The Sea – John Banville

26 October 2010
First half of Part 1…
… or slightly beyond the first half. Our man – we’ve found out he’s called Max, and he writes art history books – is a mess. Ok, it isn’t his fault that his wife has just died of cancer, because the blame for that has to lie with John bloody Banville, but he’s self-centred, unlikeable, seeking solace in a past that leaves at least as much to be desired as the problematic present. I suppose we can blame Banville for that as well if we want to: he wants a mise-en-scene that will offer Max as many opportunities as possible for those strings of downbeat adjectives he loves so much, and will put him in those awkward situations you always get in novels like this when, ignoring all sensible advice, people go back.

I read the testimonials on the back cover and wish I hadn’t. Banville is ‘in total control of his craft’, ‘one of the great fictional stylists…’. Ho-hum. So we get different time-lines, with the bereaved Max in the seaside boarding-house in autumn thinking back to a composite set of images of summers spent nearby in childhood. Or to the more recent past: discovering the truth of his wife’s illness, dreaming of this place, returning with his daughter to check it out. He – Max – writes in a self-consciously literary style, and we come up against the constant problem of the first-person narrative: is the overwrought prose a feature of the narrator’s search for order? Or is this simply the way Banville writes?

Examples. ‘Are there coincidences in Pluto’s realm, amidst the trackless wastes of which I wander lost, a lyreless Orpheus?’ This is fairly early on, and I remember finding it indigestible whatever its purpose. Is the grim humour better? Having referred to someone walking over his grave in the first chapter (not that this book has anything so bourgeois as chapters), we later get, ‘I shivered. Another time whole church-yardsful of mourners traipse back and forth’ over the same spot. This is better because it’s in a chapter in which he can’t imagine his daughter’s pain to be anything like his own. When she tells him she’s suffering too, well, ‘It depends, I said mildly, what you mean by suffering.’ We aren’t supposed to like this man. His self-centredness is all-consuming. But I still bet that Banville rather likes sentences like ‘Against a blackening vault of sky the seabirds rose and fell like torn scraps of rag.’ Style, Craft. And I promise I won’t quote any more.

In the sections in which Max is deep inside the past, Banville does that clever thing in which single remembered episodes stand for a whole summer or string of summers; or a generalisation about, say, the way his mother pushes herself through the shallow water of a lagoon morphs into a single incident that crystallises her problematic relationship with her husband in a single detail of behaviour. Because, of course, it’s not going to be anything other than problematic. His father only spends evenings and weekends by the sea and is in a constant fury that he has to work during the day in the nearby town. He’ll bugger off to England soon, Max tells us. What else would he do in a novel like this? It gives Banville the opportunity to turn it into an aspect of Max’s pessimism: that’s what men did in those days. Still is.

His own family isn’t the main focus of his reminiscences. There’s the Grace family – Banville likes names, so as the town is Ballymore the seaside village must be Ballyless – who seem to offer a window on to a more exciting kind of life. They don’t really, of course, as the adult Max is quick to let us know: they’re just a couple of rungs or so higher up the class ladder. But to the boy – he decides he must have been eleven – they are exotic. And, in the first of several encounters with the opposite sex that he finds himself telling us about, absolutely none of which is straightforward, he falls in love with Mrs Grace. The adult Max has the child focusing on her flesh in its swimsuit, where there are curves and swellings, where the shadows in armpits carry meanings for the prepubescent boy. There’s the father, the hairiest man even the adult Max can ever remember seeing, a son whose party trick is to show off his webbed feet, a sister, and another, older girl both boys try to catch illicit glimpses of as she changes on the beach.

Banville doesn’t do rose-coloured glasses, obviously. And the child’s world is father to the man’s world he also tells us about. Since his wife’s death he finds his own body disgusting: the seedy corporeality of every aspect of human life feels almost rotten to him now. Meanwhile he finds even his mediocre creativity – he lets us know it’s mediocre, as you’d expect – has completely dried up. He can’t get any of the work done that he’s brought with him, finds little to help him whatever time-line he’s on. There are things to admire… but, shit, the relentlessness is bloody relentless.

28 October
To the end of Part 1
Words, words, words. This most verbose of narrators is telling us stories rendered in lovingly arranged series of deftly cadenced pronouncements. Sentences in which, surely, the adjective-count reaches double figures go together with sonorous adverbial phrases to build layer after metaphorical layer of meaning – I can remember at one point imagining our man flinging gobbets of verbiage at a scene just to see which bits might stick – and to create a personal mythology in which gods cavort and the ordinary facts of growing into adolescence become the stuff of cosmic upheaval.

I’m wondering what John Banville thinks of it all. Specifically, I’m wondering why in his narrator’s story of the almost embarrassingly intimate relationship he begins to have with the Grace family nobody uses words beyond what is needed for the most basic of interactions. All the important stuff is as a more primal, or primeval level where the senses are paramount and if the brain has any function at all it’s secondary to the important stuff. Shit, one of the family members is a mute, and likes nothing better than to play-act different animal behaviours. It goes without saying – and this is part of the narrator’s lazy, unquestioning cynicism if not Banville’s – that all children are savages and in adulthood only sex matters.

Another thing about words. Three of this novel’s mainstays are sex, cancer and death. I might be wrong – I often am – but as far as I remember he never uses these words. Instead, we get those gobbets of verbiage. Who is he trying to convince? Himself?

Whatever. The narrator’s disgust with everything human becomes more pronounced with each new incident. Most of this section takes place in the remembered summer when the Graces came, and when he realises that the sister and brother are twins, he finds the idea revolting: he imagines how shockingly intimate they were before birth and, well, he can’t help thinking about where they’ve been together. And this is all luridly connected with the magnetic pole of all his imaginings: their mother’s sexual centre. It’s a word the adult narrator never uses, sexual. Instead, he does that verbiage thing in which the boy’s fevered imagination leads to quite graphic images of intimate contact that do not actually involve sex. How could they in 1950s Ireland, where a boy doesn’t even know what sex is? Ok, we get the obligatory view of a copulating couple in the dunes, but he still can’t work out the mechanics of it.

Occasionally I wondered whether all this should be treated as a kind of black comedy. Our man is feeling tragic, and the only way he can get this across is go for hyperbole which often, if you choose to read it that way, becomes preposterous. This thing with the gods, for instance. Our man has them departing in the novel’s opening sentence, and you could say this sets both the mood and the overwrought, self-obsessed (and self-important) tone. It would work as satire – but only, I suppose, if you were sure that’s how the author means it. And I wouldn’t be writing about it in this way if I was sure.

Anyway. The time-lines are all over the place, like everything else in our man’s life. He finds some sort of order in concentrating on particular days or vivid periods in his life. (The non-vivid periods aren’t mentioned at all. Most of the 50 or so years since the summer he describes are a complete blank.) We get the courtship and marriage. Anna, his wife, he describes as completely remarkable. She has a kind of comedy father, a self-made something or other who is as tiny as she is tall and statuesque. (What is it with fathers in this novel? Mr Grace is goat-like, practically feral in his physicality.) Later, at the end of Part 1, we get the measure of Max’s self-disgust. He doesn’t want to recognise the man he sees in the mirror.

Between these two, the beginning and end of his marriage, he presents us with the set piece of the Picnic. He’s back in that summer – I told you the time-line was all over the place – and he wants to represent the day as pivotal. So he brings all his powers to bear on a long and detailed description of it. Nothing surprising happens. I don’t know whether this is because between them Max and Banville have prepared the ground so thoroughly – Max has already told us it’s when his intense but short-lived desire for Mrs Grace comes to an end – or because it’s all a bit predictable. The eleven-year-old Max gets cut by some broken fern – sorry, it ‘gouged a furrow’ in his flesh; Mr Grace shows a banana to Rose, the girl with them, in a ‘lewd’ way that disgusts her; Mrs Grace, whose scent has already been described as of ‘civet’, lolls back on the beach so openly that the boy can see her whole thigh, as far at the bulging cotton of her knickers. This is just the start, but you get the picture.

The chapter about his self-disgust as old age approaches follows all this. What did I say before about the child’s world and the man’s? In this determinedly pessimistic world-view there’s no room for any hope. Finer feelings? When all families – including the sarcastically-named Graces – are dysfunctional and nobody communicates anything of meaning? Don’t make me laugh. All I’m hoping now is that in Part 2 Banville doesn’t offer his man so many fish in a barrel to shoot: with memories like these to focus on, who wouldn’t be a gibbering wreck? (Except, of course, it could be argued that a gibbering wreck is only going to remember things in very particular ways, and they won’t be pretty. Maybe all those gaps in his biography are full of sweetness and light. As if.)

30 October
First half of Part 2…
…or nearly: there’s a long chapter coming up so I thought I’d stop for breath. Not that Max ever does: he’s been banging and crashing about for 50 pages and it can get a bit wearing. First we get Chloe. I don’t think I mentioned the sister’s name, because up to now she’s just been another exemplar of the unthinking – as in animal, a word Max uses about her and himself – primitiveness of children. I’d also not really noticed that when his thing with the mother collapses like a falling soufflé at the end of part 1, Chloe steps in. Whoo. But it’s not until Part 2 that she really steps in and, reader, it’s an earthquake. It’s from his first experiences of kissing Chloe (and being punched and generally mistreated by her) that he can date his growing into self-awareness, and an understanding that every one of us is separate from everyone else.

In other words, it’s more of the usual self-aggrandising stuff. At a literal level – as if there could ever be such a thing in this novel which bears little relation to any literal world – two eleven-year-olds fumble their way into the first proto-sexual experiences. He’s callow, she’s only one step above indifferent. In other words it’s a story we’ve heard a million times – but Max and Banville together make sure we’ve never heard it like this before…. And if that sounds like praise, it isn’t supposed to particularly. It’s during his faltering descriptions of these – was that the first time? Was that the same evening? – that it occurs to him that these might not be based on memory exactly but ‘some other, more fanciful muse’. Too right. As he keeps reminding us, for Max there’s no such thing as the literal truth.

The Chloe story is interspersed with others. There are a few pages about Pierre Bonnard’s relationship with Marthe, his model and muse – Bonnard’s the one Max is supposed to be writing about – but I’m not sure what that adds to anything. More insistent are the pages to do with Anna. We get nothing of their decades-long marriage, but plenty about different key elements of her plague year, as he’s sardonically called it earlier in the novel. Banville has made her as egocentric in her pain as her husband is in bereavement. She insists that nobody be told about her illness until it can no longer be hidden, as though to do so would be to invite self-pity and the embarrassed solicitude of others, Their daughter is appalled to be left out for so long, blames him (as he insists on telling us).

Later we get her photographs. He tells us about how, after seeing what he looks like in her pictures of him early in their marriage he would never let her photograph him again: what others see as rather flattering he sees as an opening up of his dark inner soul, so work that one out. As she is confined to hospital she has her daughter smuggle in her camera. He doesn’t know why she’s being so secretive – but then he sees the unflinching images of her fellow inmates. Banville has endowed her with unfeasible technical skill – she should have been a medical photographer – and a Diane Arbus-like ability to let her subjects open themselves up to her. They don’t mind her seeing; it‘s only the relatives who complain. Pause a while to let the point sink in about what these people feel they can share with a fellow-sufferer.

We’re not surprised that in this novel the narrator’s wife would have to be a genius. Either that or Banville is asking us to step back and decide whether her ability to reach into the soul through photography – an activity Max tells us he can’t think of as any kind of art-form – is real, or in Max’s own mind. I don’t think Banville is asking any such question, in fact, because there’s no way he’s in cahoots with the reader. I think we just have to accept the Anna Max presents us with as a given, just as the Grace family was really called that and they had twins, one of whom was mute. (For some time now I’ve been comparing this novel in my mind with Anne Enright’s The Gathering. In that novel, which won the Booker Prize two years after this one, one of the themes is the disentangling of real events in the past from the invented memories of an overwrought imagination. The Gathering is messy too, but at least it becomes clear that the author wants us to be wary of what the narrator tells us.)

There’s one other thread in Part 2 and, like the rest, it’s an extension of what we’ve seen before. The framing device for all his memories is his present-day sojourn at the guest-house which had once been the holiday home the Graces rented that summer. So we get stuff about how far the reality can be from memories of a place. These could be the most trite of observations, except… they fit in with other warnings. It comes quite close to that remark Max makes about the ‘more fanciful muse’, and to Max’s description of the Fawlty Towers-style Colonel who is a long-term resident. This man ticks all the boxes so neatly – tweed jacket, ramrod-straight back, yellow waistcoat at weekends – that Max wonders whether he’s a real colonel at all. The reality that people present to you – and present to themselves – consists of whatever it takes for them to survive.

A big storm during Max’s stay at the guest-house gets a short chapter to itself, and Max makes all the right noises about being wary of linking such a thing to any inner turmoil. But he has his cake and eats it – he did this before with the miraculous evening sunlight following the rainy day of his first kiss with Chloe in the sensual dark of the corrugated-iron cinema – and has the first glimmerings of hope that the ‘spectacular display of Valhallan petulance’ might signal something within after all. This being Max, he isn’t going to underplay it: ‘I anticipate an apotheosis of some kind, some grand climacteric.’ There he goes again with that cake of his: for all the near-parodic bombast, he believes himself. With this man, we can throw out most of the bathwater without having to worry if there’s a baby in with it somewhere, but just occasionally we have to be careful.

2 November
Long chapter in the middle of Part 2
Once in this chapter – and it’s the only time in the novel’s 220 pages so far – Max throws out the bathwater for himself. It’s the first time he’s done this. Earlier in Part 2 a chapter grinds to a syntactical standstill while he thinks ahead to, er, something or other: ‘The café. In the café. In the café we.’ But this is different: a 30-word paragraph addressed to his dead wife. Out of nowhere we get: ‘You cunt,,,’ and the almost monosyllabic repeated question, ‘How could you leave me.’ There are no question marks: a question implies answers, and there aren’t any.

I’m resisting the urge to call it raw emotion, because it seems to me as calculating as anything that comes before or after. Banville has decided that Max needs to show us something, and there it is. The fact that the verbiage is stripped away for the two sentences that make up the paragraph is the point – and it only confirms what I’ve thought all along. This man – Max – uses words in a futile attempt to do what neither he nor anybody else can make them do: to take him somewhere else, to take him to where he isn’t.

But this chapter confirms that he’s still exactly where he was. It’s set in the present, in the guest-house, and there’s a kind of desperate parody of social comedy. Miss Vavasour – the pretentious landlady – swans around, the Colonel tries his best, Miss V’s mountainously obese friend comes for lunch. The two women have a disagreement which Max only perceives as a kind of mating ritual performed to impress him, just as he used to swim too far to impress Chloe. Animals, see? The Colonel, already ousted as soon as Max arrived, carries on trying.

We get flashbacks. While the women bicker, he is back in the series of awful rooms – he describes in unfeasible detail how they were all seedy in precisely the same ways, as though to remind us that it doesn’t matter anyway – that he and his mother shared after his father left. We get her anger, the nicknames she invents for her treacherous husband, her reaction to his death. This chapter is full of names. The stranger who writes from England of the death is called Strange, and Banville has Max sniggering at the preposterousness of this. The fat friend is Bun, and Max enjoys himself describing how exactly like a giant bun she looks. And… we find out Max is an invented name. His mother hates it, as she hates everything about his invented self – including, of course, the wife.

The wife. Following other flashbacks, including a visit he and Anna make to see his mother in Ireland, he starts to re-examine everything about his relationship with her. He doesn’t do it systematically – he’s always keen to let us know what a dilettante he is – but by the end of the chapter he’s almost persuaded himself that he can’t think what all this grieving is about. We get hints of her infidelities, his own, the comfortable life he’s been able to have because of her money. In other words, he carries on doing what he always does: chews up history in order to spit it out and, presumably (because what other motive could he have?) prove to himself that none of it is worth a hill of beans. Nothing he says suggests that he’s fooling himself for a minute.

3 November
To the end
Preposterous. The inelegant adjectival phrase ‘more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger’ is used a couple of chapters from the end, and that sums up the disappointment for me. In the final chapters Banville packs in revelation after pointless, implausible revelation until I, for one, felt like throwing the book away. That portentous chapter that opens the novel, the one about the rising sea and the disappearance of the gods? That will have been when Chloe and her twin brother walked into the sea and drowned. Rose, the young woman – not a girl at all, then – who is supposed to be in charge of the children? She’ll be the one with a crush, not on the satyr-like Mr Grace but on his wife. She’ll also be the one who has spent 50 years becoming Miss Vavasour.

There are other details, equally tiresome. On the day the sea rises, just before she decides to end it all, Chloe lets Max touch her, you know, there. Or nearly there. Anna’s annus horribilis reaches its climax, with what looks like the moment of death turning out, well, not to be. (Her egomania, always at least as bad as Max’s own, leads her to believe that with her death she’s stopping time. These two deserve one another.) Hands up who finds it surprising that Max isn’t actually by her side when she dies. Anybody? Anyway, back in the ‘historical present’ – as he calls it, as though to forestall any smart-arse comments from the likes of you and me – Max drinks himself almost into unconsciousness, wanders towards (yawn) the sea, and… falls over. Hands up who’s surprised he can’t even get that right. Not that there was ever anything so definite as an intention: he’s just a bit pissed, that’s all – so pissed that when he wakes up in the guest-house his daughter has arrived with the unsatisfactory bloke, now her unsatisfactory fiancé, to take him away for some overdue rehab. Life, eh?

There’s more forestalling. Banville does that cake and eating it thing by allying himself with all the other ‘melodramatist[s] susceptible… to the tale’s demand for a neat closing twist’. Somebody should tell whoever is writing this that it’s not clever. And, following scene after impossibly vivid scene – Rose’s hair-wash at the lovingly described water-butt, the scene between her and Mrs Grace that he misunderstands from his vantage point high up a tree – somebody should also mention that we get it. He’s given us enough warnings about the unreliability of his own memory – shit, we got it long before this novel came along.

I’m in the position I’m often in. I’ve invested time in this bloody book, and – hang on a minute – 4000 words. And all those questions I’ve been asking seem redundant. Or, rather, I’m asking questions because I find it impossible to simply accept whatever it is that’s on offer. I’m not talking about the shiftiness of memory, the way we can never rely on it. I’m talking about the actual events. I won’t list the things I simply don’t believe because I’ve said enough already about them. I see it as a fault in Banville to have made so much of Max’s life either implausible or cynically predictable.

Early on I described Max as unlikeable. Throughout, it’s a rhetorical tic of his – along with all the others – to remind us, yes, he’s rubbish. His art-history flourishes are obvious – in these last few chapters we get references to one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings (the maid pouring milk) and to Breughel’s Fall of Icarus, in which he makes exactly the same point as Auden in ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, along with three or four others – although I don’t know whether we’re supposed to see through his dilettantism this time. I suspect we are, but how should I know? And by now, I don’t care.

And the sea? Enough already. Time to shut up about it, all of it.


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