It really does take reading John Banville at his best to fully understand why he had such a hellacious beef with Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. As I pointed out in my recent review of Saturday, Banville had some pretty nasty things to say about McEwan’s book in his own review, published in The New York Times. I can’t think of two other prominent U.K. authors who reside at such opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum. Whereas McEwan’s neo-realistic tome errs heavily on the side of craft, Banville’s novel The Sea, for which he was awarded the 2005 Man Booker Prize, is a pure and unapologetic work of art. The covenant that The Sea strikes with its reader is at once cold, complex and even daunting. This isn’t a novel you read unless you’re prepared to do some serious work.
What drives Banville’s approach is of course his commitment to his prose-as-poetry kind of style, which he sustains over 260 pages with barely a pause for breath. The Sea is a long rumination on death, memory and the effects of the past on the present – told in a lyrical style that achieves an almost dream-like quality. The Sea’s plot is nearly a deliberate cliché of a standard ‘literary’ novel: protagonist Max Morden, following the death of his wife Anna, returns to a seaside village where he spend a holiday as a child, and while there confronts the sins of the past as they butt up against the grim reality of his present. But a close reading soon reveals that The Sea is neither clichéd nor standard. Not at all.
As a child on that vacation, Max spent time with the eccentric Grace family: the tempestuous, precociously sexual daughter Chloe, her mute twin brother Myles, their young nursemaid Rose, and the Grace parents, Connie and Carlos. There is a strange, unwholesome dynamic emerging in this family, one that Max grows steadily aware of as he develops a boyish crush on the mother, Connie Grace. As the older Max reminisces about the forces that emerged to tear the Grace family apart, he soon sees connections and permutations about how he has reacted to his wife Anna’s death and how he has treated their daughter Claire in his elder years.
To say much more about the intricacies of The Sea’s plot is actually to give too much away. There is enough to gnaw on here in terms of story: an unrequited homosexual love, a wife grappling with the news that she’s going to die of cancer, and a drowning in the sea of the novel’s title. But what impresses about The Sea is what it achieves within the confines of what should be a contrived narrative structure. Banville skillfully moves between scenes from the far past, the near past and the present to weave a number of successful thematic connections together, and he does this without ever making the reader feel like he’s being taken for a ride. Part of it is that dream-like prose style, with scenes that undulate in and out like ocean waves; but part of it is also the careful work that Banville does to tie the novel’s various motifs into one singular and binding work of art. By comparison, something like Saturday comes off as plodding and manipulative.
One of my favourite reoccurring concepts in The Sea is the idea of horseplay-taken-to-hostile extremes, which occurs in all three separate timelines. There is good-natured wrestling on the ground that suddenly turns hostile; there is a dinner-table debate that transforms into a hurtful argument; and there are cruel words between children and adults that set the novel’s climax in motion. This is just one example of a deliberate literary construction that helps to tie several thematic threads together.
Banville will never be accused of being an “easy” novelist, and nor should he be. Unlike McEwan’s Saturday, The Sea makes no attempt to strike a populist chord. It is dense and layered and at times inscrutable. But it is also gorgeously written, with sentences that convey so much depth of emotion and raw momentum. This is a book you read slowly, savouring each turn of phrase and thematic twist until it has braided something indelible inside your mind.