Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Over my holiday I read John Banville’s The Sea very slowly. I think he is a good author to take slowly, and I liked being able to take up with the book a little each day and meander through his careful sentences. The Sea is an interesting novel, with not much resembling any sort of plot. Despite the quietness of the narrator’s account and his sometimes hazy focus, there are two stories vying for attention – narrator Max’s childhood memory and his feelings about a more recent, but significant loss. But even without any overt plot, there is movement. Max uses his memories of the one painful experience to get to the heart of the other, much more powerful one.

I mentioned before that my initial experience with The Sea was slightly disappointing because it reminded me so quickly of the Banville novel I read and loved last year – Eclipse. As I got deeper into The Sea, some of the resemblance wore off, but the more striking similarities remained. Especially the overall narrative tone and how the book features a narrator escaping into the past to deal with a present trauma.

Now I happened to really like the narrator in Eclipse, so finding him in slightly altered form in The Sea wasn’t necessarily a problem for me. I just had to make some small adjustments to my expectations, to try and banish my vision of Alex from Eclipse and let Max come into his own. There were differences, although mostly in detail, not much in tone and emotional structure.

There was something very ominous about The Sea, a moody and threatening subtext which I think created much of the novel’s tension. I felt this mostly when Max went into the past to describe his relationship with the Grace family but it was there in his more recent memories as well and in his current-day conversations with his daughter or the other residents of the hotel where he is staying. I saw this as Banville’s acceptance of the more dangerous aspects of grief. Not the danger of suffering, or the way sadness can surreptitiously and wholly take over, but more a kind of simmering violence. The understanding that things are not right, and that they won’t ever be right.

This is only my second Banville novel and I’m sure I’ll be looking for more, if anything just to enjoy the thick texture of his writing. There were moments when I wished he’d taken a simpler route to convey a thought or two, but on the whole I like his layering and complicated sentences, his obscure word choice and heavy images. This type of writing asks me to slow down and measure out the rhythm of each word.



14 Responses to “John Banville – The Sea”

  1. ted

    Hmmm. I think I’ll let more time elapse between eclipse and this one so I can really look forward to it. Hope you had a good vacation.

  2. Amateur Reader

    Banville’s novels function, mostly, at the level of the sentence. This is almost as true for more strongly plotted novels like The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable as it is for The Sea. The mysteries are probably different.

    I’ve read almost all of his fiction, and enjoy it enormously. But, right, you have to slow down. The art is in the adjectives and the metaphors.

  3. ds

    The Sea was wonderful: rich and moving. Amateur Reader is right, Banville’s art does lie in his layered sentences, the metaphors–the poetry.Now to add Eclipse to the wishlist!

  4. verbivore

    Ted – I’m planning to do the same between now and the next Banville that I read. I really like his writing but a pause is a good idea, I think, to make sure I really appreciate his writing and the nuances of the story.

    Amateur Reader – Do you have a favorite? I’m looking for which one I might try next.

    ds – I hope you enjoy Eclipse, it was a favorite from among the books I read last year. I look forward to seeing what you think.

  5. Peg

    I loved the tone of this novel. I agree with you about the ominous moodiness.

  6. Litlove

    I’m really glad you enjoyed this. I couldn’t get on with it, and in fact gave it up three-quarters of the way through. I wonder whether I tried to read it too fast. At the time, it just didn’t seem to be about anything – or not sufficiently to make me want to finish it. But often, it’s more a question of reading a book at the wrong time, than the book itself being insufficient.

  7. smithereens

    I loved the Sea, being the first Banville I ever read. Especially his writing. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I love what you say about the underlying tension and violence. I didn’t see it at the time but you’re very right. It’s something you’ll find in his mystery Christine Falls too.

  8. verbivore

    Peg – I think the tone is what really made this novel worth reading. The story, when stripped down, is somewhat ordinary, nothing flashy, but the tone Banville creates makes the whole thing extraordinary.

    Litlove – I agree, there is a lot to reading a book at the right moment. I’ve had that with other books, books that friends have loved but I just didn’t seem to latch onto. Sometimes I’ve gone back to it later and understood what they were raving about.

    Smithereens – I’m looking forward to trying Cristine Falls, especially because so many readers and Banville fans especially have recommended it. I’m impressed with Banville’s ability to pull of two genres.

  9. Amateur Reader

    My favorite is The Book of Evidence, a Lolita-like monster’s semi-confession. I’ve known at least one reader who found the subject matter too repellent to enjoy the book – fair warning.

    Anyone with an interest in the history of science should try Doctor Copernicus. Anyone irritated by Banville’s lack of interest in plot will be pleasantly surprised by his John LeCarré-like The Untouchable.

  10. Dorothy W.

    I’ve read Banville only in his mystery-writing version, but I’m curious about his “literary” novels. I can’t tell if I would love them or hate them, so I guess I’m a bit reluctant to try. But I did like the mystery I read, so that’s a good sign.

  11. estelle

    Took this with me for holiday reading too, and I must say I am now a raving Banville fan. Comparing this book, which exhibits Banville’s intimate and wide-ranging knowledge of the English language, with Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a book which purports to feature a logophilic protagonist, is a bit of a laughable exercise. I will definitely follow up on his other books, Eclipse included.

  12. verbivore

    Amateur Reader – I’m adding The Book of Evidence to my list right away, it may be difficult but I love it when an author tackles something this difficult. I’ll recommend Doctor Copernicus to the Swiss fellow – great idea.

    Dorothy – And I’m interested in trying Christine Falls now that I’ve gotten used to Banville’s more literary voice. I’m impressed with his ability to write in the two genres…harder than it might seem.

    Estelle – It’s beautiful isn’t it? I’ve never tried Oryx and Crake, although there are a few Atwood I do enjoy, I can see where Banville and Atwood just wouldn’t compare. I can’t wait to hear what you think of Eclipse, I think its better than The Sea, but that might be because I read it first.

  13. Care

    I have recently read this and loved it. You have captured so much in this review that I agree with! I’ll be linking…

  14. The Sea « Care's Online Book Club

    […] for the What’s in a Name 3 Challenge (“elegant and poetic style of writing”) ,  Incurable Logophilia (“…a good author to take slowly, and I liked being able to take up with the book a […]

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