In 2005 John Banville won the Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Sea. At the time, he was only the second Irish writer to win the prestigious prize. The Sea was not tipped by any critics to win; in fact the bookies considered it a 7-1 outsider. The prize was a stunning victory, not least because The Sea was the most stylistic of the six books in contention, and considered the least commercial. The Daily Telegraph commented, ‘It has been said of the Irish by some English person that we gave them a language and they taught us how to use it. This is true of Wilde, Shaw, Joyce and Beckett, and now Banville.’ Illustrious company.
The Sea is Banville's fourteenth novel. His publishers, Picador, describe it as both reconciliation with loss and an extraordinary meditation on identity and remembrance. The chairman of the 2005 Booker judges, John Sutherland, who cast the deciding vote, summarised The Sea as ‘a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected’. On Banville’s writing he said, ‘You feel you’re in the presence of a virtuoso. In his hands, language is an instrument.’
With The Sea one finds oneself sipping the phrases, pausing at the delights of the language, marvelling at Banville's literary dexterity. It is to his language that many admirers are drawn, novel after novel, although in some corners his writing has been described as narcissistically verbose and ‘self-caressingly fond of fancy epithets’. Admittedly, readers may have to reach for a dictionary to discover the meaning of such words as ‘velutinous’, ‘caducous’ and ‘horrent’, but that's part of the excitement.
The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. Who ever thought of the sea bulging like a lead-blue blister? For this reader, it's highly evocative.
Or how about: It was a morning after storm, and all outside the window of the corner room looked tousled and groggy, the dishevelled lawn littered with a caducous fall of leaves and the trees swaying still, like hungover drunks.
The central character of The Sea is Max Morden, an aging art historian who retreats to the seaside town of his childhood to heal his wounds after the death of his wife and, ostensibly, to write a book on Pierre Bonnard, the French painter. Memory plays a leading role in The Sea, and so it is to the sea he must return to reconcile the recent loss of his wife with a past loss from his childhood. The narrative flows seamlessly between past and present, like the tide that ebbs and flows on the beach where 'the small waves were breaking in a listless line, over and over, like a hem being turned endlessly by a sleepy seamstress'.
The Sea is full of references to great writers of literature, to Greek gods, to French painters. However, it is his choice of Bonnard as the subject of Max's academic thesis that I find most revealing and even endearing. Bonnard wrote in a letter to Matisse, “There is always color, it has yet to become light.” Roberta Smith, in a New York Times article reviewing a 2009 Bonnard exhibition writes, 'This transformation [of light] was the project of his final decades.' She continues, 'One of the most interesting things about Bonnard’s paintings is the time warp created by their folding together of form, color and feeling. Everything contributes to a kind of slowness that relates to both art and life.'
Bonnard's wife Martha was his muse from 1893, and he painted her endlessly, often while bathing. Max regards these paintings–the baignoires– as Bonnard's finest work. As Roberta Smith says in her article, the 'paintings reveal the artist meditating on the nature of time, perception, memory', a phrase which might just as well be applied to The Sea. In the novel, Max too recalls his wife in her bath. And water is omnipresent. Waves of memory wash over each other. Some of the central scenes take place on the shore or in the sea. Drowning here is both literal and metaphoric.
The narrative can shift through time and place with great fluidity - the 'time warp' mentioned above - and the reader must be prepared to flow with it. We can do this readily because with both Banville and Bonnard we are in the hands of a master stylist. In Bonnard colour is everything, in Banville the fall of the phrases. The style is the content. A magic circle exists.
Reviews of The Sea:
‘A novel in which all of his remarkable gifts come together to produce a real work of art, disquieting, beautiful, intelligent, and in the end, surprisingly, offering consolation’ Allan Massie - Scotsman
‘You can smell and feel and see his world with extraordinary clarity. It is a work of art, and I’ll bet it will still be read and admired in seventy-five years’ Rick Gekoski - The Times
‘Poetry seems to come easily to Banville. There is so much to applaud in this book that it deserves more than one reading’ - Literary Review
'Banville has a talent for sensuous phrasing, and pungent observation of human frailty, but in other areas important for fiction — plot, character, pacing, suspense — The Sea is a crashing disappointment.' - The Sunday Times
Not all reviews were positive. It seems that critics either love him or hate him. The online site Complete Review compiles reviews, and in some instances gives them a grade A-F. Their conclusion on The Sea: No consensus, with the opinions tending toward the extreme. In fact, the As and A+'s outweigh the D's and one F (Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times) there is nothing in between. Not a B or C in sight.
This reviewer, Sebastian Smee, sums it up best of all:
'A brilliant, sensuous, discombobulating novel.' - Spectator