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 …