Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The Sea

John Banville's new novel seems at first as simple and straightforward as its title, and as familiar: one of those wispy, graceful books about memory and regret, in which an aging narrator takes us back to a semi-idyllic childhood that will, we know, end with a terrible, shocking event -- something sexual, most likely -- after which nothing will ever be the same. The past is a foreign country, and all that. "The Sea" is, at least apparently, the sort of novel English writers do in their sleep. But Banville is Irish, which puts him at a bit of a disadvantage, since Irish writers on the whole prefer to remain awake during the act of composition. And Banville, as he has demonstrated pretty conclusively in 13 previous novels, is not an artist to whom simplicity comes naturally.

He is, in fact, a compulsive complicator: a constructor of fantastically elaborate sentences and a dedicated deconstructor of his narrators' invariably shifty selves. The Banville hero -- who always tells his own story, as if in the confessional or the dock -- is typically a fraud of some kind, an impostor, often a criminal; his name is frequently an alias, his true identity a mystery to others and, usually, himself. The murderers, spies, con men and lesser weasels who slink through this writer's fiction have in common a verbal inventiveness born of dire necessity -- the necessity of concealing at all costs the deep inauthenticity of their lives. Banville likes to catch such characters at the moment when their particular jigs are, at last, up, and see what they have to say for themselves then.

Max Morden, the woolgathering narrator of "The Sea," is by Banville's standards rather a benign specimen of bad-faith humanity, just an aging art critic -- "a man of leisurely interests and scant ambition," he calls himself -- who will never finish his long-procrastinated monograph on Bonnard because he has, by his own admission, nothing urgent or remotely original to say. Morden's wife has recently died, and he has taken a room in a boardinghouse that was occupied, more than 50 summers earlier, by the major players in his personal loss-of-innocence tragedy: the Grace family -- father; mother; the twins, Chloe and Myles -- and a young nanny named Rose. Max was a working-class kid, embarrassed by his parents: the Graces had the free and easy manners of the wealthier and grander. Old Max, remembering, refers to them in his first sentence as "the gods," which sounds a bit much. But in this sort of book portentous rhetoric, preferably laced with classical allusions, is an absolute requirement: an air of consequence must hang heavy over even the most trivial actions, the most ordinary settings. The idea is to suspend us in a lyrical trance while we wait -- and wait and wait -- for the penny to drop.

Banville can do this trick, and in the first half of "The Sea" he lays on the atmosphere as thickly as a smoke-and-mirrors illusionist. His descriptive passages are dense and almost numbingly gorgeous. ("The mud shone blue as a new bruise," for example, then a sentence later: "the water racing in over the flats swift and shiny as mercury, stopping at nothing.") And he's adept, too, at deploying the mind-clouding aphorisms the English-style memory-novel cannot, apparently, do without. "So much of life was stillness then, when we were young," he writes, "or so it seems now; a biding stillness; a vigilance." And another: "Happiness was different in childhood." Another: "But then, at what moment, of all our moments, is life not utterly, utterly changed, until the final, most momentous change of all?" And one more (my favorite): "What a little vessel of sadness we are, sailing in this muffled silence through the autumn dark."

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