The Sea, by John Banville

This 2005 work is a beautifully written novel in which nothing happens, and yet everything happens. It is about one man, art historian Max Morden, as he recalls two incidents from his past. First, his poor youth when he met the wealthy Graces at a seaside resort. And then his maturity when he lost his wife Anna to cancer. And we do not realize until the end that what links these two significant events in his life is death.

The entire novel concerns these memories, as he revisits the seaside resort of Ballyless, Ireland, fifty years later. He stays at the same house in which the Graces stayed one summer, and his stream of consciousness memory flits back and forth from the present to both that youthful summer and the later harrowing months in which his wife died.

The summer-house, called the Cedars, is run in the present by the elderly Miss Vavasour, who has an unclear relationship with one resident, the Colonel, a relationship which Max thinks he interrupts. But he is more into his memories of that summer in which, at age ten, he met the stout, elderly Carlo Grace; his beautiful wife Connie, on whom Max develops a crush; their twin children Myles and Chloe, both Max’s age; and Rose, a young woman who is their governess.

Max has returned to the Cedars to try to recover from the loss of his wife. At first, we think it is because he has fond memories of that summer and the Grace family—such as Mrs. Grace adjusting her body to let him view her panties—and that reliving those childhood moments of happiness will ease his sadness. But eventually we realize it is to understand that summer that he returns. For it was just as unsettling to him as was the loss of his wife.

As the present feeds upon the past, and as the memories flood together, the reader is rarely lost. Except, he does not know where the novel is going. It seems to be a memory novel about Max, but then it turns out to be rather different when a surprise comes. The surprise works, and we look at both Max and the novel in a different way. We see that this is a work about life itself, rather than about Max’s life. And it is more about death than it is about life, and the mysteriousness of death that is part of life. And equally so, it is about memory. About Max’s memory versus reality.

The weakest part of the novel, perhaps because it is the least developed, is Max’s relationship with his daughter Claire, whom he bows to at the end, as an old man, no longer able to resist her. But also difficult to relate to is Anna’s picking up photography in her final months, as if by preserving reality she is holding on to it. It seems to be two cases of Banville fleshing out Max’s life but not extensively so, because his life is not the point of the tale. The point is the impact on him of two dramatic events.

The sea of the title is ever-present, drawing these characters to the resort. And it plays a significant role at the end. But it hovers more as a presence than as a threat. It is most symbolic on the final page, where Max says that it offered a gentle swell. “I was lifted briefly and carried a little way towards the shore and then was set down on my feet as before, as if nothing had happened.” Thus, whatever high drama we confront, we adjust to it. And life goes on. It is just “another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference.”

There is also a perplexing line, the last: “…and it was as if I were walking into the sea.” This is Max as he follows his nurse back into the house. Does it simply mean that he is adjusting to the loss of his wife, as above? Or does it refer to a motivation of Chloe? To be further studied…

But, mainly, there is the drama of the ending. It is shocking, but to me it is not clear. What does it mean? It centers on Max’s childhood experience. But it is less concerned with a loss of innocence than one might expect, and is more about grief, a grief that echoes Max’s loss of his wife.

This climax suggests that the Grace family is acting out a private drama, a drama that Max is not meant to see, but a drama that Rose is willing to share with him. This seems to be crystallized in a late paragraph, after Max has witnessed death, when he writes: “And I thought, too, of the day of the picnic and of her [Rose] sitting behind me on the grass and looking where I was avidly looking and seeing what was not meant for me at all.”

Perhaps she is still willing at the end, after she has witnessed a sexual episode between Max and Chloe. And wants Max to realize the people he is dealing with. But what is he dealing with? It seems to be a hypersexualized Chloe at ten. And a mute Myles. Who are they? And how significant is the earlier reference to the webbing between Myles’ toes?

Also significant is the sentence: “After all, why should I be less susceptible than the next melodramatist to the tale’s demand for a neat closing twist?” Which refers to the structure of the novel more than its content. And the entire novel demonstrates that Banville is aware of structure.

For example, the dramatic surprise in the story line is followed by another surprise, centering on issues of identity. First, one person becomes another person, and then makes a confession that raises an issue of sexual identity. Now, this does explain more than one earlier dramatic scene. But it also suggests that not only was Max’s youthful sexuality confused, but so was his understanding of what he witnessed back then.

To sum up, this is a deep and satisfying novel, but one that requires extra attention from the reader. It also requires patience to appreciate the rich language, the alternating story lines, and the character depth that is hidden beneath the surface. It is understandable why this novel earned the Man Booker Award, and yet why the author considered the award a surprise, believing his novel to be pure art, wheereas previous awards have gone to more commercial, more popular novels.

This definitely encourages me to read further novels by Banville. He explores the interiors of his characters and the major issues we all face, especially that of death. Plus he has a rich style. No wonder he says he writes only a few paragraphs at a sitting, compared to pages when he is writing as Benjamin Black. (May, 2015)

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Horn of Africa, by Philip Caputo

This 1980 work is a novel of adventure, and also a work of literature. From the very first pages, it drew me into its world. First, because of narrator newspaperman Charlie Gage’s point of view; he is a burnt-out case and full of guilt. The guilt is both for the story he will tell and for his role in the deaths of men with whom he shared a mission. And, second, this novel drew me in with its creation of a vivid, tangible foreign world, first that of Cairo, Egypt, and then of a stress-filled crossing of African deserts into the mountains of Ethiopia.

This is the early text that drew me into Caputo’s world, as narrated by Gage: “This story may be an exorcism of sorts; but it is not an apology for the things we did and the things we allowed him to do out there….Certainly we would have been indicted if everything had happened in a place where lawyers and judges stage the little dumbshows we call justice; but it all took place in the empty desert in the midst of a revolution….Each eventually dispensed its own form of justice, crude and unfair, but forms of justice nevertheless. The last few days on the desert were the worse, racking us with agonies more exquisite that could be inflicted by the worst prison in the world. The wilderness, however, was not entirely merciless; it allowed me to escape, to bear witness, and to experience a kind of expiation. The professional moralists, from their pulpits, from their editorial offices, from their speaker’s dias…might say it was not a genuine expiation and call for investigating commissions, inquiries, punishments. Let them chatter. We paid whatever debt we owed. Nordstrand and Moody paid all a man can pay, Nordstrand with interest because his liability was the greatest. I took his last installment and closed his account.”

That is what hooked me. This is Greene territory, Conrad territory, the territory of moral novelists exploring the roles of consience and justice in a violent, unjust world.

The mission, called Operation Atropos, is to bring armaments to Moslem Ethiopian rebels who wish to carve out a piece of Ethiopia and create a separate country called Bejaya. Charlie Gage, the American newspaperman, is recruited in Cairo by an ambitious American agent called Colfax, who seeks to make a name for himself. Colfax also recruits a level-headed but ineffectual English officer named Moody, who is to be in charge, and a dominating, headstrong, powerful soldier named Nordstrand, who is to provide the muscle and, as he himself believes, the leadership. Nordstrand is clearly the novel’s major character. After delivering the arms, he sees himself as the leader of the new nation, which is why he exerts brutal control over everyone he deals with.

What complements such conflict among the characters is the physical detail, whether in the streets of Cairo or the desert outside, whether in the villages or valleys of Africa, its sands or its swamps, its mountains or ravines, and whether one treks in the heat of day or the chill of night. The trio must also deal with the loyalty and the fickleness of both the natives they encounter and the rebels they join. Indeed, one so marvels at the physical detail that one is convinced that Caputo himself must have explored that same rugged terrain and lived the same exotic life of the African native. Because he makes that world come so alive.

The novel moves back and forth between its two strengths, character and description. And more than a reader expects, straight narration plays a major role, both forays into the past and extended descriptions of the present. Particularly effective are the constant physical and human obstacles when crossing deserts, confronting armed men, and hiking into the mountains. This vivid environment ranges from thornbushes to mosquitos, from swamp muck to endless sand, and includes even the sounds of snorting camels and jingling harnesses, plus the darkness, the burning heat, and the exhaustion. And yet…the narrative sustains our interest, even as little else happens.

In another complication, the arms the trio expects to deliver to the rebels do not arrive; but the trio continue on, hoping the promise to deliver those arms will justify their trek into rebel territory. That they will not be held for ransom by Jima, the rebel leader who awaits the weapons. Which reverts to the second strength of the novel, the relationships among the trio and their local contacts, Murrah and Osman, as well as with Jima. All of which comes across in both violent disputes and moments of introspection and doubt. Particularly effective is the intimidation by Nordstrand, whether he is trying to dominate narrator Gage, officer Moody, or the local natives.

Nordstrand is a violent schemer who seeks to control every obstacle he meets, and who does not care about the pain he inflicts on others. He meets an ironic fate however, when his installation into a native tribe, which he seeks as the first step in dominating them, results in an infection that weakens him and begins his downfall. This is the character Caputo wants the reader to remember. How his maniacal ambition brings his own destruction.

But Caputo also wants to demonstrate the foolhardiness of the entire operation. First, the foolish effort by Colfax to create the operation; and then, on the scene, the muscle that Nordstrand uses to control his colleagues, and the even greater violence he resorts to, murder, in order to take over, first, the revolution and then the new country. With the guilty conscience of narrator Gage underscoring that evil by allowing it to happen.

In the novel’s climax, the rebels capture a vital town and then the more powerful government forces bombard and destroy it. The horror of warfare is brilliantly portrayed here, and leads each character to his fate—a fate we have been prepared for. Except we learn how the various characters die, and where the responsibility lies for their deaths.

To sum up, this brilliant novel blends adventure, morality, and justice. It brings alive both its characters and its African setting. It contrasts the brutal Nordstrand, the “civilized” Moody, and the pliant Gage, along with the pragmatic, deceitful, and violent natives. I rarely use a novel’s blurb to help sum it up, but this blurb works: “Set in a bleak landscape where none of the signposts of civilization as we know it exist, [this novel] exposes the dark side of human nature—the side that, freed of all restraints, acts without pity, without conscience, without remorse.” (May, 2015)

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

This 1814 novel would be much better at about half its length. The first half merely sets up this extended family, how three sisters married at different levels of society and how various relationships developed among their children. There is no story and no tension, and at various points in the first 200 pages I was tempted to set down this novel and seek one with more interesting characters, people who were not just living but were interacting at cross purposes. That is, a story.

But it is difficult to set aside a work by such a distinguished author, an author I was reading to broaden my literary knowledge. And so I persevered. But it required considerable concentration to bring into focus the relationship among the various characters. The three sisters are Mary, who marries Sir Thomas and becomes Lady Bertram; Miss Ward, no first name, who marries Rev. Mr. Norris and is very mean-spirited; and Frances who marries a hardy naval officer named Price. It was also not easy to follow characters who are called at times by their first name and at other times by their last name.

But the novel evolves around their children. There are Thomas, Maria, Julia, and Edmund Bertram, and William, Fanny, and Susan Price. Plus there are siblings, Henry and Mary Crawford, who belong to the Bertram social circle. The first half establishes the ambitions, characteristics, and relationships among these young people, how class plays a part in their lives, how morality plays a part, and how finding a spouse plays a part. It provides an opportunity for Austen’s wit and her own social consciousness. But there is still no story.

Instead, there is preparation. Fanny is transferred to Mansfield Park to relieve Frances of one of her many children. There is Fanny’s slow acceptance into this wealthy family. There is a compatibility between Fanny and Edmund, as they discover they share important values. There is a discussion to redesign a mansion, during which Edmund and Caroline are lost. There is the rehearsal of a play that a returning Sir Thomas views as immoral and stops.

Finally, there is a hint of a story when the cavalier Henry Crawford charms daughters Maria and Julia but fails to propose, resulting in Maria marrying a boor on the rebound, and Crawford turning his attention to young Fanny. He has confided to his sister Mary that he intends to play with her affections, and then leave her. But Fanny has seen how he treated her sisters and rejects him, while he discovers that in his “pursuit” he has fallen in love with her.

So finally the novel has tension, has a story. Will she or won’t she? We read the rest of the novel to find out. Like Fanny, we don’t trust Crawford, because we also have seen him with her sisters, plus heard his plotting with his own sister, Mary. And Austen loads the dice by having Mary, Edmund, Sir Thomas, and others encouraging Fanny to accept Crawford.

But the basic problem for me is that when Crawford, ironically, falls in love with Fanny, I could not accept it. He seemed too shallow to feel so deeply, despite all the favors he does to win her over. I could not accept this irony, even if his favors do persuade Fanny to see him in a better light. In counterpoint, note, is the romance between Edmund and Crawford’s sister. He has fallen for her, and is sure he can persuade her to marry him. Meanwhile, Fanny, politely but painfully, listens to the failures of his courtship, for he is the one she truly loves.

The resolution to these courtships not only comes too suddenly for me, it also betrays the manipulation of the author. It concerns two couples who run away offstage, and the repercussions among those left behind. That it is two couples seems to be overdoing it, as if Austen needed to make sure the impact is convincing. And, lo and behold, those repercussions pave the way to happy resolutions for Austen’s main characters. Indeed, she does not even dramatize those repercussions. She simply narrates them, and quickly winds up her novel.

Austen obviously understood family relationships, small town life, and the interaction among different levels of society. But in our modern age, one has to get used to her basic technique in conveying a story such as this. First is the use of narration instead of a dramatization. One must also get used to her circumlocutions that stretch out the meaning she wishes to convey. It is Henry Jamesish before James came along, although more concerned with precision than with nuance. And while paragraphs of conversation are limited, it is not always clear who is saying what.

Some modern critics have complained about Fanny’s passive character, but I have no problem with her. She had her own standard of personal conduct, and I was comfortable with it. She also reflects the reluctance of women in Austen’s era to deal aggressively with men in a male society. One can understand how today’s feminists are uncomfortable with this; but she is honest, loyal, and sensitive, all fine qualities even today.

For me, the most interesting character is the charming Mary Crawford. She is kind and understanding with Fanny, except when Fanny refuses to accept her brother. She is also fun to be with and is idealized by Edmund, who does not see her practical bent—and that she prefers sophisticated (immoral?) London to the quiet of rural Mansfield. She is interesting because she has more contradictions than Fanny.

Just as the reader’s view of Mary keeps changing, so does it of Henry. For Austen wants us to accept her irony, that Henry is truly in love with Fanny. But it is difficult to accept that he is indeed in love with her, especially if he runs away with another woman. Fortunately, even as Fanny’s feelings change, even as she begins to see his good side, she is patient until he eventually reveals his true self.

This is low on my list of Austen novels, but I need to return to her. One day. (May, 2015)

The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy

This 1986 work is not quite literature, but I am tempted to call it a great novel. Because it is so enjoyable—and I almost did not read it! It is a story of a family, of its Southern culture, and of madness. The narrator hero is Tom Wingo, shy and lacking in confidence in his youth, when much of the tale takes place, and a confident and mature football coach as he is telling his story. Tom has traveled to New York City as the novel begins because his twin sister Savannah, a young and successful poet, has attempted suicide once again. While there, he describes to Susan Lowenstein, Savannah’s psychiatrist, his own youth and the life that has formed himself and his sister, indeed his entire family. This tale, related in flashbacks, is the heart of the novel.

Tom’s family leads a fascinating life, and it represents both the major portion of the novel and its richest portion. It is rich because of Tom’s mother and father, his older brother Luke, his religious grandfather and his eccentric grandmother, as well as his twin sister. It is even richer because it captures the flavor of the small-town Colleton, SC, and contrasts it with the bustle of New York City. Savannah spends her life intent to get away from that town’s Southern culture, and Tom is unable to abandon it.

This has to be Conroy’s most ambitious novel, and, except for a small segment toward the end, he succeeds wonderfully. He does return to the violent, disciplined father of his earlier novels, but his portrait of Henry Wingo is nuanced, making him both a war hero and a dreamer who futilely seeks business opportunities that will make him rich. The author gives more effort, however, to the complexity of Tom’s mother, Lila Wingo, a woman who plans her every step and considers herself both perfect and superior to everyone else. A subplot follows her climb into the town’s upper crust.

And yet the heart of this novel is the relationship among Tom, Savannah, and Luke. They love each other and always support each other, whether their parents discipline them, Savannah attempts suicide, Tom thinks himself a failure at life, or Luke rebels against the government.

That rebellion is the only weak portion of the novel, as Luke retreats into the swamp to conduct a guerilla action against the federal takeover of his hometown. And this takes us out of the family story, even out of the clash of Northern and Southern cultures. Instead, the novel offers a brief, right-wing diatribe against nuclear war and governmental authority. It is even out of character for quiet, mild-mannered Luke. Of course, to balance the novel politically, there is a significant section when the football team Tom coaches rejects a black running back—until his speed helps them win a few games.

But it is the family story that makes this novel, plus its deeply felt portrait of the swamp, streams, and bay of the South Carolina low country, where Henry and his sons earn their living as shrimp-boaters and their reputation as less fortunate members of society. Mother Lila is in combat with that society, of course, as well as with her husband, and often with her children. Her children love her, however, even as she claims they do not. But her interesting portrait is really background to the children’s stories.

The primary portrait is of narrator Tom, who has a poor opinion of himself as a youth, but by the time he goes to New York to help Savannah he is much more aware of both his faults and his value. Estranged from his wife, whom he has discovered is having an affair, he still loves his three daughters, and feels a certain guilt when he is attracted to Savannah’s psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. We read to learn what will develop with Lowenstein, as he calls her, and find at the end a satisfying, if unusual in today’s terms, resolution.

Savannah herself is more real as a young girl yearning to escape what she considers a backward Southern culture and then fleeing to New York to be a poet. She is highly opinionated, and quite interesting to listen to. Luke is the quietest and steadiest of the group, making his final actions more surprising, even unconvincing, although he does lead an escapade in which the three kidnap a porpoise from an aquarium and then release it.

The most interesting scenes in this novel often evolve around Tom’s conversations, often adversarial. Such as with his parents and siblings, but also with Lowenstein and even such minor characters as wealthy Reese Newberry, who is trying to buy up all of the town of Colleton, and both Lowenstein’s son Bernard and her violinist husband, Henry Woodruff in New York.

I was particularly dawn in by Tom’s witty, cynical observations. They evolve out of his early disillusion with his own character. He calls himself “’the most dishonest person I’ve ever met. I never know exactly how I feel about something.” But these conversations also work because they turn in unexpected directions, consistent with each character, and the others often make excellent responses to Tom’s frequently sarcastic opinions.

The novel’s movement from the present in New York to different pasts is effective, even when the shift occurs at suspenseful moments, but it also makes one aware of the author’s technique. And toward the end, it is somewhat confusing regarding the timing of Luke’s fate, Tom’s fate, and Savannah’s fate. Also notable is the absence of Luke in the later time frame, and the hints that something dire will soon be told. For a while, it appears to be referring to the simultaneous rapes of Lila, Savannah, and Tom, but that highly dramatic event is only an anti-climax.

Some critics have felt that too much happens in this novel. As Gail Goodman wrote in The New York Times, “ In The Prince of Tides, the smart man and serious writer in Pat Conroy have been temporarily waylaid by the bullying monster of heavy-handed, inflated plot and the siren voice of Mother South at her treacherous worst—embroidered, sentimental, inexact, telling it over and over again as it never was.” Except, I would argue that this is the South as it was to these particular characters at this time. It is a convincing South, a South attempting to preserve a way of life that belongs to the past, and a family of the South caught up in contradictions that follow their recognition of a changing world.

To me, this novel works, except for Luke’s melodramatic moment at the end. And it then recovers with a tender Epilogue that convincingly portrays a Tom who can love two women. Because each has met a need he has had in a certain period of his life, and he will not forgot this.

The Prince of the title is Luke, even if he is not the main character. But he is a major character, and he stands for the preservation of the local culture and local environment that is so lovingly evoked here. Moreover, the book’s climax that revolves around his actions will lead Savannah to create a new book of poems in his name.

While Henry Wingo converts to Catholicism when he is saved by a priest in World War II, neither religion nor Catholicism play a major role here. The closest is when Amos Wingo, Tom’s grandfather, parades up and down the local streets with a cross over his shoulder on Good Friday. But he is regarded as an eccentric by the community. He is also regarded as a good man, when he takes back his wife after she has left him for another man and then toured the world until she runs out of money. Amos is included more for Southern flavor than religious flavor, therefore, and Tom’s own faith never becomes a part of his failure to relate emotionally to his wife or a part of his success in relating to Lowenstein. Indeed, Tom’s emotional evolution into a caring rather than a cynical person, as a result of the events depicted in this novel, helps to bring an overall unity and resolution to this work.

To sum up, I found this a rich and entertaining novel. I relish those works in which a mature narrator looks back on a troubled and uncertain youth, and tries to make sense of it. I also enjoy the clash of cultures, here that of provincial South Carolina and sophisticated New York, although it is more from Tom’s viewpoint than Savannah’s, because his is more a search for values in the difference, whereas Savannah clearly made her decision for New York even before she left.

Yes, this novel piles incident after incident, from a revenging tiger to a saved porpoise, from a downed pilot to a downtown Good Friday walk with the Cross, from a manipulating mother to a failing and criminal father, from the feminist grandmother to the socially ambitious mother, from hatred of one’s parents and one’s culture, to love, and then from the evocation of Southern swamp country to sophisticated New York offices and restaurants.

Even if Tom himself says that what he is relating is a “grotesque family melodrama,” the reader who buys into this tale as I do will appreciate the rich imagination that creates worlds of hate, ambition, violence, cunning, despair, and denial, alongside worlds of love, hope, courage, integrity, and this family’s search for self-acceptance.

This may be Conroy at the peak of his powers, offering his final exploration of a disruptive family. It does leave me uncertain, however, about whether or not to pursue his works further. (April, 2015)