Thursday, June 11, 2009

94. The Sea – John Banville.

History: This book was published in 2005
Plot: The story is told by Max Morden, a self-aware, retired art historian attempting to reconcile himself to the deaths of those whom he loved as a child and as an adult.
The novel is written as a reflective journal; the setting always in flux, wholly dependent upon the topic or theme Max feels to write about. Despite the constant fluctuations, Max returns to three settings: his childhood memories of the Graces -- a wealthy middle class family living in a rented cottage home, the "Cedars" -- during the summer holidays; the months leading up to the death of his wife, Anna; and his present stay at the Cedars cottage home in Ballyless -- where he has retreated since Anna's death. These three settings are heavily diced and impromptly jumbled together for the novel's entire duration.
Max's final days with Anna were awkward; Max does not know how to act with his soon-to-be-dead wife. Scenes of Anna's dying days are more full of commentary than with actual details, as are most of the novel's settings. It's through these commentaries that we learn of Max's choice to return to the cottage of his childhood memories (after Anna's death), confirming that a room would be available for residence during a visit with his adult daughter, Claire.
We learn of the Cedars' current house-maid, Miss Vavasour, and her other tenant: a retired army Colonel, often described as a background character (even during his important role in the denouement). The Colonel is also seen, at the beginning of Max's stay, to have a crush on Miss Vavasour; Max suspects Miss Vavasour had entertained the Colonel's slight infatuation prior to Max's own arrival.
Despite the actual present day setting of the novel (everything is written by Max, after Anna's death, while he stays in the Cedars home), the underlying motivation to Max's redaction of memories, the single setting which ties the novel together, are Max's childhood memories. With Max's unreliable, unorganised and omitted iteration of events, we gradually learn the names of the Graces: Chloe, the wild daughter; Myles, the mute brother; Connie, the mother; Carlos, the father; and finally the twins' nursemaid, Rose. After brief encounters, and fruitless moments of curiosity, Max becomes infatuated with Connie Grace upon first sight; seeing her lounging at the beach launches him to acquaint Chloe and Myles in, what Max stipulates to have been a conscious effort to get inside the Cedars, hence, closer to Mrs. Grace. He succeeds. Later, Max recounts being invited on a picnic -- for what reasons or what specific time during the summer is never explicitly stated -- where Max, in awe, catches an unkempt glance at her pelvic area. This day of "illicit invitation" climaxes when Max is pulled to the ground, and snuggled closely with Connie and Rose in a game of hide-and-seek.
The latter half of his summer memories (the relation of Max's memories in the second part of the novel), however, revolve around Max's awkward relationship with Chloe: a girl with a spastic personality and blunt demeanor whom Max describes as one who "[does] not play, on her own or otherwise". Chloe is shown as a volatile character: flagrantly kissing Max in a Cinema, rough-housing with her brother Myles, and what was hinted as hypersexuality earlier, is quite possibly confirmed as hypersexuality in the book's final moments.
We soon learn that Chloe and Myles like to tease Rose, who is young and timid enough to feel bullied. Max, another day, climbs a tree in the yard of the Ceders house, and soon spots Rose crying not too far from him. Mrs. Grace soon emerges, comforting Rose. Max overhears (rather, Max remembers overhearing) key words from their conversation: "love him" and "Mr. Grace". Assuming this to mean Rose and Mr. Grace are having an affair, he tells Chloe and Myles. The ending of the book entwines the exact moment of Anna's death with Chloe and Myles drowning in the sea itself as Max and Rose look on. Max, done with his childhood memories, offers a final memory of a near-death episode while he was inebriated. The Colonel does not physically save Max, rather finds him knocked unconscious by a rock (from a drunken stumble). His daughter scolds him at the hospital, assumingly being told he nearly killed himself, and tells him to come home with her. It is revealed at this point that Miss Vavasour is Rose herself. Max finishes with a redaction of himself standing in the sea after Anna's death (an allegory is made between crashing waves and tumultuous periods of his life). We are to assume that he will leave the Cedars' home to be cared for by his daughter, Claire.
Review: The Sea is a novel dominated by the ebb and flow of memory. It centres on the figure of Max Morden, a widower whose wife has recently died of cancer. Bereft and torn from the moorings that have anchored his adult life, Max, prompted by a dream, returns to the seaside village where he spent one formative childhood summer. He settles in a boarding house, the Cedars, that was rented by a family, the Graces, whom Max befriended when he was young, and it is the narrative of that fateful summer which pulls like an insistent undertow throughout this fluid and affecting work.
Banville demonstrates a masterful technical control of his material. The narrative moves in a stately, tidal motion across the past as Max loses himself in reveries. The Graces, he remembers, exercised a peculiar fascination on his childhood self. They are monied, sophisticated and distinctly his social superiors. Max deliberately ingratiates himself among them by befriending their two children, non-identical twins Chloe and the mute and somewhat spooky Myles. Though he first forms a crush on the mother, Max soon transfers his affections to Chloe - a girl a couple of years his senior and hovering on the verge of pubescence.
While the novel dwells meditatively on the childhood pursuits that dominated his summer, Max's memories of the Graces also act as a springboard for more wide-ranging recollections about the ups and downs of his married life, the doomed relationship of his parents, and the tortuous death of his wife, Anna. Yet it is not the events themselves which are particularly noteworthy but Banville's ability to tease out, in a prose that is never less than exquisitely wrought, the resonances in the commonplace which echo with amplified significance throughout an individual's life.
Max is a writer of sorts who is attempting (though failing) to write a book on the painter Bonnard. As the novel unfolds, it becomes apparent that language itself is not simply its medium but its theme. The Sea is a meditation on memory, identity and language, rich in literary allusion, brilliant in the subtlety of its detailed observation, wholly overpowering in its accumulated force. It confirms Banville's reputation as once of finest prose stylists working in English today and, in the sheer beauty of its achievement, is unlikely to be bettered by any other novel published this year.
Opening Line: “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”
Closing Line: “A nurse came out to fetch me, and I turned and followed her inside, as if I was walking into the sea.”
Quotes: I could not think, my mind seemed filled with toppling masonary.
Rating: Okay

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