Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The Sea – John Banville — A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 10, 2009

                      Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought — Shelley

It is my belief that of all the human emotions, “Grief”, will probably be the frontrunner in being most amenable for a richer treatment in literary terms than any other emotion. Even after accounting for my limited range of reading, I am yet to come across a book centered around joy and happiness that made for great literature or considered to be a classic in the normal sense of the word. Mythological magnum opuses across cultures, ancient and modern drama, the greatest plays of Shakespeare, Russian, French, English and for that matter any country’s so called great literature – past or contemporary – are centered around some form of human grief or predicaments that lead to grief.  A majority of these works of fiction may have happy endings but the route to that state is primarily through the inevitable stygian doors of grief. But why should it be so? Maybe it has do with the mind of a human being and its workings – especially around desires, expectations and aspirations and a natural tendency to be led to grief on their non fulfilment. In addition, I guess the routes to grief are exponentially diverse as compared to routes to happiness and hence the availability of topics for literary treatment. Maybe it is the recognition of this scheme of things that prompted Tolstoy to open Anna Karenina with those immortal lines – “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – How utterly true!! But why this preamble? I have completed reading John Banville‘s “The Sea” and was absolutely taken in by the brilliant depiction of human memory of grief

Max Horden is an art historian who returns to ‘The Cedars’ on the seaside town of Fields –  the place of his childhood as a diversion to overcome the bereavement of his beloved wife Anna. The Cedars is run by Mrs.Vivasour as a transit house. This journey sets in motion a memory recall of his life so far and also a tragic and painful event of his childhood involving his interaction with the Grace family. The Grace family consists of Mr and Mrs Grace (Connie), their twin children Chloe and Myles and their governess Rosie who are on a visit to The Cedars to spend a summer. Max gets infatuated with both the Connie and Chloe and the intimacy between Max and Chloe is noticed by Rosie. Chloe who has an altercation with Rosie on this issue drowns herself in the sea and Myles who tries to save his sister also gets drowned. Till his visit to the The Cedars as a widower, Max lives under the impression that Rosie was responsible for Chloe and Myles death and also of Rosie’s love for Mr.Grace. Towards the end the reader comes to know that Mrs.Vivasour is none other than Rosie. Mrs.Vivasour also explains that she was not responsible for the twins death and that her love was for Mrs. Grace and not Mr.Grace. After a brief illness arising out of a drunken binge during the visit, Max reverts to his life in city with a complete understanding of the events of his childhood and a seeming sense of reconciliation. That in summary is the plot of this book. In many ways this is an ordinary plot, yet I would not hesitate to say that “The Sea” will remain as one of the finest books in contemporary writing that I have read. There are many fine aspects of this book that will remain etched in my mind

Banville comes out as a writer with an extraordinary control on language. In his hands language acquires an indescribable flexibility – flowing, turning, gurgling, curving, effortlessly manoeuvring blind alleys, plumbing into the depths of human mind and feelings – all without sacrificing any aspect of the narrative flow, continuity or coherence and without being showy or pedantic. There is a great beauty in the way thoughts, feelings and situations are laid threadbare and unravelled at a contained pace. Of the many expectations I have from fiction, an essential one is about its function to not only tell a reader what one should and can be but also what one was. In other words it should where possible resurrect long forgotton or dead memories of its readers.  As I was reading through the book there were many thoughts, opinions and feelings that Max Horden recalls which could have been mine unarticulated.  At one point Max says the following “……………………..  Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see that the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit, it, for cosiness. This is a surprising, not to say a shocking, realisation. Before, I saw myself as something of a buccaneer, facing all-comers with a cutlass in my mouth, but now I am compelled to acknowledge that this was a delusion. To be concealed, protected, guarded, that is all I have ever truly wanted, to burrow down into a place of womby warmth and cower there, hidden from sky’s indifferent gaze and the harsh air’s damagings. That is why the past is just such a retreat for me, I go there eagerly rubbing my hands and shaking off the cold present and the colder future. And yet, what existence, really does it have, the past? After all, it is only what the present was, once, the present that is gone, no more than that…..” in many ways, coming from the place, background and time I am from, this more or less accurately sums up my own life so far and maybe an accurate depiction of the life for a many around us. Alternately when Max says” ………….  Happiness was different in childhood. It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things – new experiences, new emotions – and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be marvellously finished pavilion of the self. And incredulity, that too was a large part of being happy, I mean that euphoric inability fully to believe one’s simple luck” — so very life relevant in my case! 

Banville excels in situation building and razor sharp psychological sketches. Consider the situation when Max has to announce to the reader that Anna has been diagnosed with a debilitating illness and he does it in just one brillaint sentence “In the midst of the imperial progress that was our life together, a grinning losel (a worthless person) had stepped out of the cheering crowd and sketching a parody of a bow had handed my tragic queen the warrant of impeachment” or when Max sums up his own life aspirations and struggles “I was a distinct no one, whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone” (aren’t a majority of us like this?)….. or Max’s observation on interacting with Myles   ” …     for being alone with Myles was like being in a room which someone has just violently left …..

Banville‘s writing style is unique and with a freshness that a first time reader that I was thrilled at it. There is a drug like and hypnotic quality to his prose.It is my guess that readers will have extreme reactions to his prose — they will either like it for the handling of the language and storytelling or simply discard it as being prolix. I belong to former category

At places the book reminded me of Herman Raucher‘s “The Summer of 42” maybe because of the sea-side setting, a reminscence of adolescence and the identicality of an adolescent’s thoughts around women. The younger Max reminded me of Hermie in a limited way

When it comes to books, I am like a carpet. Many of them walk over me and leave their invisible footprints on my mind. How and what am I going to do with these accumulated marks remains an open question. Maybe, I decide to leave them that way forever. Needless to say that “The Sea” has been a heavy-footed walker with an inherent capacity for a large footprint

A worthy winner of the 2005 Booker prize

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