Sunday, 10 August 2008

Book of the Month: The Sea (John Banville)

John Banville, the veteran Irish writer of more than a dozen novels, won the 2005 Man-Booker prize for The Sea. It was a surprise winner, piping the bookies’ favourites Arthur & George (Julian Barnes) and Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) to the post.

The Sea, at 260 odd pages, is not a long novel. Max Morden—Max, we are told, has changed his name, but the reason remains tantalizingly unexplained—an art historian, is the narrator. He has come to a seaside retreat, allegedly, to complete a book he is writing on the French painter Pirre Bonnard. He has been recently widowed, his wife, Anna, having lost her battle against cancer a few months earlier. But there is a reason why Max has chosen to come to this particular retreat, ‘the Cedars’. When he was growing up Max used to come to this seaside resort, which he somewhat mockingly refers to as Ballyless, every year, with his parents. The family was not rich enough to afford to rent ‘the Cedars’ in those days, and stayed in a chalet, instead. During one of his summer vacations Max becomes friendly with the children of the Grace family, a family several rungs above Max’s, who are renting ‘the Cedar’ that summer. Max even develops a crush, first, very briefly, on the mother, Connie, and then, on the daughter, Chloe. He spends a lot of time with Chloe, a haughty, mercurial girl who seems to take special pleasure in tormenting Max and Myles, the latter Chloe’s twin brother who is mute-or is he?; it is left, again, unexplained—and has got webbed feet. Max has a justifiable suspicion that his amative exchanges with Chloe have not gone unnoticed by Rose, the children’s nineteen-year old governess.

The narrative progresses at three levels, each one relating to different stages in Max’s life: the reminiscence of the fateful summer Max spent all those years ago in ‘Ballyless’ with the Graces; reminiscence of Anna’s illness and the events surrounding it; and the present—here we are introduced to an interesting secondary character, Colonel Blunden, who is so ‘old world colonelish’ in everything he does and says that Max can’t help wondering if he, the colonel, is not an impostor.

Banville, a former literary editor of Irish Times, is prodigiously gifted with words. He seems incapable of writing anything less than glistening. The prose, a trademark of all Banville novels is hypnotic. It is so lyrical at times that it is like reading a poem, be it description of nature or Max philosophising on the human condition. This is another thing about Banville: he is not just a novelist; he is also a philosopher. In The Sea, via its narrator, Banville offers interesting comments, not necessarily insights, on the feelings of dislocation and strangeness that are, surely, experienced by all sentient humans at some or the other time in their existence.

The Sea is a finely paced novel. Banville is a master of complex patterns, of which the reader remains aware throughout, notwithstanding the digressive meditations. The narrative, thus, has to it a delightfully meandering sense. Yet, the reader is acutely aware of a sense of foreboding. You know it is not going to end well; there is a tragedy lurking somewhere, but you can’t really put your finger on it. You are sucked in by the mesmerizing quality of the narration. The end, when it finally arrives with its fiendish twist, leaves you gasping with admiration.

Banville is frequently described as a ‘writer’s writer’, and compared to Nabakov in respect of his prose. He also, perhaps understandingly, invites the criticism of being self-consciously stylistic and sententious. If epithets such as ‘velutinous’, ‘horrent’, cinereal’, and ‘caduceus’—I had to look up the meanings of all these words as also the erudite pun on the name of Anna’s physician—irritate you, he is probably not the writer for you. The Sea, I should add, though, is not just about linguistic inventiveness. Underneath the sizzle there is solid substance. It is a worthy Booker winner.