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[295] The Sea – John Banville

” I have ever had the conviction, resistant to all rational consideration, that at some unspecified future moment the continuous rehearsal which is my life, with its so many misreadings, its slips and fluffs, will be done with and that the real drama for which I have ever and with such earnestness been preparing will at last begin. ” [137]

Max Morden, a widower, returns to the seaside town where he spent his summer holiday as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife, Anna. The middle aged Irishman, genteelly out-moded, estranged from the world, which doesn’t seem to retain a deep hold in him, is living in the past. Since Anna was diagnosed with cancer, he has mindfully escaped from the intolerable present. Future has become frightfully dreadful: a promise of mortality.

On all sides there were portents of mortality. I was plagued by coincidences; long-forgotten things were suddenly remembered; objects turned up that for years had been lost. [71]

Perhaps all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it. [72]

The visit at Cedars is also a return to the place where he, as a seven-year-old boy, met the Graces, a well-heeled vacationing family with whom he experienced the strange suddenness of love and death for the first time. It was also through their acquaintance that he experienced sexual fantasy. The unhappiness of his parents’ marriage had drawn him to the company of the Graces.

That is why the past is just such a retreat for me, I go there eagerly, rubbing my hands and shaking off the cold present and the cold future. and yet, what existence, really, does it have, the past? After all, it is only what the present was, once, the present that is gone, no more than that. And yet. [45]

That Old Max calls the Graces “old gods” is a bit stretching it. In fact, it was beyond perplexing that Banville begins the book with “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide,” without even introducing who the gods were. Nor do I fully appreciate how his personal loss-of-innocence tragedy some 50 years ago could alleviate the pain of his wife’s loss. The Sea is a book of portentous rhetoric, a story of a ravaged self in search of a reason to go on in life cloaked in beautifully and meditatively constructed sentences. Oddly, Banville, through Max Morden, tends to create an impression of the Graces family that is more intense than that of dying Anna, his own wife. The prose delineating the summer almost half a century ago seems to carry a heavier weight in the narrative. It suspends readers in a lyrical trance—keeps one waiting, until the last drop of wine lingers and empties out of the rim of a glass. The Sea is a novel about coming-of-age and coming of old age, through the capricious power of memory and grief.

195 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

21 Responses

  1. Have you read any Banville before? I’ve heard this is a book where it can be handy to have a dictionary on hand while reading!

    • He’s surely a tough author. This one isn’t that bad, have you read The Shroud? There was at least one new vocabulary on every page!

  2. I found this one a struggle but was glad I finished it.

  3. I’ve been reading Banville’s The Infinities for three weeks now. That’s too long a time for a 300-pager with not-quite-small font. You described The Sea as “a book of portentous rhetoric” — that could easily describe The Infinities. I was hoping The Sea would be a change of pace, since The Infinities is told from the POV of an Olympian god. It turns out, well, it seems like not so much. Thank you!

    • Banville (at least in my impression) is always known for such rhetoric, tossing readers around with beautiful curlicues or sentences and difficult vocabulary. My favorite Banville is The Shroud, told from the perspective of a most unreliable narrator. The Infinities is on my list, it does sound interesting. 🙂

  4. This was a book I listened to in the car and read at home. The combination was magical! It actually ended up being one of my favorites a few years ago.

    • This is another book, after Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, that fares better in audio than in hard print, although I think Banville’s writing is par excellence.

  5. I thought the prose in this one was just beautiful. I wanted to copy out entire paragraphs. However, it was a case of admiring the book more than adoring it. Which is, perhaps, appropriate given the subject matter.

    • I totally agree with you on “admiring the book more than adoring it.” While I’m not totally avid about the story, the writing–such fine prose styling–is what draws me on.

  6. I could easily be drawn to a book that revolves around the sea…it is certainly where I go to heal. Maybe the focus on the past is the protagonist’s way to get his mind off his recent pain ?

    • I remember your mentioning about light-houses. Reading about light-houses and the sea always reminds me of the times in Hawaii. Actually my mind was drawn to Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse on a few ocassions I was reading this novel.

  7. Oh man I hated this book. I mean, I realized it was a “good book” but omg dull, dull, dull. I remember there was some twist near the end that felt like a big cheat to me. One of my least favorite Booker winners!

    • I’m sorry this one doesn’t do it for you. I dare to recommend to you The Shorud, his older work, if you’re ever interested in reading Banville again. 🙂

  8. I have this one to read for the Booker challenge so I am glad to see a review for it!

  9. I tried checking this one out from the library once, just before traveling, and found myself unable to get into the book at all. I remember that the writing was “beautiful” and that I liked turning Banville’s phrases around in my mouth, but I left the book unfinished when I returned it to the library and don’t really have a pressing desire to return to it…

  10. A lovely last sentence to this post! YES.

  11. […] able to take up with the book a little each day and meander through his careful sentences.”), Matt’s Views at A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook (“…a book of portentous rhetoric, a story of a ravaged self in search of a reason to go […]

  12. […] 2004 Alan Hollinghurst The Line of Beauty (UK)* Review 2005 John Banville The Sea (Ireland)* Review 2006 Kiran Desai The Inheritance of Loss (India) 2007 Anne Enright The Gathering (Ireland)* Review […]

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