- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

THE SEA

By John Banville

Knopf, $23, 195 pages

REVIEWED BY SUDIP BOSE

Of all the varied and beautiful depictions of the sea that that I have encountered in art — there’s Debussy’s “La Mer,” and Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” and my favorite psalm of all, Psalm 107 (“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters: These see the works of the Lord and his wonders of the deep”) — it’s a scene from the movies that sticks out the most.

In the 1946 film “Humoresque,” a heartbroken Joan Crawford walks slowly into the ocean at nighttime, drowning herself amid the advancing waves with Wagner’s “Liebestod” as her dirge.

Indeed, the sea might represent many things — a source of awesome power (as in Debussy), a metaphor for the “great sweet mother” (Joyce’s “Ulysses”) — but it is very often associated with death.

So it is in John Banville’s autumnal, dreamlike new novel. Its narrator, Max Morden, has escaped to a guesthouse on the Irish coast, after the death of his wife, Anna, from cancer, and he aims primarily to relive the events of a particular summer 50 years back, when he vacationed as a boy upon that same stretch of coast.

The details of that summer, hazy and elliptical as they are, are rendered in a series of tableaux (not surprising given that Max is an art historian, though one “of scant talent and scanter ambition”). Ten or 11 years old at the time, Max had accompanied his parents to the seaside, where he met the Graces — father Carlo, mother Connie and the twins Chloe and Myles.

The Graces (the mythological significance of that surname is important) are everything Max’s family is not. “I thought of course that they were the gods,” he says of the family, “so different were they from anyone I had hitherto known.”

The narrator’s people, by contrast, “did not drink gin, or have people down for the weekend, or leave touring maps of France insouciantly on show in the back windows of [their] cars.” Max’s insinuation into the Grace’s existence might have been a form of social climbing, but it was, for him, nothing less than an initiation into an alien world.

Some of the difficulty in reading “The Sea” lies in the unsavory nature of the narrator. To be sure, his grief over Anna’s death has plunged him into the loneliest of emotional depths, a “place, miles from anywhere, and anyone.”

When he says, “What a little vessel of sadness we are, sailing in this muffled silence through the autumn dark,” we might recall D.H. Lawrence’s haunting late poem “Ship of Death” and all the melancholy associated with it.

But Max is selfish, self-conscious, self-pitying (“I am bereaved and wounded and require indulging”), resentful of his daughter and eminently condescending. About Miss Vavasour, who runs the guesthouse and plays the piano from time to time, Max says: “She plays Chopin very nicely. I hope she does not start on John Field, I could not bear that. Early on I tried to interest her in Faur, the late nocturnes in particular. She says she cannot get her fingers around the notes. Your mind, more like, I do not reply.”

Max also uses what seems like an unnecessarily antique vocabulary. He speaks of “adipose tissue,” a “flocculent hush,” a “concave integument,” “bosky side roads,” an “etiolated, world-weary elegance,” a “velutinous texture.”

And he has a habit of mythologizing his life. Is it not the height of self-aggrandizement to think of oneself inhabiting “Pluto’s realm, amidst the trackless wastes, a lyreless Orpheus?” Or to imagine one’s death as stepping “into the black boat on the shadowed river with the coin of passage cold in [an] already coldening hand?”

But framing his protagonist’s life in elevating, mythic terms is essential to the tension Mr. Banville achieves. For much of the novel, the story of the Graces feels unworthy of the weight Max ascribes to it. A mere family picnic on the strand, where furtive glances are stolen among the children and adults, becomes “that day of licence and illicit invitation.”

The Graces are portrayed as deities, patriarch Carlo as “the Poseidon of our summer,” but they are hardly godlike in appearance or action. They aren’t particularly attractive (not the matronly Connie Grace, the narrator’s first love, nor young Chloe, his second), and they give off rather human aromas; Max notices, for example, “the cheesy tang in the crevices of [Chloe’s] elbows and her knees.”

Indeed, “The Sea” is built on a series of contradictions, tensions, inconsistencies. Even Max’s reasons for returning to the sea — returning, ostensibly to die — are murky. At one point, he desires a “long indian summer” at the end of his life, “a state of tranquility, of calm incuriousness, all mysteries settled, all questions answered, and the moments dripping away, unnoticed almost, drip by golden drip, toward the final, almost unnoticed quietus.”

At another, he envisions something rather different: “an apotheosis of some kind, some grand climacteric;” “I want anger, vituperation, violence,” he confesses.

His memory is unreliable, and Mr. Banville’s sensual, arresting prose is filled with intentional contradiction. Take this one marvelous and unstable sentence: “I breathed deep the stale unlived-in air, and felt that I had been traveling for a long time, for years, and had at last arrived at the destination to where, all along, without knowing it, I had been bound, and where I must stay, it being, for now, the only possible place, the only possible refuge, for me.”

The tone of that sentence is funereal, suggestive of the final breath, the calm farewell, the inevitability of dying. But notice the halting, asthmatic quality of this breath, punctuated by all those commas. There is nothing easy or smooth in this business of farewell.

So the question remains: Why does Max mythologize a seemingly banal past? I honestly found it an annoying flaw of the book until I reached its end and encountered the tragedy that is related in those beautiful final pages. Only then do we understand why Max has returned to the Irish coast, why he lives so obsessively in the past, why he frames his life in such grandiose terms.

The ancients created myth, of course, to explain the unexplainable. Thus does Max mythologize his life: How else can one explain a tragedy of that intensity but by imbuing it with the stuff of myth? Cannot a person absolve himself of guilt by believing that certain events in which one played a part were beyond one’s control, that they were determined by the gods? How else can Max give order and meaning to his life?

And yet, the greater sadness lies in the fact that Max chooses to rationalize his tragic life by himself. At the end of “The Sea,” the narrator remembers a scene at the beach 50 years before: “And indeed nothing had happened, a momentous nothing, just another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference.”

This is Mr. Banville’s poignant anticlimax, not the apotheosis, the great climacteric, but a shrug of indifference. If Max wishes to stand out in this uncaring world, he will have to do so alone, forge a climax of his own life — a difficult task indeed, for such a lonely, miserable soul.

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.

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