John Banville’s The Sea

“Tenants of the house
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season”

– T. S. Eliot, ‘Gerontion’

Imagine that you’re sitting at home with the window open and someone next door is trying to tune an old transistor set – the kind without presets where you had to turn the dial to find the station every time you wanted to change. The sounds of old, vaguely familiar tunes waft in on the twilight air, interrupted by bursts of static. Whoever is tuning this thing does not seem to be content with a single station – he switches restlessly between one and the other. You sit there, unable to tear yourself away, your heart filling with sweet nostalgia, the constant switching between stations seeming sometimes magical, sometimes plain irritating.

That’s what reading John Banville’s novel The Sea is like. The Sea is a long, beautiful ramble, a celebration of nostalgia, a lyrical exploration of the thoughts of an old man who has nothing left but his memories. It is a melancholy sonata of two alternating themes, both in minor key, their grief as genteel and stifling as a room rented for the summer.

The narrator of the book is one Max Morden, a sometime art critic and self-confessed dilettante, who has returned to the seaside scene of his childhood summers in a vain attempt to escape the grief of his wife’s recent death. Safely installed in a guesthouse in an out of the way resort, Max spends his time drinking Napoleon brandy and brooding on the past. In particular, his memories focus on two seperate episodes – events leading up to and away from the recent death of his wife; and his friendship with the Grace children (whose house, Cedars, he now lives in) when he was about ten years old. These two events (both sources of sorrow) thus become the parantheses between which Max’s entire life stands isolated. Free associating between them in the anchorless, sometimes incoherent way that old men have, Max is brought face to face with his own insecurities – with the unavoidable question of what his life has meant and whether (coming from a poor background) his entire life has not been merely a feeble attempt to play out a role that he always thought beyond him. At an intellectual level, Max rejects the whole idea of having regrets over one’s life. Banville writes: “Could I have lived differently? Fruitless interrogation. Of course I could, but I did not, and therein lies the absurdity of even asking. Anyway, where are the paragons of authenticity against whom my concocted self might be measured?”. But the voice of the novel is the voice of a man telling himself the old stories over and over again in the hope that he’ll come to believe that it could not have happened any other way.

The Sea is an extremely well written book. Banville’s tone is at once erudite and finicky (see my post about the vocabulary he effortlessly commands) and eloquently direct. It is the voice of some dignified schoolmaster, picking his words carefully, so that each one will carry weight. There is a great deal of genuine poetry in this book (consider for example: “In those endless October nights, lying side by side in the darkness, toppled statues of ourselves, we sought escape from an intolerable present in the only tense possible, the past, that is, the faraway past. We went back over our earliest days together, reminding, correcting, helping each other, like two ancients tottering arm-in-arm along the ramparts of a town where they had once lived, long ago”) and the scenes are often well imagined. There are also, specially towards the end, moments when Banville, writing the thoughts scudding through Max’s head, switches naturally and effortlessly between one narrative and another, confounding past and present, recent past and faraway past. This is a neat trick, and Banville does it more impressively than most.

If there is a problem I had with the novel, it was that Banville’s dry, precise tone seemed to insulate the novel from any real passion. The dominant note of the novel is not so much grief, but tiredness, so that it is hard (at least for me) to connect the narrator of the novel with a widower so grief-stricken that he must get drunk every night just to keep himself going. This may, of course, be part of Banville’s point, that passion, beyond a certain age, gives way to a sort of tired bitterness, a sense of defeat that must be fought against but cannot be overcome. But it robs the novel of much of the emotional impact it could have had, so that you come away from the novel more impressed than moved.

One reason for this might be that Banville, in choosing to write with the kind of exacting detail he does, ends up sacrificing many of the grander themes of the book. The main points of the plot are barely sketched in – we are told a little (though not much) about his wife’s death, but almost nothing about their life together; the metaphor of the sea, which skirts the novel throughout as a distant presence, returns strongly only in the final pages, like a tide swirling into shore. It is both one of the greatest achievements of this book and one of its acutest disappointments that Banville, like a good miniaturist, progresses from scene to scene, painting each in exquisite detail but paying little attention to the broader sweeps of his brush that the landscape makes possible. In this he is trying, perhaps, to be more true to the nature of human memory, as well as hoping that the subtle nuances of these specific memories, these minutiae of the past, will serve as microcosms of the larger story (a hope that is, in my opinion, only partly realised).

The Sea is also an exacting book, requiring patience and concentration if one is to discover it’s pleasures. For much of the book, the two narratives (Max as a boy playing with the Grace children, and Max in the present and recent past) seem to have almost nothing to do with each other, so that the overall effect is as if Banville had written two short stories and mixed them together at random (could it be that that is what Max is trying to do – deliberately picking a memory so remote that by thinking about it he can cauterize himself from any thought of his wife?) – it is only when you get to the end that you see the connection. There is also a strong sense of deja vu in the novel – the book, while beautifully written, has very little by way of plot that is startlingly original – so that reading it you have the constant impression of having read something very similar someplace before. There is a strong sense here of the kind of exaggeration that memory is capable of – the description of the Graces seems overblown, almost caricature-ish, but for all that it is truer to the way an aging man would remember the memories of his childhood.

Bottomline: The Sea is an interesting read, a superb exploration of the nature of memory and a wonderful evocation of the thoughts of an old man trying to deal with both the ghosts of his past and his more recent sorrows. It was a book I enjoyed, though was not particularly moved by.

Should it win the Booker (I say should and not will – I have no interest in speculating politics)? It’s difficult to say. I would probably pick it over the Ishiguro (though I worry that that might just be because I’ve never read Banville before) but not having read the other novels (yet) I can’t speak for those. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be shocked if it didn’t win.