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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Sea

This week, a new novel: John Banville’s The Sea, published in 2005 and the winner of that year’s Man Booker Prize. It begins: “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”

I believe this is the fourth time I’ve read the book, the first time six years ago. Back in 2005, (ten years before that) I’d read a review of it, a review that really stuck with me. Why do we read particular books at particular times? We’re reminded of something, perhaps, or it’s has been sitting unread on our bookshelf for months, years. Anyway, I recall I was initially reluctant to buy The Sea because I understood that it concerned an older man grieving the death of his wife. I thought, huh, death—don’t know if I’m down for a sad story.

But I was immediately seduced by the beautiful, poetic prose and the mysterious structure of a story that moves effortlessly through time.

(whiny voice. Excuse me, I read The Sea too, I thought it was going to be about ships, but there weren’t any ships in it, no sailors. Not even fish).

Muffled voice—call security please.

The title is, I believe, a metaphoric expression of the protagonist’s experience of life, unpredictable, dramatic, a powerful symbol of nature’s mindless destructive impact on fragile human existence.

(whiny voice recedes. No it’s not! Let go of me! Bullies!)

The Sea follows a structure we have seen before, an implied author showing a first-person narrator who tells the story. It has been said by certain clever people that a first person narrator is always unreliable, in that she/he exhibits a particular perspective on a story. More on that to come.

Broadly, The Sea concerns a man named Max Morden who is staying at The Cedars, a sort of Bed and Breakfast on the Irish coast, a place familiar from his childhood. Banville says in an interview that the place is based on the town of Rosslare on the southeastern coast, a place he himself spent summers at as a boy. Max is Irish and the setting is contemporary. Max decided to go to The Cedars after having a dream that reminded him of a childhood tragedy that occurred there. He is recently widowed, his wife Anna having died from cancer within the past year.

As mentioned, Max narrates the story from the book’s present while staying at The Cedars, and his narration focuses on three times/places: first, the present where he interacts with his landlady, Miss Vavasour, another guest, Colonel Blunden, and his adult daughter, Claire. Second, the recent past spent with his wife Anna, coping with her demise. And third, one more remote, that same Cedars, but fifty years before when Max was a boy of eleven encountering the Grace family, particularly the children Chloe Grace and her brother Myles.

The style of the book is poetic, a pleasure, and I find myself slowing the pace of my reading in order to savor the language. “It was a sumptuous, oh, truly a sumptuous autumn day, all Byzantine coppers and golds under a Tiepolo sky of enamelled blue. The countryside all fixed and glassy, seeming not so much itself as its reflection in the still surface of a lake. It was the kind of day on which, latterly, the sun for me is the world’s fat eye looking on in rich enjoyment as I writhe in my misery.” A beautiful passage of prose and also one that contains some cues as to the book’s style. Tiepolo, for instance. The implied author assumes the reader knows who Giovanni B. Tiepolo was and has some concept of how a sky could be described as “Tiepolo.” This might be a turn-off to some readers, a damning example of snobbery. Others might feel heartened that they, the happy few, know who the heck Tiepolo was. "Byzantine coppers and golds" is another example that calls for a certain level of sophistication on the reader’s part. Of course, the reader’s busy eye might also just elide such words as unknowns. The use of “sumptuous, oh truly sumptuous” also cues the reader that not only will longer words be found in the text (compare with the tone of “nice, real nice”) but also that the narrator’s voice is dramatic and emotional, speaking directly to the reader (or to someone, more on that too).

Can words capture human experience? Or do they shape human experience? Probably both, but the narrator is very assured of the former, making use of deliberate prose and precious little equivocation. The words “perhaps” or “maybe” rarely occur. There is Max, the protagonist, who tells the story in first person, there is a hidden implied author who organizes Max’s entries and language. And there is the real author John Banville who seems curiously separate from Max—to me, at least. Perhaps because Max is named, almost like a character, rather than being an “I.” Perhaps too because Max has had particular experiences—the death of his wife, the interactions with the Grace family, that seem strongly unique and also dramatized. So there is a sense of a storyteller showing Max as he tells his story and of the Graces.

After all, my friends, who puts in the paragraph breaks? Huh?

The novel is organized into two sections, with internal paragraph breaks within. It suggests a kind of reflective diary, with shifts occurring due to the writer’s whim or preoccupation. The paragraph breaks generally set off changes in time.

Next week, let’s look at how the story develops, it’s themes, and that all important question: what’s the point?

“Kay. Till then.


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