Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Sea by John Banville

This is a book of many stories that ebb and flow like the sea. It has no clear chronology so memories drift from one era to another with neither introduction nor explanation.

Max is an art historian and writer who has recently experienced the death of his wife Anna and is now trying to make sense of her departure, their live together and what his life will now be. He returns to The Cedars, a house by the sea where fifty years earlier he came as a boy for his annual August holidays. As Max and Anna had spent most of their “twelve months of her slow dying” secluded beside the sea, Max returns to “live amidst the rubble of the past” and to “ask questions of the house.” Living in rented facilities seems expressive of the temporary nature of his life but it also dredges up some painful boyhood memories, when his father deserted him and his mother.

The Sea is a study in memory—the way one recollection washes over another like the waves, yet how memories usually are projected in still slides rather than in moving pictures. Like many people Max’s memories are triggered by smell or “the various effluvia” but Max contends that he suffers from “an overly acute awareness of the mingled aromas that emanate from the human concourse.” This book, therefore, wafts from lupin blossoms that remind Max of nightsoil to the “feral reek of Anna,” the “milk-and-vinegar smell” of Mrs. Grace, the flattish biscuity smell of Chloe to his own cheesy smell in the tangle of his bed sheets. As the sharing of memories and aromas are startlingly evocative, readers of The Sea will be led to ponder the questions as to why some memories lodge and others fade and why some personalities like Mrs. Grace appear as “a moving figure in the waxworks of memory” while other characters like Chloe waver in the memory “always just beyond focus.”

John Banville plumbs the depths of childhood perceptions and expectations of waiting in his “unfashioned world” and watching for what is to come. The forward focus of childhood is counter-balanced by the bereaved narrator’s preoccupation with the past and such painful and angry brooding helps him to realize that throughout his life he has been one who has craved coziness and ‘womby warmth’. The Sea offers readers a mirror to ponder their own lives and the different dimensions of human existence.

Amid the seriousness of these themes there is wonderful humour as Max confesses his boyhood fixation with big-breasted Mrs. Grace and his fantasies about how couples go about their ‘nocturnal love-making’ with “the groping and clasping, the panting endearments and the crying out for pleasure as if in pain.”

This book is a study in loss—primarily Anna’s loss of life, Max’s loss of a partner—but also many other losses which are illustrated in the book’s amusing lineup of characters. As Max ponders Anna’s loss he asks himself deep questions about what he had hoped Anna would help him to become, who he is now, whether he could have lived life differently, what he missed in life and what might he have been. He ponders his final departure and what will remain of him in the memories and fading photos.

Banville’s prose is beautifully poetic with description that captures the eye. It is detailed without being cluttered or tiresome.

The author is continually searching for the right word, the apt phrase or the telling image and he is overwhelmingly successful. He writes of the “dragging and disconsolate plod,” the “after-gulps and gurglings” of a newly-flushed lavatory and a woman who “had a hat shaped like a brioche.” There is an engaging inventiveness as Banville comes up with words like “landladyese” and phrases to describe a man who was “landlubbered at last.”

Like his central character Banville is “a master of observing and being observed.” These keen powers of noticing everyday things and people are evident as Banville describes “the squeaking of a receptionist’s sensible shoes,” the “studied hesitancy” of a consultant breaking bad news and “the tight-lipped awkwardness and embarrassment” of a couple staring death in the face.

Always in this novel there is the sea—sometimes silent, sometimes eloquent in its whispers, always immense and mysterious, present and distant.

Like its subject, The Sea has an inexhaustible quality and it meets readers at various depths. This is a book to reread and to savor.

John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2005).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 49.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Sea; John Banville.