John Banville is a former literary editor of The Irish Times, and the author of several distinguished works of fiction. His latest, The Sea, has a lot in common with a novel he published five years ago and called Eclipse. Both have a first-person narrator who returns to a seaside resort he knew and loved as a child. The actor hero of Eclipse goes there to get over a nervous breakdown, and Max, the “I” of The Sea, goes to get over the death of his much-loved wife, Anna. Meanwhile Max works in a dilatory way at his biography of Bonnard, which “has got no farther than half of a putative first chapter and a notebook filled with derivative and half-baked would-be aperçus.” The seaside with its moody weather, its boarding houses, and its nostalgia figures in both stories.
The Sea won the Man Booker Prize when it was published in Britain last year, to the surprise and dismay of several (not all, by any means) reviewers. Maybe the unkindest review was by Michiko Kakutani, who wrote in The New York Times that Banville “emphasizes style over story, linguistic pyrotechnics over felt emotion.” Tibor Fischer, in the London Telegraph, put it brusquely but more kindly: “There’s lots of lovely language,” he concluded, “but not much novel.”
The ratio of “felt emotion” in The Sea seems quite sufficient and very real to me, but it’s true that Banville’s prose can be lush to the point of overwritten. That is the price the reader has to pay for the overwhelmingly sensuous impact of sight, sound, and smell in it. Smell is unusually prominent: “I have always suffered from what I think must be an overly acute awareness of the mingled aromas that emanate from the human concourse,” Max explains. “Or perhaps suffer is the wrong word. I like, for instance, the brownish odour of women’s hair when it is in need of washing,” while Anna’s “feral reek [was] for me the stewy fragrance of life itself.” His own smell, when he gets out of bed in the morning, is merely “warm [and] cheesy.”
Unusual sensitivity to smell is not just Max’s specialty: there are many powerful and subtle smells in Banville’s earlier novels as well. His vision is just as impressive (though perhaps less unusual):
Our table was near the open doorway from which a fat slab of sunlight lay fallen at our feet. Now and then a breeze from outside would wander in absent-mindedly, strewing a whisper of fine sand across the floor, or bringing with it an empty sweet-paper that advanced and stopped and advanced again, making a scraping sound.
He captures sound as meticulously as sight and smell, but smell stands out because it doesn’t usually get quite so much attention.
As for the complaint about The Sea‘s lack of “story”: there is perhaps an excessive amount of contemplation and philosophizing in the novel, but Max’s thoughts are original and sophisticated and they help to define the clever, neurotic, and vulnerable narrator. Underneath them lurks a thriller, a mystery, a detective story, though without a crime. As Max reconstructs his life, the narrative glides back and forth between the present, the recent past, the middle past, and the distant past. Sometimes there is a gap between paragraphs to denote the change of period, but at others, rather disconcertingly, the change occurs from one sentence to the next in the middle of a line of print. “The past beats inside me like a second heart,” says Max, and the novel’s structure seems to echo that predicament.
In the present, Max installs himself after Anna’s death in a seaside boardinghouse called “the Cedars” in Ballyless. He is hoping to restart his life. Anna took a year to die of cancer, and passages from the recent past recall the everyday stages of that agonizing process: “I had been merely a bystander, a bit-player, while Anna did the dying,” Max says. Many about-to-be-bereaved husbands and wives, children, parents, lovers, and close friends feel exactly that, but it’s not often so neatly summed up. The colloquial briskness of the phrasing makes the thought seem all the more shocking, and is no doubt meant to. From the recent past the narrator also glances back at the middle-distant past—the time when he and Anna met and married in London. Max was poor then, but Anna’s widowed entrepreneur father, a cheerful, impish man called Charlie Weiss, was rich. “Don’t worry, it’s not a Jew name,” he rather unconvincingly reassures Max. His daughter is fond of him and lives with him in a huge gloomy flat in the expensive Sloane Square neighborhood of London.
The distant past is fifty years ago. Max is eleven years old when he first goes on holiday to Ballyless with his parents. His mother is lower class—only slightly lower than his father—but she is eaten up with resentment of her social station in life and their marriage is far from happy. Her husband will soon leave her. Her son dislikes and despises her—dislikes her because she is horrid to him, and despises her because he is a little snob.
Class is important in The Sea. Max’s mother has rented a “chalet”—in fact a small cottage—for the holidays. The row of chalets at Ballyless is the lowest rung of holiday accommodation there. Two hotels occupy the middle ground, and large rented houses are at the top of the social ladder. One of them, the Cedars (later to become the boardinghouse Max stays in), is occupied by a middle-class family whose name is Grace. “My parents had not met Mr. and Mrs. Grace, nor would they. People in a proper house did not mix with people from the chalets, and we would not expect to mix with them.” The Grace children, Myles and Chloe, are twins of the same age as Max. Myles is a mute with webbed toes, and his relationship with his sister is close and impenetrable. Max imagines their link “as an invisibly fine thread of sticky shiny stuff, like spider’s silk, or a glistening filament such as a snail might leave hanging as it crossed from one leaf to another, or steely and bright, it might be, and taut, like a harp-string, or a garotte”—the iron collar used for strangling.
Chloe is an attractive, strong-willed, capricious, hot-tempered girl. After an awkward, standoffish start, Max manages to make friends with the twins, especially with Chloe, and the three children do everything together:
That I had managed to scramble from the base of those steep social steps all the way up to the level of the Graces seemed…a token of specialness, of being the one chosen among so many of the unelect. The gods had singled me out for their favour.
Max falls in love—not with Chloe, and not with their pretty nineteen-year-old nanny, Rose, but with Mrs. Grace, who is not particularly attractive. One day when he is sharing the Grace family’s picnic, Mrs. Grace leans back on the grass and Max is able to glimpse up the inside of her thighs to what Banville calls her “lap.” The little boy becomes obsessed with the sight, though he probably hasn’t even discovered yet how people have sex:
At times the image of her would spring up in me unbidden, an interior succubus, and a surge of yearning would engage the very root of my being. One greenish twilight after rain, with a wedge of wet sunlight in the window and an impossibly unseasonal thrush piping outside in the dripping lupins, I lay face down on my bed in such an intense suffusion of unassuageable desire—it hovered, this desire, like a nimbus about the image of my beloved, enfolding her everywhere and nowhere focused—that I broke into sobs, lavish, loud and thrillingly beyond all control. My mother heard me and came into the room, but said nothing, characteristically.
The narrative slides several paragraphs back to describe Max meeting Anna at a party and later marrying her, and then returns to the picnic: “The odd thing, one of the odd things, about my passion for Mrs. Grace,” Max recalls, “is that it fizzled out almost in the same moment that it achieved what might be considered its apotheosis.” Quite soon it transfers itself to Chloe, though not with the same speed or intensity. It starts when the projector breaks down in the corrugated iron barn that houses the Ballyless cinema, and Max and Chloe kiss in the dark. The new passion comes to a climax a few days later when Max and Chloe and Myles, all in their wet swimsuits, are sitting in a toolshed looking out at the sea which is rising with an unusually high, strange tide.
They can see Rose lying on the beach. “‘I hope she gets drowned,’ Chloe said…. ‘I hate her’”—she hates her, it seems, because Max had told her, after observing from a distance a conversation between Rose and Mrs. Grace, that Rose was in love with Chloe’s father. The narrative then switches to Anna’s death—again for only one paragraph—and then back to the shed, where another kind of tide is rising—this one between Max and Chloe. It culminates in “a faint mewling moan” from the girl after she has guided the boy’s hand first to her “lap” and then to her breast.
At that moment, the door opens and Rose walks in. Chloe dashes out, Rose follows her, and they stand on the beach, screaming at each other. At last Chloe sits down on the beach with her back to Rose, who walks off. Myles runs out to sit beside his sister and put his arm around her. Then the twins get up and swim out to sea. They are both excellent swimmers and they go far out,
so far as to be pale dots between pale sky and paler sea, and then one of the dots disappeared. After that it was all over very quickly, I mean what we could see of it. A splash, a little white water, whiter than that all around, then nothing, the indifferent world closing.
Remembering the scene fifty years later, Max thinks that Chloe began to drown first, and that Myles was drowned while trying to save her.
A lifeguard swims out to try to rescue the twins, but it is too late. Rose, standing on the beach, “cried out, a sort of sob, and shook her head rapidly from side to side….” Max runs back to the Cedars, where the parents have yet to be told what happened:
In the house all was tranquil and still. I moved among the rooms as if I were myself a thing of air, a drifting spirit, Ariel set free and at a loss. I found Mrs. Grace in the living room. She turned to me, putting a hand to her mouth, the milky light of afternoon to her back. This all is silence, save for the drowsy hum of summer from without. Then Carlo [Mr.] Grace came in, saying, “Damned thing, it seems to be…” and he stopped too, and so we stood in stillness, we three, at the end.
Was’t well done?
“Was’t well done?” is what Ariel asks Prospero toward the end of The Tempest, and Prospero answers by promising to set him free. But it’s hard to see why Max—or Banville—is asking the same question of the reader thirteen pages before the end of the novel. (The “damned thing” remains unexplained.)
These final thirteen pages take the story forward again into the present. Max and Anna’s chilly daughter, Claire, has driven her father to Ballyless, where he moves into the Cedars, now a boardinghouse, owned and run by a Miss Vavasour. Miss Vavasour is so perfectly landlady-like that the shock of discovering that she was once the sexy Rose is almost as great as the twins’ deaths. One night, alone in his room, Max is overwhelmed by his grief for Anna. “Send back your ghost,” he cries. “Torment me, if you like. Rattle your chains, drag your cerements across the floor, keen like a banshee, anything. I would have a ghost.” The last request sounds a bit too Shakespearean, and it doesn’t work. No ghost appears. Max gets drunk, falls down on the beach, and knocks himself out on a stone.
His fellow lodger, “the Colonel”—a comic character whose claimed rank seems dubious to Max—finds him lying in the sand, and manages to get him back to the Cedars. When Max wakes up the next day, he finds that Claire and her boyfriend have come to drive him back home. Miss Vavasour has been in touch with them. Claire announces that she and the young man—“a bookish fellow of scant chin and extreme egalitarian views,” whom her father can’t stand—have just become engaged to be married. Max describes the moment as his “vanquishment.” “This is how, in a twinkling,” he reflects, “these things are won and lost. Read Maistre on warfare.”
But the real shock awaiting him, the secret revealed at the end of the novel, is that fifty years ago Rose Vavasour was having a flirtation—perhaps more than that—not with Mr. Grace, as Max had always imagined, and as he had told Chloe, but with Mrs. Grace. The sight that so excited the little boy at the picnic was intended for the nanny’s eyes, not the husband’s. Max realizes that for fifty years he has been wrong about the early relationships that shaped his life. One unstated implication is that his mistaken “discovery” about Rose and Mr. Grace may have led to Chloe’s argument with Rose on the beach and thus to the twins’ death—but that would be another conclusion from one’s observing people without really knowing what was going on. As for Rose, he finds that the bereaved parents were very good to her. They bought the Cedars and set her up as the landlady Miss Vavasour. Banville seems just as fond of rococo Huguenot surnames (in Eclipse, there’s a Miss Vendeleur) as he is of baroque adjectives like “flocculent” and “leporine.”
The Colonel is a perfectly described comic figure—hints of his original Belfast accent “keep escaping, like trapped wind”—and so is an enormously fat, emphatically upper-class (“daughter of the hyphenated gentry”) lesbian spinster nicknamed Bun. She is a friend of Miss Vavasour’s who comes to lunch one day, and she is not completely unconnected with the plot, because the Cedars belonged to her “people” (class again), and it was through her that the Graces acquired it for Miss Vavasour. All the same, like the Colonel, she is just a comic character, not essential to the story at all, but a relief when she arrives toward the end, after all the poetic philosophy and philosophical poetry in the rest of the book.
Perhaps there is a bit too much of that. But it is in Max’s character as a man of “insoluble equivocations” to go on the way he does; and he tones himself down, every now and again, with brief lapses into plain speech: “In her [Chloe] I had my first experience of the absolute otherness of other people. It is not too much to say—well, it is, but I shall say it anyway—that in Chloe the world was first manifest for me as an objective entity.” Besides, Banville is very good at evoking character. Every member of the cast in The Sea is palpably alive and real.