Friday, December 16, 2016

Old Memory

The SeaThe Sea 
by John Banville

“Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world's wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see that the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit it, for cosiness. This is a surprising, not to say shocking, realisation."  -  John Banville, The Sea

The Sea is old memory made newly vivid. Art historian Max Morden returns to the Irish seaside village in County Wexford where he spent his childhood summers more than fifty years earlier. He has retreated there ostensibly to write the definitive book on the French painter, Pierre Bonnard. Settling into the former house of the Graces, a family that held claim to his adolescent heart, he reconnects with his innocence, with his first glimpse of love, but also with a profound experience of sorrow.

Banville's brilliant, but flawed novel, which won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, presents a man, Max Morden -- an Irishman, mourning his wife's recent death —and his blemished life. "The past beats inside me like a second heart," observes Max early on, and his return to a town by the sea where he lost his innocence gradually yields the objects of his nostalgia. Max's thoughts oscillate between the events of his wife's final illness and the evocative summer, many years past, when the Grace family—father, mother and twins Chloe and Myles, a strange young lad who has never spoken — lived in a villa in the seaside town where Max and his quarreling parents rented a dreary "chalet." It was there he fell under their spell. In a style reminiscent of Proust or Thomas Mann, Banville seamlessly juxtaposes Max's youth and age. Each scene is rendered with the intense scenic specificity of a painting ("the mud shone blue as a new bruise"); the theme of painting is reinforced by references to paintings and painters, especially Bonnard whose noted sketchiness is apropos. As in much of Banville's oeuvre, things are not what they seem. Max's cruelly capricious complicity in the sad history that unfolds, and the facts kept hidden from the reader until the shocking denouement, brilliantly dramatize the unpredictability of life and the incomprehensibility of death. Like the strange high tide that figures into Max's visions and remembrances, this novel sweeps the reader into the inexorable waxing and waning of life.

You can open the book to almost any page and read beautiful, poetic language. As the narrator remembers a storm: "At last , I thought, the elements have achieved a pitch of magnificence to match my inner turmoil! I felt transfigured, I felt like on of Wagner's demi-gods, aloft on a thunder-cloud. . ." Or as he describes the sea: "Down here, by the sea, there is a special quality to the silence at night. I do not know if this is my doing, I mean if this quality is something I bring to the silence of my room, and even of the whole house, or if it is a local effect, due to the salt in the air, perhaps, or the seaside climate in general." Unfortunately the prose can also tend to be overwhelming in its gratuitous pretentiousness.
Inexorably the novel courses its way to the moment of climax and the explosion rocks the reader. The magnificence of memory juxtaposed with sometimes evocative prose makes this a wonderful book to read.

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Brian Joseph said...

Terrific commentary on this books James.

I am very impressed to the passages that you quoted. The are indeed poetic and they are meaningful.

There seems to be particular truth in that opening quote. I often feel the same way.

James said...

I share your feeling about the opening quotation. Banville's prose is surely a delight to read.