Max Morden visits the seaside town where he spent his summers as a child after the death of his wife. There he remembers the Graces, the family that introduced him to a world of feeling he'd never experienced before. Interwoven with this story are Morden's memories of his wife, Anna--of their life together, of her death.
"The kettle came to the boil and switched itself off and the seething water inside it settled down grumpily."
What Banville does better than any I can recall in recent memory is describe a setting such that it lives:
"I had never liked, even feared a little, this wild reach of marsh and mud flats where everything seemed turned away from the land, looking off desperately toward the horizon as if in mute search for a sign of rescue."
And his consideration of memory and human immortality:
"Which is the more real, the woman reclining on the grassy bank of my recollections, or the strew of dust and dried marrow that is all the earth any longer retains of her? No doubt for others elsewhere she persists, a moving figure in the waxworks of memory, but their version will be different from mine, and from each other's. Thus in the minds of the many does the one ramify and disperse. It does not last, it cannot, it is not immortality. We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations. I remember Anna, our daughter Claire will remember Anna and remember me, then Claire will be gone and there will be those who remember her but not us, and that will be our final dissolution. True, there will be something of us that will remain, a fading photograph, a lock of hair, a few fingerprints, a sprinkling of atoms in the air of the room where we breathed our last, yet none of this will be us, what we are and were, but only the dust of the dead."
There is also a reasonably good story imbedded in this novel, and Banville manages to keep the climax a secret longer than I thought he would. I was mildly disturbed by the matter-of-fact cruelty of the boy Max, especially toward animals, although these were but brief mentions that gave a sense of the coming-of-age of Max and his confusion, lust, shame, and longing. Near the end, I developed empathy and compassion for Max, as his grieving and vulnerable adult self searches for resolution and meaning. Maybe that is the way human development goes, yes? The cruel, but not mean, adolescent becomes a striving, lonely, and gentle adult.
In any case, read this one not for its insight into the human experience. Insight and meaning are adequately present, but the reason to read this one is Banville's elegant writing.
The sea of the title is probably death, figured recurrently by the actual sea in the coastal village of the story. The village was the site of a notable family vacation in his childhood, and there are thus four temporal orbits for his memory and attention: the childhood vacation, his marriage, his wife's terminal illness, and the present retreat for his grief.
There are some quasi-theological (atheological?) elements in the story, which opens with the declaration, "They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide" (3). Much later, Morden remarks, "I do not entertain the possibility of an afterlife, or any deity capable of offering it. Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him" (137). But there's no disbelieving in the sea.
Banville's prose deserves the awards that it has won. It is rich and revealing, and deeply personal, so that the unreliability of Morden's account is securely bound up with his cares and character. "I think I am becoming my own ghost," he says (144), and The Sea is certainly a novel capable of haunting readers.
Imagine strolling through a world famous art gallery and gazing at the paintings, many of which you already know so well from books or lectures. No doubt many of the paintings would have somber, dark themes, yet somehow the beauty of the art overwhelms, bringing forth awe, enthusiasm...even joy. That is the feeling that reading John Banville's Man Booker award winning novel, The Sea, was like for this reader.
Max Morden, the narrator, is not an easy character to understand or like. It is precisely his strangeness that keeps us reading. We live in his mind for the entire novel, yet somehow the reader can't quite come to terms with what makes Max the miserable, grieving, self-loathing, isolated man he appears to be.
By profession, Max is an art historian, apparently involved in researching and writing a scholarly book on Pierre Bonnard. But he thinks of himself as "a man of scant talent and scanter ambition." He is disappointed in life, disappointed in his daughter, and disappointed in himself.
After the death of his wife, Anna, Max returns to the only other place in his life where he felt a whole person: The Cedars, a seaside villa run as a boarding house. It was here, as a young boy, that he first experienced love and death. It is the intertwining stories of that time, the recent past, and the present that make up the story line of the novel.
Max is a man who dreams that he owns a typewriter without the letter "i." He prefers dispassionately to observe life. Banville gives us few glimpses of him actually participating in life. For Max, life passes before him like images on a tableau and people seem to exist for him alone and not in their own right. How odd, therefore, that he views himself as being made real only through people.
Max marries his wife because she gave him the chance to fulfill his fantasy of himself. He remembers her with great tenderness. Yet the only time in the novel where Max allows himself to rage against his loss is when you find him thinking: "you cunt, you fucking cunt, how could you go and leave me like this, floundering in my own foulness, with no one to save me from myself. How could you."
Usually, the reader is drawn positively to a protagonist. But with The Sea, the reader is drawn irresistibly to the beauty of the text. The reader falls in love with the words. One novelist, Nabokov, and two poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot, frequently came to my mind while savoring this book.
I read a library copy, but when I finished I bought my own copy. I look forward to reading this book again—like revisiting a favorite poem, or reviewing a grand painting, I am sure I will enjoy it completely anew.
Sometimes I read an acclaimed book and don’t enjoy it, which was the case with The Sense of an Ending, and I feel like the fault is mine – that I missed something, or that I wasn’t smart enough to appreciate it. Not the case with The Sea, which is boring, plain and simple. It’s mostly blather about Max’s boyhood crushes and sexual repression expressed in tiresome, pretentious prose:
One moment she was Connie Grace, her husband’s wife, her children’s mother, the next she was an object of helpless veneration, a faceless idol, ancient and elemental, conjured by the force of my desire, and then something in her had suddenly gone slack, and I had felt a qualm of revulsion and shame, not shame for myself and what I had purloined of her but, obscurely, for the woman herself, and not for anything she had done, either, but for what she was, as with a hoarse moan she turned on her side and toppled into sleep, no longer a demon temptress but herself only, a mortal woman.
I suppose Banville gets points for realism – reading The Sea is exactly as entertaining and enlightening as listening to an old man pontificate at length about sexual memories from his childhood. There’s also an unlikely ending to his childhood tales, a boring twist, and a non-climactic climax as where gets drunk on the beach. And I often wonder why authors who write in such overwrought prose style, and who insist on seeing deep portents in every glance and comment and plastic bag flying down the street, don’t stick to poetry.
On a final note, this was shortlisted alongside Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is the far superior novel. A shame, but neither the first nor the last time the Booker committee made a terrible decision.
Banville's The Sea is a wonderfully written story that would be story enough without the shocking surprise. I don't know what the function of the surprises is, aesthetically I mean. The deaths themselves reinforce the notion that even in (or especially in?) Arcadia, Death is usually found lurking. But the surprise of the deaths just jolted me and made me sad, unnecessarily, and the revelation of pointlessly hidden identity made me feel tricked. I don't know why a good captivating story should be defined by an event that comes without warning. The opposite seems truer to me. In a story, events are presaged, somehow, in retrospect.
I suppose Banville, who as his alter ego is a writer of thrillers and mysteries, has a fondness for that genre's plot line. For me, The Sea is the very heart of the genre of literary fiction, which has very little use for such plots. The real power of the book, I feel lies elsewhere.
The writing is lovely, on every page. This is what literature should be. But I find most works these days calling themselves literary fiction don't even come close to what Banville seems to do effortlessly. Once I got over the confusion of the ending, I went back to mull over what I really love about this book and I am grateful to Banville for having written it. There is so little out there worth the time. First I loved existing in the mind of this narrator, an authentic and enlightening experience. Novels ought to do this to us, for us, teach what it's like to be someone else, bestow on us greater powers of empathy. I didn't always like the narrator, Max (his hypersensitivity to odors, his cruelty to dogs and his insensitivity to his parents), but I understood what it was to be him and that's the point.
Max is grieving his wife's death, and wondering what death means in general. He meditates on the way in which people live on in the memories of those left behind, a consoling thought, until he adds that once those people die there is a second death of the first. The next offered solution to the perennially undefined dilemma of being human is successful self-expression. There is a universal desire to be known to another, that, if one could achieve it, would satisfy and make a life seem as if it had done something, done the thing it set out to do at last. Max admits, "I do not entertain the possibility of an afterlife, or any deity capable of offering it. Given the world he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him. No, what I am looking forward to is a moment of earthly expression. That is it, that is it exactly: I shall be expressed, totally. I shall be delivered, like a noble closing speech. I shall be, in a word, said." As a writer I am wholly sympathetic to Max's (Banville's?) ultimate desire.
It's important to note that this raising of self-expression as the highest attainable good comes after a description of the fall, when Max falls in love with Chloe (one of the twins), his other. "She was I believe the true origin in me of self-consciousness. Before, there had been one thing and I was part of it, now there was me and all that was not me. But here too there is a torsion, a kink of complexity. In severing me from the world and making me realize myself in being thus severed, she expelled me from that sense of the immanence of all things, the all things that had included me, in which up to then I had dwelt, in more of less blissful ignorance."
Sadly, we find that Max's relationship with his wife, as good as it gets as it was, lacked the kind of intimacy that would have reconnected him with another and the world. They didn't know each other, not in that full way that would have been a good substitute for the "immortality" of being remembered. They did not know each other in the way that a reader can when he or she shares the existence of a character in fiction. So I'm sad for Max in the end, but not too because he has been "said" in this book.
Bravo Banville. I did not need the shocking ending, but ultimately it did not distract from the beauty of this meditation on the meaning of completeness.
And it's more than merely pretty: Banville creates, in Chloe and her mute brother, Myles, and their parents of compelling, memorable characters, seen through the mists of memory, by a narrator too young to really understand them and too far removed from their elevated social standing to really be one of them. The adult members of the Grace household seem, to the narrator's inexperienced eyes, both sinister, mysterious, and somewhat debauched, while Banville catches the Grace children at a particularly vulnerable and formative moment and shows them grappling with adult issues from a point of view that can still seem limited and childlike. The story is, in some ways, familiar, but the emotional stakes here are enormous: what we get, in the end, is snapshots of their life. This seems fitting enough, since our narrator grows up to be a minor authority on painting: the works hard to capitalize on the narrative possibilities of a few memorable, well-composed images. "The Sea" is also a supremely sensual book, a sort of Lolita-in-reverse in which the narrator falls for one female character and then another and learns about the intoxicating power of attraction and sexuality along the way and as he generously withholds judgment from his younger self.
The only complaint I've got here is that while reading Banville's sparkling prose sometimes feels like looking at the world through a new set of eyes, there are elements of the book that feel somewhat familiar. Does every novel that wins the Booker have to include the a character that represents the fading, decrepit legacy of the British Empire? Also, while prose in "The Sea" flows easily and naturally, I could never quite forget that this book is, after all, a perfectly controlled performance: verisimilitude just isn't its strong suit. I imagine that anyone who's ever spent any time around the elderly, or read any Samuel Beckett, will recognize that most people's memories aren't so flawlessly composed or so lyrically expressed. At the end, the book's structure falls together as if it were, well, as if it were the novel that it is, and literature's big themes come charging in to finish things off. Readers who prefer realism will probably feel that "The Sea" is just a bit too much, impressive as it might be in some other ways. On the other hand, I imagine that readers who accept narrative's artificiality, or readers who just like feeling themselves under the spell of a supremely skillful writer, may end up placing "The Sea" on their list of all-time favorites.
You can open the book to almost any page and read beautiful, poetic language. As the narrator remembers a storm: "At last , I thought, the elements have achieved a pitch of magnificence to match my inner turmoil! I felt transfigured, I felt like on of Wagner's demi-gods, aloft on a thunder-cloud. . ." Or as he describes 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." Unfortunately the prose can also tend to be overwhelming in its gratuitous pretentiousness.
Inexorably the novel courses its way to the moment of climax and the explosion rocks the reader. The magnificence of memory juxtaposed with sometimes evocative prose makes this a wonderful book to read.
"The link between them was palpable. I pictured it as an invisibly fine thread of sticky shiny stuff like spider's silk, or a glistening filament such as a snail might leave hanging as it crossed from one leaf to another, or steely and bright, it might be, and taut, like a harp-string, or a garotte. They were tied to each other, tied and bound. They felt things in common, pains, emotions, fear. They shared thoughts. They would wake in the night and lie listening to each other breathing, knowing they had been dreaming the same thing. They did not tell each other what was in the dream. There was no need. They knew."
The story is told by Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has lost his vibrant wife to a year-long battle with cancer. In his grief and search for he knows-not-what, he returns to a small seaside resort where he spend time as a child, with is parents, and where he became involved with the socially superior Graces,: mother, father, the twins, and a governess named Rose. The story moves back and forth from the present to the past memories of summers with the Graces and life with Anna, his wife. So it is at the same time, a story about growing up, and growing old.
Through his grief for his wife, and in a sense a postponed grief for the twins, and the relationship with his only daughter, Max tries to come to grips with a sense of who he is, what is the meaning of love, and of loss, and how can he continue in the world. Max fears that he can define himself only through others, as he did as a child and as he did with Anna. Neither anchor survives, and he feels himself adrift. Thinking back on his marriage which, despite some ups and downs, he feels was successful, in its own way, he still, "cannot rid myself of the conviction that we missed something, that I missed something, only I do not know what it might have been.".
Life is very much what you make it, because there is nothing else: "I am not speaking here of a posthumous transfiguration. I do not entertain the possibility of an afterlife, or any deity capable of offering it. Given the world that he created, it wold be an impiety against God to believe in him" and, "We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations".
Individual lives and events can be a, "momentous nothing, just another of the great world's shrugs of indifference". So what defines these? What makes them important to the individual, the one who lives life before crossing over into the darkness of non-existence? Relationships. Love. Understanding.
There is a little twist at the end of the book which I found mildly dissatisfying. I thought it could have been introduced earlier and would have enriched the narrative even further. But this quibble aside, I enjoyed this book, and the writing, very much.
Banville writes not about but through his narrator, an art historian, and the language of The Sea reflects its protagonist's linguistic background. Every third page, I had to look up an obscure art or ocean word, such as craquelure or groyne, which would be casually tossed in as a descriptor. In fact, I eventually took to reading the novel while sitting under my laptop and an open page of dictionary.reference.com.
The prose of The Sea will draw in any reader, such as myself, who loves to linger over a poetic phrase. Many of the sentences in the novel are like sumptuous packages, and they often present the reader a depth of wisdom. Take, for example, this observation: "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 marvellously finished pavilion of the self."
Banville finds the fine balance between that exploration of the child and a revelation of the adult self. Occassionally reminiscent of high modernist stream-of-consciousness, The Sea considers the connection between all moments of life, with its tides and undertows of thought and understanding. I definitely recommend this quick and rewarding read and will set to diving through Banville's other works in the near future.
The Book Description: When Max Morden returns to the coastal town where he spent a holiday in his youth he is both escaping from a recent loss and confronting a distant trauma.
The Grace family appear that long ago summer as if from another world. Drawn to the Grace twins, Chloe and Myles, Max soon finds himself entangled in their lives, which are as seductive as they are unsettling. What ensues will haunt him for the rest of his years and shape everything that is to follow.
John Banville is one of the most sublime writers working in the English language. Utterly compelling, profoundly moving and illuminating, The Sea is quite possibly the best thing he has ever written.
My Review: The experience of reading Banville is akin to the experience of going to a whole museum dedicated to Renoir or Monet: At first, the awestruck lip-smacking chin-drooling moaning of readerly joy:
They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. (p3, Picador hardcover edition)
This gorgeous, sumptuous repast, this unsettling, foreboding atmosphere, this unbearably tense muscle in the brain MUST be leading to some cathartic, catastrophic release! There is a great change coming, there is something to contrast this soft and lovely tone, this unsettling beauty, this pastry cream in a pool of custard frosted with whipped cream with. Well, now:
Could we, could I, have done otherwise? 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? In those final bathroom paintings that Bonnard did of the septuagenarian Marthe he was still depicting her as the teenager he had thought she was when he first met her. Why should I demand more veracity of vision of myself than of a great and tragic artist? (p218, Picador hardcover edition)
And there it is, the catharsis. Sorta kinda, anyway. As much as you'll be getting, so take it and like it. There's a backstory to the catharsis, but it's all written in the ever-so-much of a writer's writing, and like the sugary sweetness of Renoir and Monet, in large doses it simply doesn't wear all that well. One longs for a smudge of dirt on the painting, or a misplaced modifier in the sentence, or even no modifier at all. But no. No indeed, there is no surcease, and therefore there is surfeit.
Now if the assembled company will pardon me, I am off to eat plain Zweiback, drink tap water, and stare at a blank wall for a while, until my senses are defatted.
The Sea, by John Banville, was the Man Booker prize winner in 2005. Understanably, it garnered massive praise. But it is a complex, often deadly cold tale that requires a detachment in the reader to fully appreciate the work and to step back to gather in its breadth. It also takes some patience, because Banville's brilliant writing is almost undone by his sophomoric use of names and symbols to underscore his meaning. To wit, the word "morden" in German means to kill or to end life, which is Max's apparent life-goal, at least as far as his own life is concerned. Giving the character the name "max" makes it only worse. The visiting family in the seaside resort are the Grace family -- the source of Max's fascination with daughter Chloe, her mother, and even the governess, Rose. Max indeeds finds grace in the lips and scent of Chloe, and in the upskirt views that her mother offers Max. And then there is the color blue which the author hits us repeatedly over the head with, blue as in sea, light, air, breath, etc
But that aside, Bannville offers a look into a character type that lives for that perfect moment of glee -- discovery, awareness, delight -- but then shuffles off into hiding when it realizes that extending the moment requires hard work, defeat, assertiveness, and, well, living. Max falls in schoolboy love with Chloe's mother, and reaches near ecstasy when she gives him a look at her private regions, but then feels instantly used, even taken advantage of. Same with Chloe, a nymph of the sea who he dislikes and bashes mere moments after he kisses her lips and declares his love for her.
Bu the again, he is that type of man. He aches for his own demise. He will not accept his dying wife's admonitions to just go out and live. He is eternally caught in a threesome, whether with the Graces, or Chloe and her twin, or even with his landlady and the aging fellow boarder. But stepping out of that role would nearly sicken him -- he is more a leech, a sucker (and harsh judger of life) than an active participant. Deep in his soul, at least as a youngster, he sought consummation, but found that consummation was complicated. In reading this book I wonder if Bannville is aiming at male egos, always eager for the hunt and the capture, but bored with the aftermath. Max is surrounded by big, powerful women, many of whom seem to know themselves (and can see through him). And he realizes very late that two of his apparent male "conquests" -- one with Mrs. grace and one with the aging landlady-- were simply elements of lesbian love that he just downright misinterpreted.
Three stars is the best I can do,
The writing was still beautiful. The blurb on the cover from the Daily Telegraph was not an overstatement: "They are like hits of some delicious drug, these sentences." I really enjoyed the descriptions, the rhythm of the prose, the unusual words, the constant freshness of the language.
The characters and plot, though, left me a little cold. In fact, it's been a few months since I read the book and already I can't remember much about the plot, which is a bad sign. I wasn't very interested either in the elderly narrator's current life or in the childhood reminiscence which make up the majority of the book. At times it is a moving meditation on loss and the passing of time, but I found myself wishing it would go somewhere. The "revelations" at the end of the book didn't really add much for me either. It ended up being a beautiful ride to nowhere in particular.
I still plan to read more books by John Banville, but to anyone wanting to try him out for the first time I would definitely recommend Birchwood over The Sea.
There has always been something diffident about Banville's books to me, or almost defiant, in how they refute the expectations of the general and generic reader. Those used to page-turning inducements (ie most of us) will find this hard work, like most of his stuff that I have read. God knows what his crime novels are like. But in that authorial rejection lies the stuff of art. Even if he uses some tricks he's used often before - the aged, unreliable narrator; arcane vocabularly; the delvings into art history - but to good effect.
My edition of this book is 263 pages long. I thought it was sub-mediocre by the time I was a hundred pages in, an impression that didn't really lift until I drew towards the end. Having just finished it, I think it must have been a beautiful, worthy winner of the 2005 Booker Prize. And I give it five stars here. Both equally meaningless appraisals. Such is the world.
Filled with reflection and sadness, this book was really quite amazing. The writing was beautiful, the images were so well crafted, the sentiments so human. Really worth the read.
One of the true pleasures to me is having a story that I have enjoyed end in a way that causes me to close the book in complete satisfaction. This book did just that. There have been many books over the years that leave you feeling vaguely dissatisfied - empty. To me, no matter how good the book as been, if it ends poorly, it will bump it's evaluation down. In this case, while it is not a 5 star in my opinion, it got the extra 1/2 star bump up because of the perfect ending. Very beautiful book.