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  • Alan Bray

To Whom Am I Speaking?


A central question (not the only one) in The Sea is to whom is the narrator, Max, addressing his narration? Max’s narrative has the feel of a diary, a private, often unedited document meant solely for the author’s use. However, given this definition, trouble lies ahead.

Oh, no!

The Sea is but a facsimile of a private document—facsimile because it is not a private document at all, it is a public work of fiction. Also, although we have every reason to accept that Max would narrate a story in a very sophisticated and polished manner—after all, he is a sort of academic and highly educated—this text is highly, highly refined, this prose has been polished, best beloved. And who is responsible, who is the polisher? Max, you say? Mr. Banville?

If you say this, I am saddened. Saddened because we have spent much blood and treasure going over and over the distinctions and the relationships between the implied author, the real author, and the narrator of a text. Wait—maybe you haven’t read every post in this blog the way I have. I shouldn’t be saddened, but happy that you’re interested. (Pollyanna reference).

‘Kay. It is the implied author who has polished and edited this prose. “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.

But I digress. To whom is the narration addressed? Max is not, in my opinion, telling a story in the way that Mr. Stevens, the narrator of The Remains of the Day, seems to be telling the story to an imaginary peer, a “you” whom he believes will understand him. Yet, is it possible that The Sea is written as a kind of plea for understanding, forgiveness, even? Max describes letting his wife and his daughter down, perhaps even letting Chloe Grace down long ago. He is guilt- ridden over his adult insensitivity. Perhaps it’s not a stretch to say The Sea may be addressed to an imaginary self whom Max believes is capable of offering grace and forgiveness.

Whoa. Grace is the family name of very prominent characters in The Sea. We may be onto something here, my friends.

So, under Mr. Banville’s supervision, the implied author of The Sea presents a story about Max, the narrator, who presents a story from his particular perspective. This leads to the following possibility: A deep collusion between the implied author and the reader goes on behind the narrator’s back. The reader infers a great deal more from the narration than the narrator is aware he is communicating. (Thanks to James Phelan for this idea).

(whiny voice—that makes it sound like you know James Phelan, Mr. Big Shot).

Let’s stay on course, my friends. The more brilliant you are, the more criticism you receive.

One of the central features of The Remains of the Day is that Mr. Stevens is, to put it mildly, often kidding himself. He reviews his past conduct and doesn’t find it lacking. However, the implied author lets the reader see the tragedy and failings of Mr. Stevens’ past, and so, there is collusion—a lot goes over Mr. Stevens’ head, or behind his back. Or—wherever.

The Sea is arguably a different beastie, although it also features a first-person narrator who presents his past behavior for judgement. But Max doesn’t spare himself. He shows the reader in relentless detail that he’s been not only a jerk, but in essence, criminally negligent in the deaths of Chloe and Myles Grace. (More on this next time).

Indeed, the implied author allows Max to plead his case to the reader, but does not allow Max any delusion. He describes himself as arrogant and self-centered and offers plenty of examples.

“Claire, my daughter, has written to ask how I am faring…What age is she now, twenty-something, I am not sure. She is very bright…Not beautiful, however…She is too tall and stark, her rusty hair is coarse and untameable and stands out around her freckled face in an unbecoming manner, and when she smiles she shows her upper gums, glistening and whitely pink. With those spindly legs and big bum, that hair, the long neck especially…she always makes me think of Tenniel’s drawing of Alice when she has taken a nibble from the magic mushroom.” Beautifully written prose, but not a terribly endearing description of one’s daughter.

Other examples abound. Max abuses alcohol—a lot. He ridicules other people, putting them down, making fun of their vulnerabilities. And he ridicules himself. It’s clear that he judges himself as lacking in the care he gave his wife, punishing himself for any negative thoughts he had about her.

And there’s the whole thing about Chloe and Myles Grace—next week, I said, so settle down.

In short, Max is not likable. We the readers have no contradictory data. Max does report some interactions with other characters but—unlike in Remains—we don’t get dis-confirmation of Max’s story from them.

However, his saving “grace” is that he is aware of being a jerk and regrets it. In a sense, The Sea is a confessional that lays out Max’s imagined sins. The reader is not asked directly to pronounce judgement, but by inference, and in this sense, the implied author does collude with the reader.

There is irony in the use of such a poetic style to show such a story. In other words, the story of The Sea could be presented in a much plainer style without the allusions to classical mythology and Shakespeare. Max could be a much simpler man with little insight. The story of someone confessing imagined sins, too proud perhaps to ask for forgiveness, could be narrated by a sort of Stanley Kowalski-type. But it is not, and this is part of the implied author’s contribution.

A question for contemplation: Do we the readers forgive Max? Are we moved enough by his human failings to excuse him?

#TheSea #JohnBanville