Thursday, August 18, 2005

Booker Review: The Sea, John Banville

John Banville knows lots of interesting words, and he's not afraid to use them. "Proscenium", "moue", even (and this comes distressingly early on) "apotropaic" are not beyond his employ. Reading Banville's The Sea, then, becomes an education as much as anything else. With a dictionary open beside you, and perhaps a copy of Brewer's or something of its ilk to help with the tricky mythological allusions, The Sea can be a breezy, bracing read. It is not, however, a particularly good novel.

Part of the problem is the familiarity of the story. Following the death of his wife, middle-aged art historian Max Morden is drawn to visit the seaside village where he holidayed as a child. Max's return to Ballyless (as the town is called; there is another up the road called Ballymore - one of Banville's more obvious, and less amusing, jokes) naturally evokes memories of his formative experiences there and so Max sets about weaving a rich tapestry(or possibly doona cover) of recollection and meditation, as he attempts to understand the past in terms of the present, or possibly the other way around. Whatever the case, you may rest assured that his tone remains hauntingly elegiac at all times.

Of course I am being flippant here, but it is hard not to be when confronted with such a mish-mash of well-trodden themes. The Sea is, quite simply, unoriginal. There are echoes here of everything from Orwell's Coming Up For Air, to Flaubert's Parrot and of course the great-grandfather of all memory novels, In Search of Lost Time. (This is most blatant: Proust's narrator also has formative experiences at a seaside resort and lives to return and wallow in self-doubt and nostalgia. And this is just the beginning of Banville's debt to the Frenchman.)

Derivative as it is, The Sea is never the less very well written, and Banville lives up to his reputation as the "heir of Nabokov" with his predeliction for word-play and allusion. Unfortunately, this too becomes irritating, as you become so preoccupied with the well-turned phrases and exotic vocabulary that the already slight storyline comes to seem almost superfluous. Also, the pitch of his prose barely changes throughout. You can open The Sea at almost any page and find something to like. Reading the whole thing, one page after another, is a different story, and not one I particularly enjoyed.


Beth said...

Hmmm...I know what you mean - sometimes good writing is annoying if there's no story to back it up. I'm finding a few titles like that on the longlist so far, and it makes me wonder cynically how "good" literature is judged - surely story should count for something!

Still, looking forward to that rich doona cover.

Tim said...

I may have been unduly harsh on this book. It's not great, but it certainly has its moments, particularly towards the end. I always get frustrated, though, reading a poor or indifferent book from a good writer like Banville. I'll be interested to hear what you think of it, Beth.

Lyn said...

Just finished "The Sea". I agree with everything you said! But having said that - although the overly wordy style bugged for a while, I really started to buy it as an essential part of the "Max" voice. In the story, it meant that in the rare moments when he breaks out (ie: at the top of page 196), it packs a real punch.

The imagery at times is also mesmerising. Banville's facility for words means that when he spins it well, you see something unfold with such specifics, it's just beautiful. I'm thinking here of some of the stories about the picnics, etc - the haze of summer, the memory, etc, etc - worked for me.

Anyway, I'm with you in that I don't think it's a shortlist contender. But I want to read more Banville - so I guess that counts as a win!

Tim said...

Lyn, you're right about the style being appropriate for Max's voice. I think I just found him, and his voice, rather irritating. The top of p. 196 does come as a shock, though, doesn't it?

I'd like to read more of Banville, too. I'm told his talents are better employed in his earlier novels.

Lyn said...

something that occurred to me even whilst excusing this novel - reading more Banville would establish whether he's always this sort of mannered / irritating, or whether it was "Max".

But as my dream shortlist is nearly full already, I'm kind of glad there's a few I can just rule out!