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)

The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

This 1951 novel is the story of a teenager and New York City. Plus his family and his friends. And a few strangers. Holden Caulfield is a precocious kid, a smart-aleck, and if he is also pretentious it is because he is insecure. Here is a brilliant portrait of adolescence, and one can understand why this work is a favorite of anyone under, say, thirty. When one’s own memories of adolescence are so recent.

But as a novel, this work resembles a one-trick pony. It is the story of Holden and his encounter after encounter with fellow students, professors, distant girl friends, two nuns, three tourist women, a prostitute, and finally his young sister Phoebe. And each meeting underscores Holden’s braggadocio, his immaturity, his false modesty, and his desperation to seek out and connect with someone. That is, each meeting with a different person is a variation on a common theme.

Where is this narrative going, I kept asking myself.

Finally, in the very last scene, with sister Phoebe riding the carousel in Central Park, we realize the sense of family that has been the context of all his interactions. He has been contacting all these people in lieu of his family. And each time, as he rationalizes his failure to connect with someone, he desperately seeks out someone else. He continues to make these attempts because he also seeks a connection that he cannot find with the adult world at home.

Holden has been talking about his parents throughout his narrative, as well as about his brothers, one of whom has died of leukemia, and about Phoebe. But he has been afraid to reach out to his family after being expelled from school for not passing his courses. For being thought as stupid. Which he obviously is not.

So why does he encounter failure when he reaches out to others? Perhaps because it is an adult relationship he seeks, but he is afraid of adulthood. One might add that he is afraid of adulthood because he is afraid of death, which has struck one older brother. But he is also afraid of the sex that represents adulthood and that motivates many of his adventures. And so he puts up a wall of cynicism to protect him from that adulthood.

But did Salinger need almost 300 pages to draw this portrait? Yes, these are brilliant pages. Yes, they perfectly capture a smart but troubled youth. Yes, the adolescent tone is remarkably consistent. But technical virtuosity for me goes only so far. Until the very end, this narrative remains on the surface. Once Holden’s shallowness is established, even with all the variations, the portrait goes no deeper.

The title is symbolic of the pleasures of youth, and of saving youth from entering the false world of adulthood. Holden misinterprets the Robert Burns poem, and dreams of children playing in a rye field at the edge of a cliff; and his job is to save these kids from falling off the cliff, meaning into adulthood. He is the catcher in the rye. One critic even suggests that at the end, Phoebe, although she is just a kid, becomes the catcher, because she has persuaded Holden to give up his naive plan to escape the adult world by fleeing out west and living as a deaf mute (so he doesn’t have to talk to anyone).

At one point, incidentally, Holden defends writing that goes off tangent, and introduces a new, disconnected subject. This to me is an indirect defense of his own narrative here, in which Holden not only seeks different characters to relate to but also introduces new subjects in his conversations with them when the talk is not going in the direction he wishes. Skipping about is also, presumably, the way a restless adolescent mind works.

In passing, I would also note that spiritual references hover over this narrative, as it does in many of Salinger’s works. The events here occur in the days leading up to Christmas, and he comments on Jesus and the Radio City Christmas show. Holden also encounters two nuns, who are portrayed sympathetically. And even the frequent “goddam” remarks remind us of the world of religion, along with a youth pretending to be an adult.

The vernacular, indeed, is characteristic of this book’s style. This work, for example, popularized the word “phony,” representing, according to Holden, anything in the adult world. Another pretense of that adult world is using “old” in front of the names of people he meets. Other choice phrases include “shoot the bull,” “chew the fat,” and “get a kick out of that.” All both reverberate with the times, and re-enforce the adolescence of Holden.

To sum up, the more I think about this novel, and the more critics I read, the more I accept that this is a deeper novel than what I thought it was while reading it. More thought went into Holden’s character than I realized, such as his self-protective alienation to avoid what he called being a phony adult. And I can even see this work’s comparison to The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, because it is narrated by an adolescent and is in the vernacular of the boyhood of its era. But Huckleberry Finn offers us glimpses of the world outside Huck, the social setting in which he lives, while Catcher in the Rye exists entirely within Holden Caulfield himself. It is a portrait of him rather than its era, and it also creates its own style rather than satirizes an earlier literary style.

This work does not prompt me to go back and reread other Salinger work. He is an author for younger readers. Indeed, he seems to have inspired some authors to write similarly about their own youth. But he was writing for another era. His was an era of innocence, an innocence that is captured here, but an innocence that no longer exists, an innocence, indeed, that his book has helped us move beyond. For, in its literature, that innocent world proscribed sex, proscribed profanity, and proscribed rebellion, all of which are abundant here. Yes, those aspects are understated, but Salinger in this work helped to open the literary door to this previously unacknowledged reality. He himself was no phony. (February, 2015)

the thorny grace of it, by Brian Doyle

Because I am acquainted with the author, I feel a certain trepidation in commenting on this new (2013) interesting collections of essays, essays in which each one carries a small spiritual or family message. The emphasis is on the smallness, for these essays run only three or four pages. But each makes a pithy statement that crosses our spiritual heritage with our common humanity.

In fact, I would not ordinarily write a comment about a book like this. But I do so, because I relate to it. The author has a spiritual perspective that I share. And I have long realized that making a comment helps me to think further about a book—and appreciate it more.

In retrospect, what strikes me first is that, in this era of Church factions, it is impossible here to assign Doyle within the Catholic political spectrum. He comes closest when he evaluates Pope John Paul II, both his strengths  (“a man of stunning presence and charisma, a corporate leader of wonderful creativity, a figure of light and hope for many millions”) and his weaknesses (“ a man who choked off liberation theology…a man who presided over a church riven with the rapes of children…a man who…dismissed women from any serious role”).

And one senses that this political reticence is deliberate. That neither he nor the publications he wrote for wish to make a political statement regarding Church doctrine. Instead, he explores the common elements in our daily human experience, an experience that often but not always arises out of our spiritual life.

He subtitles this book Essays for Imperfect Catholics. For he is often exploring the human weaknesses in our family life and our spiritual life. That we do not always live up to our idea of spiritual perfection. Or human perfection. And what Doyle does here is recognize this—and in doing so acknowledges his past naïveté, his current regret, or his often belated understanding.

Most of his essays reveal something of his own inner life, but a few also touch the reader’s own sensibility. For me, these include: exaggerated speculation on Jesus’ life in his missing teenage years; a humorous evaluation of Catholic writers by the imaginary Saint Francis de Sales Parish Book Club; an archbishops letter of resignation at age 75; a brother’s advice on how to keep a priest off-balance when in confession (keep bringing up lust); and the memory of hauling storm windows up from the cellar each winter.

Some essays are humorous, some are touching, some strike a cord of memory. An example of the humor: “From the age of thirteen when a boy in Jewish tradition enters manhood, to the age of thirty, when a boy in Irish-American tradition enters manhood.” An example of both empathy and self-awareness: “On the way home, I thought about…how these sweet honest funny moments [a baptism] are so holy I cannot easily find words for them, which is why we share these stories, which is what we just did.”

Other essays range from a regret at the life Osama bid Laden chose; to an essay on his father, his own fatherhood, and the Father; to the story of a star basketball guard who turns down scholarships to enter the marines—and loses his left hand in battle.

The range of these essays portrays a man who understands that a full life includes a spiritual life. He is a man who understands the meaning of family, of community, and of our eternal destiny. But he is also a writer who understands the power of a revelation to be found in a single moment, a moment we may all have experienced but most likely have never thought of again.

This is a modest book. It is for a very special audience. An audience which acknowledge its spiritual life and makes it a part of its daily living. It is more a book to be dipped into as a reminder of that life than a book to be read in one sitting. It is a book that enriches the reader who pauses and thinks for a moment after reading each essay. And in offering a special opportunity for reflection, each of these essays opens to ourselves an opportunity to review our own experience with our family and our church in a timeline of eternity. (January, 2014)

Canada, by Richard Ford

This 2012 work is a beautifully written novel, but one I did not find that interesting. (Is my reaction too personal, for I like Ford’s work.) It is the story of a family, and then about the son in that family. It is thus two stories, but not quite two novels, for it continually recalls for us this family of four.

The Parsons family consists of father Bev, mother Neeva, and twin children, daughter Berner and son Dell. Their story is narrated by Dell 50 years after the jailing of Bev and Neeva, who robbed a bank in order to pay back criminals for beef stolen from them. The novel then moves to Dell’s life in Canada, to which he has fled in order to escape being institutionalized because there are no parents at home. In Canada, he confronts murders that were mentioned on the novel’s first page, along with the bank robbery. It is the first of the author’s foreboding, presumably to create interest in this otherwise run-of-the-mill family.

The Parsons family is dysfunctional, however. Bev is a retired air force bombardier who got Neeva pregnant (with Berner and Dell) and was obliged to marry her. And they soon become incompatible, even as they stick together. Bev is a funny, talkative, imposing person, while Neeva is shy, artistic, and barely pretty. Compounding this is that Bev becomes a failure at business when he leaves the air force to establish their home in Montana, and Neeva is never comfortable married to someone below her station.

Because we know about the bank robbery on the first page, there is little suspense in the outcome of the family story. The novel’s substance comes from the relationships among its four members, and this I grant is very well done. We feel the incompatibility of the parents and the rivalry between the children during their life together in Montana.

This family situation never intrigued me, however, as well presented as it is. And as effectively as it conveys the adults’ impact on the lives of their two children. It catches a breath of life from the parents’ incompatibility, and even more from the relationship between the two children—in which, born a few minutes earlier, Berner senses she knows more about adult life, and Dell acknowledges and accepts this.

It is just that despite the compassion of the author in presenting both their relationships and the homey details and conflicts of family life, I did not care for these people. Especially for the children, these victims of the family’s circumstances. Perhaps it is because Berner is too domineering and Dell too acquiescent. While the parents are too self-centered, refusing to make any change and refusing contact.

Once Dell is sent into “exile” in Saskatchewan, after his parents are in prison, the novel changes. It is now about Dell alone, and how he accommodates himself to his new situation. And, here again, he is not involved with a set of interesting or sympathetic characters. Which does emphasize that he is on his own. And, yes, we are interested in what will happen to him, not least because of more foreboding. Apparently there is something wrong about Arthur Remlinger, who runs the small-town hotel where Dell is working and who has taken him under his wing. Remlinger is quite a pleasant man when we meet him, however, even if he does have a mysterious past.

The atmosphere of this rural area is a strength of the novel, with Dell helping visiting huntsmen shoot the local geese as sport. But the huntsmen are not characterized, and the hotel personnel he works with barely so. He is closest to Charlie Quarters, whom he finds unpleasant, and who seems to be used mainly to inform Dell about Remlinger’s past.

But the mysteriousness of Remlinger never came across to me. He is supposed to be fleeing the U.S. because, in a union’s struggle against management, he planted a bomb which accidentally killed a man. And lives in fear that U.S. authorities will come after him. When they do, there is abrupt violence that I have not been prepared for. Apparently it comes out of the mysteriousness of Remlinger, but his character has not been sufficiently developed for me to accept that final violence.

After which, the novel effectively ends, as the narrator Dell returns to his current life 50 years later and describes the fates of the other three members of his family. Which becomes a typical wrapping up, a narrative; it is not dramatized.

To sum up, I was not drawn to this family, to their situation (even if it helps recall my own loneliness after my mother’s death—with my family life also disrupted), nor to Dell and his empty life in Canada.

As Andre Dubus III says in his Times review, this family portrait is beautifully rendered. But for me language is not enough. I need to begin with character and story. And I could not identify with the characters at home in Montana, nor get interested in this story of Dell’s lonely life in Canada. I think I needed Dell to interact emotionally with someone in Canada, rather than simply be exposed to two unpleasant characters.

The novel begins in Great Falls, Montana, which Ford wrote about in a previous novel, so one wonders how much Ford identifies with this area, and perhaps has transformed a personal experience into this novel. Yes, he is from the South, but so is Bev, and these family events could have occurred anywhere in the country. This would make the origins of this novel completely understandable, and certainly Ford has put his technical skills to excellent use here.

But I did not feel the loneliness in Dell’s life that I felt in my own life, and missing even more was an emotional connection within the family that I always find to be moving. Dell’s only connection is with his twin sister, and she escapes from family ties after their parents go to prison, leaving them both to lead separate lives. (December, 2013)