What’s that you say? You could really stand to read just one more review of John Banville’s Booker-winning novel The Sea? Well, you’re in luck. I threw my two cents into that crowded field in last Sunday’s Baltimore Sun.
I found the book lovely and absorbing, but its denouement deflating:
It takes a sure hand and an absolutely arresting style to make this sort of highly interior, small-scale fiction compelling. Banville, his sentences strikingly visual and perfectly tuned, is more than equal to the challenge. Moreover, the character in whose mind we spend the whole of this short novel is neither remarkable nor likable. Having made the climb to the middle class, Max is a bit of a snob. He is comically self-absorbed, squeamish and habitually condescending to women. The book doesn’t invite us to identify with him, so when his interior monologue hits a nerve, it has to do with the truly universal aspects of human experience – vanity, ambivalence about mortality, awe of the natural world, romantic and sexual infatuation.
In a sense, despite its narrow point of view and mundane subject matter, burrowing psychological fiction like this is more ambitious than fiction with a wider lens. For most of The Sea, Banville succeeds brilliantly at making quite gripping reading out of the dwindling, ordinary life of an ordinary man. The drabness of Max’s present existence is offset by the heady, luminous quality of his memories. The day he kissed Chloe Grace “had been sombre and wet and hung with big-bellied clouds when we were going into the picture-house in what had still been afternoon and now at evening was all tawny sunlight and raked shadows, the scrub grass dripping with jewels and a red sail-boat out on the bay turning its prow and setting off toward the horizon’s already dusk-blue distances.”
Of course, everyone’s memories seem splendid and suggestive to them, and for most of the novel it doesn’t appear that Banville is making any special claims for the extraordinariness of Max’s past, however much the character may be rapt at the ongoing slide show in his head.
At the end of the book, however, we learn that the memories Max has immersed himself in are part of an extraordinary story indeed. Secrets are revealed, and The Sea snaps into focus as a very different book than it had appeared to be, a book with a twist and a scandal at its core. To my mind, it becomes a lesser one: no less intelligent and skillful, but less moving and ambitious than when it was apparently scrutinizing mundane experience.
But still well worth reading. This line, quoted earlier in my review, was one that particularly interested me: “Memory dislikes motion, preferring to hold things still.” Although this seems to be intended in part as a reflection of the protagonist’s vocation as an art historian–of Bonnard specifically, with his sensual stolen domestic moments–it’s close to my experience, too, of very intense memories. They’re snapshots, frozen motion. I loved the rich texture of the ordinary in this novel, and wished that Banville had been content to convey that. The mystery unveiled at the end felt distinctly superfluous.