The Sea is the story of a troubled man who, after great personal tragedy, returns obsessively to the site of an earlier tragedy and re-experiences it without exhibiting much relief. I don’t think this character changes much; it is more that the reader is invited to make an increasingly large emotional investment as he reveals himself. So, how is this story told?
Last week, I suggested that the protagonist, Max, relies on The Sea’s literary style to tell the story, perhaps to tell more than he himself is able to.
Literary style can be defined as how a writer decides to express whatever he wants to say; his choice of words, the sentence structure, syntax, language (figurative or metaphorical). It is the way a writer writes, and it is the implied author who polishes and edits this prose, creating the style. “Distinct from the author and the narrator, the term refers to the "authorial character" that a reader infers from a text based on the way a literary work is written.”
‘Kay. So the implied author creates a story’s style, and in The Sea, Max relies on the style to tell the story. He leans on the implied author, more than many characters do.
In The Old Illusion of Belonging, Distinctive Style, Bad Faith, and John Banville’s The Sea, Monica Faccinello of the University of York, writes about how Max hides behind the style of the book, because without it, he fears he is nothing. As I wrote last week, Max feels he has no home, no career; he has no authenticity as a husband and a father. Faccinello discusses Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” citing Max as a prime example. Bad faith, Sartre says, is a lie to oneself, the attempt at “hiding a displeasing truth or to show as truth a pleasing untruth”, made possible, Sartre explains, by the fact that we are not “in-ourselves” what we are “for-ourselves.”
The French philosopher offers the example of the waiter in a café, a man who makes “the typical gestures” of the waiter in order to be one. But in having to play the role, to represent himself as a waiter, Sartre argues, this man confirms that he is not a waiter.
I believe this is a rather harsh way to look at behavior that is fairly common. When people begin a new job, a new role, it’s normal to experience a sense of “pretending” to be what one has not yet become. In-authentic. Growing into something. But in Max, the author is showing someone who takes a degree program in pretending, and never graduates.
“Yet I know that I exist, that I am here…Now when I say “I,” it seems hollow to me. I can’t manage to feel myself very well, I am so forgotten. The only real thing left in me is existence which feels it exists. I yawn, lengthily. No one. Antoine Roquentin exists for no one. That amuses me. And just what is Antoine Roquentin? An abstraction. A pale reflection of myself wavers in my consciousness. Antoine Roquentin…and suddenly the “I” pales, pales, and fades out.” (J.P. Sartre Nausea).
Ow, a painful way to live, and Max is in pain. (which, actually, bestows authenticity). Now, it would seem that the whining gentleman is not with us this week, but if he were, he might object that Max is not real. He is a character in a novel, a creation of an author who remains behind the scenes.
In The Sea, there is an illusion that the story represents Max writing a sort of diary or journal, in which he “confesses” shameful deeds and thoughts. Because of the poetic prose and frequent allusion to other great writers, the reader who is seduced by this illusion gets the sense that Max himself must be extraordinarily sensitive and literate, whereas actually it is the implied author (with Mr. Banville’s guidance) who is so. There is an illusion that Max Morden is at least a fine writer, if not also a basically good person wracked by grief and guilt. Max the character is not likable, but the reader (I think) grows to feel sorry for him, to excuse his behavior. Illusion because the story’s prose is not Max’s; it’s how the implied author “packages” the story. “Max” isn’t writing anything. And this is, I believe, Ms. Faccinello’s point, that Max tries to claim the authenticity he does not feel he has by hiding behind the story’s style.
The idea here is that a shady character can hide behind gorgeous prose and the legitimacy that’s gained by reference to other great works. However, if the reader pries beneath the beautiful style, she/he finds a hollow man.
Of course Max Morden (Modern) is not “real;” he’s a character in a novel, and his situation is meant to show something—perhaps that certain people experience themselves as inauthentic, and that this is tragic. And that this self-experience of inauthenticity could have its origins in particular experiences in the past. I think it is taking it too concretely to say that the point of The Sea is that to erect an identity through style is to indulge in bad faith. Who’s being accused of bad faith here? Max? John Banville? This is rabbit hole stuff, best beloved. Things become murky pretty fast. Is it that the story itself is pretending to be a novel? Is John Banville—who is a masterful author—pretending to be one?
I do not know, my friend. I do not know. But I love this book.
Next week, a new story: Erri de Luca’s Three Horses. Till then.