December 27, 2005
John Banville's novel The Sea won this year's Man Booker Prize, so I felt it was somehow required of me that I read it. I'm intensely glad I did.
The Sea, unfortunately, is nearly unreviewable in that its even elegance and grace repels the highlighting of any particular aspect as especially good or even especially noticeable. Not everyone liked it (NYT's Michiko Kakutani called it "stilted, claustrophobic and numbingly pretentious," but I think she's just projecting her own character traits), but they are probably the same people that find Nabokov tiresome and Eliot cold—in other words, people who probably shouldn't be spoken with.
Seriously, though, it is a fine novel. It works not so much because of the plot—a book with similar tone and theme but far better plot can be found in Coetzee's Disgrace—but for the absolute gloriousness of the prose. It is a book you must read with deliberation and a little bit of diligence to really appreciate the fineness of each sentence and turn of phrase. Banville's plot occasionally drifts into melodrama or plot twists that mostly stand dead still, but every sentence is crafted as if he spent a week perfecting it. Some see this as a major flaw, but goddammit, few writers today can summon a command of language like Banville's, and I feel he should be read just for that.
However, there are moments of raw poignancy, and it is a strange gift that the cool eloquence of the prose can also bear such strong and powerful emotional immediacy. I spent a week in a bad mood because of the novel's intensity and depth. Banville's narrator, Max Morden (a particularly apposite surname—Max is sublimely mordant), has retreated to the sea-side resort he frequented as a child to mourn the death of his wife. So complete and totalizing is the subtlety of Max's coping that I could not help but be caught up in his mental acts of "quiet desperation." Max attempts to make his life into a crude simulacrum of Alfred Prufrock—measuring his life out in coffee spoonfuls and forcing himself into indecisions and revisions, both in his narration and his actions.
Max veers suddenly from the present and near past to a childhood past when he met a family with whom he became curiously entangled. It is an old story, but Banville keeps it interesting with the exactness of his characterizations. The oscillations between his reflections on his wife's death and the more narrative passages depicting his childhood aren't, I believe, meant to exist in tandem—if there is order, it is simply the spontaneous progressions of an ordered mind. I don't feel that these recollections accrete, building one upon the other, and if they are supposed to do so, I think Banville failed. They are nevertheless powerful, taken singularly. I appreciated the novel not because of any internal connections or plot, but because it is simply a bold and moving, lyrical tone poem. It is not orchestrated as a novel, but as a musical composition—a sonata perhaps. And it succeeds wildly in that capacity.
Posted by Andrew Seal at 9:39 AM