There are, to my mind, two forms of novel by John Banville. In the one he appropriates a real life as the skeleton around which to hang his story, as in the historical novels which first attracted me to his work, Kepler and Doctor Copernicus, or more recently Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable or Paul De Man in Shroud. In the second, what we might call his more attenuated works, he goes into the febrile mind of a man (usually called Max Morden, an appropriately death-fixated name, though I am never entirely sure if we are meant to believe they are all the same Max Morden) who is addicted to remembering, so that all, past and present, acquire an etiolated quality. I enjoy both types, but the latter, though slimmer, are usually much slower to read, and The Sea (Picador 2005) is definitely of the second sort.
By the way, sorry about the language – attenuated, febrile, etiolated – but that is the way Banville writes and it is catching.
In this new novel, Morden’s wife has died and driven partly by a dread of continuing to sleep in the marriage bed, partly by a memory of childhood, he has retreated to a run-down guest house in the seaside resort where he and his parents stayed in a beach chalet every summer of his childhood. One year the guest house was the summer home of the glamorous Grace family, and eleven-year-old Max finds himself falling in love first with the louche mother, then with the daughter of his own age, Chloe, who has a mute twin brother, Myles. The stage is set, as always in Banville, for reconciliation through tragedy. Memories of joy and of sorrow seem so closely linked in his work that it is impossible at times to say which is which. And they are approached always, as in this sentence, through hesitation. His narrator, Morden, whichever Morden it might be, is forever qualifying his statements as if, in other words, if that is the right phrase, to be precise – but he is not precise. Such qualifications are not the mark of precision, the necessity to get it right, rather they are the mark of obfuscation, of putting off, of clouding what is already a cloudy mind.
Through the uncertainties of language we learn about Morden’s discomfort in the tiny society of the guest house (which sounds so much like places I knew when I was a child in the Fifties, and which I had thought had long since disappeared from our coastlines), of the last year of his wife’s life, and about that childhood summer. It is a summer of observation conducted in almost total silence – there is remarkably little dialogue in Banville’s novels, and what there is often comes displaced, so that an obiter dicta of his wife will intrude upon a day on the beach with Chloe. The watchful silence suits the hesitation and nervousness of the boy; those who speak most are the brash, the garish, the ones he is most uncertain about – Mr Grace, his wife’s gangster father – but the silence also allows for him to get things wrong. He observes Rose, the teenage girl who serves as a nanny for the Grace family, and imagines her in an affair with Mr Grace, whereas in fact she is having an affair with Mrs Grace. The mistake will have the inevitable tragic consequences.
Will these consequences blight Morden’s life? That is not so easy a question to answer. This would appear to be the same summer in which his father leaves his mother, setting off on the traditional Irish diaspora to build the roads of England, never to be seen again. The disrupted childhood in a succession of appalling rooming houses that will follow seems to set him up for his parasitical life as much as the loss of his first love. But consequences are never clear in Banville, the haunt of memory allows a perpetual ambiguity about the when and where and why and how of Max Morden’s uncertain life, and it is the ambiguity which is Banville’s subject. The Sea is a beautiful, delicate book; just do not read it if you want something as robust as story.
First published at Livejournal, 11 July 2005.