The Sea, by John Banville

by Robert A. Parker

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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