty years. Here yet again, a disappointed elderly narrator looks back to the magical encounter in childhood that forever fired the imagination but also implicated him (or her) in guilt when it led inevitably to a terrible and deadly error. Banville's is an odder variant of this formula -- which goes at least as far back as L. P. Hartley's THE GO-BETWEEN, and was recently repeated in Ian McEwan's much loved ATONEMENT -- in the fundamental dislikeability of all his major characters, a Banville trademark. This causes the stakes of the life-changing incident, and its effect upon the narrator, to seem much less shattering than in Hartley's or McEwan's novels; the repetition of the formula also makes this novel seem much less fresh than in Banville's other works (which often are similarly concerned with the encounters between cruelty and innocence). But Banville is always worth reading if only for his grace with language and with narrative construction: THE SEA is, as usual, beautifully crafted in every formal sense.
on January 17, 2006
When this book won the Man Booker prize in England late last year, there were dissenting opinions among the panel of judges. In fact, after the announcement that 'The Sea' had won, one of the disagreeing judges was quoted in the press that the choice by the majority of the panel had been "perverse."
John Banville, in an oblique response to that slur, stated during his acceptance speech that he congratulated the committee for having the courage to select a novel with good writing this year (I paraphrase). This may have been a comment also on the other nominees last year, among them 'Saturday' and 'Never Let Me Go' (I happen to agree with that assessment).
There may be a bit of truth to both sides of that prize skirmish. This novel is a narrative with a weak story line. It is more a stream of consciousness reminiscence and pondering of the past than a novel with a plot. As such, it is a bit static, since nothing much happens outside of the first person singular main character's thought process. However, the observations that he makes about his life are so touching and so profound that one becomes as involved in his life as with an engaging memoirist. The sentences are constructed as carefully as lines of poetry, the words conveying beauty as well as emotional insights.
Approach this book as you would a gourmet meal--ingest it slowly and savor every sentence. And if you go back for seconds and read it again, you'll pick up scents and textures you missed the first time.
Go for it. The calories are worth it here.
on January 11, 2006
Books like this are a dying breed. Banville was half expecting his manuscript of 'The Sea', his 14th novel, not to be published at all after a long back catalogue of novels that only sold two to three thousand copies apiece. He was known as a difficult and wordy prose stylist, totally obscure. Then in October last year 'The Sea' won the Booker prize, guaranteeing it instant media attention, and several critics claimed the choice of winner would ruin the status of the Booker indefinitely, given its verbosity, its lack of plot, its supposed inaccessibility.
The Sea sits firmly in that quiet, reflective erudite continental tratition of intelligent literature - early Nabokov, Proust, some Joyce, Beckett. There is very little dialogue. It achieves its affect by a slow, drip of meditative prose craft. The narrator, Max Morden, is an almost post human entity, a ghostlike man, focusing his attention intently on the aesthetic details around him and his memories of the past at the Irish seaside town he revisits. Some of the details are conjoured up beautifully, a wet swimming costume, for instance 'lying where she had tossed it, limply wadded and stuck along one wet edge with a fringe of sand, like something thrown up drowned out of the sea.' Some of the details are beautifully evoked, but come across as rather strainingly artificial, try this: 'The steel milk churns looked like squat sentries in flat hats, and each one had an identical white rosette burning on its shoulder where the light from the doorway was reflected.' Does reflected light really shine like a rosette? It is, nevertheless, a beatifully crafted image. Some of the imagery I did find too false, especially Banville's over attatchment of the colour blue to things. Is mud really blue? Is smoke in a room really blue?
Banville is also a stylist who deals with language, he loves the shape, the sound, the formation of words. Much of the vocabulary is arcane - 'cracaleured', 'ichor', 'cinereal' anyone? I referred to my OED frequently throughout. However this is not the pretentious thesaurus abusing of some other contemporary wannabe literary novelists. Banville really is an experienced master with his self proclaimed 'Hibo-English' and readers who take the time to absorb the patterns and thoughts he evokes on the page will find it a treat.
Many people will pick up this novel, fail to see what all the fuss is about, and return to their familiar slush piles of middle brow fiction. However the prestige attatched to 'The Sea' has deservedly raised Banville's profile, for so long underrated, in the literary world. The Sea is his best novel so far and he has reached the peak of his powers as a prose stylist. It is a shame that his next novels are apparently to be pulp detective fiction written under the pseudonym 'Benjamin Black'.