I have a particular reason for reviewing this book just now, but you’ll have to wait until my next post to find out what it is.
After the death of his wife, art historian Max Morden returns to the Irish seaside village where he had holidayed with his parents as a child. There he reflects on his life, focusing on his wife’s death, but also on the events of the summer when he was caught up in the life of the Grace family who had also taken a house there. Max had a crush first on Mrs Grace, then on her daughter, Chloe. But that summer ended in disaster, and Max finds little peace in his contemplation of either the past or the present.
The decision to award the 2005 Man Booker Prize to The Sea was met with a very mixed reaction. Chair of the judges, John Sutherland, called The Sea ‘a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected’. Other critics praised the writing, one, for example, commenting on its ‘sensuous phrasing, and pungent observation of human frailty’, another on its ‘fastidious wit and exquisite style’ and another on its ‘grace, precision and timing’. But others were less complimentary, one saying that reading it was ‘more like sitting an exam than taking in a tale’, another that it was ‘a crashing disappointment’ – ‘self-indulgent, snooty and pretentious’.
A case can certainly be made against The Sea. It is a short book, in which nothing much happens; many people think a good novel should have rather more of a plot. When the climax of the summer holiday in the past is reached, it comes with almost no preparation, but instead of being shocking, it can be seen as simply silly. Readers are expected to pick up on all kinds of allusions. Max muses on the name of his wife’s doctor, Mr Todd; the reader is supposed without much evidence to recognise the allusion to Sweeney Todd the demon barber. Max pictures himself in a monastery; the reader is supposed to recognise the allusion to the fifteenth century painting of St. Jerome thought to be by Jan van Eyck. And the whole story is an echo of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, with two children, a governess and a fatal outcome. The boy in The Sea is even called Myles, presumably after Miles in James’s story. It is not clear how the reader is supposed to recognise the debt to James, but knowing there is one is important, as the outcome of the summer does make more sense if seen as a reference to The Turn of the Screw. Finally, there is the question of language. What one critic has called ‘Banville’s famously torrid affair with his thesaurus’ results in the use of a number of words that most people haven’t ever heard of, some of which aren’t even in a standard dictionary: for example horrent (bristling), leporine (characteristic of rabbits or hares) and caducous (of short duration, deciduous). Extending the reader is one thing; being pretentious is another.
But of course there is another side to this. The book is short, but seems exactly the right length. The plot is less important than Max’s observations, but preferring plot over style may be a personal preference. The structural transitions from present to recollection are ingeniously achieved. Max is pompous – but brilliantly so. Max the narrator is not Max the boy of the story; he has recreated himself. ‘How difficult it now is to speak as I spoke then,’ he notes. It is quite fitting that this older Max, the art historian (and he’s even changed his name) should deliberately choose to speak in pretentious language. He has in fact almost lost the ability to speak directly. For example, when he asks his grown up daughter whether she still has teddy bears – ‘Your lares familiares . . . I suppose you have them still, propped on your maiden couch’ – he reveals his total inability to relate to her. Only in the shocking cry of rage that his wife’s death has left him ‘with no one to save me from myself’ does the veil of self-protecting language slip aside. For all that he loved his wife, Max reveals himself to be totally self-centred – yet Banville manages to make him a sympathetic character, or at least one that has feelings that readers are likely to recognise in themselves. And there is admirably wry, black humour: after treatment for cancer, his wife’s hair had begun to grow back ‘in a half-hearted fashion, as if it knew it would not be needed for long’.
There is also the question inherent in any work based on recollection of childhood experiences: how are they remembered with such clarity? No doubt some particularly significant events do sear themselves into the adolescent brain, but retelling even these is at best an exercise in creative remembering. How, for example, does Max know, let alone remember, that it is gin in the glass Mr Grace is carrying when he first sees him? But Banville is aware of these traps: Max both is, and is not, alert to the problems of recollecting. Early in the story he notes that ‘henceforth I would have to address things as they are, not as I might imagine them’, but still notes later ‘a sense almost of panic as the real, the crassly complacent real, took hold of things I thought I remembered and shook them into its own shape’. And of course that ‘real’ isn’t real either; as Banville says, ‘The reader believes absolutely in the reality he’s reading about, while at the same time knowing it’s fiction – in other words, very well-wrought, convoluted lies’.
His advice to readers is that ‘In my books you have to concentrate, but I work hard to make it that, when you do, the rewards are quite high’. This, clearly, is a matter of opinion.
You can read more about him here.