Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Sea, by John Banville

It's been awhile since I've done one of these pre-bookgroup, post-bookgroup reviews. That's because, for various reasons I haven't been to the group in awhile. But this month I read the book and am going to the meeting.

I've read a couple of other Banville novels, as well as an interview with him. He is talked about on one or two of the blogs I read, though most often in his alterego persona of Benjamin Black, the name under which he writes his crime novels. Although it's simplifying things a bit, crime novelists seem to be a bit put out by his condescension about their genre. On the other hand, he does seem to continue to enjoy writing these books, so possibly for him it's just a matter of putting on different writerly hats.

I'm very curious what the other members of my book group will have to say about this one. As in the last one I read, Eclipse, I find his prose style to be excellent but his storytelling a bit too removed and rarified for the likes of me. "Exquisite" is the word that comes to mind, with the full range of its connotations.

The Sea is a story about grief and loss, and having recently experienced the death of my mother, obviously such subjects would be interesting to me. The main grief, or the most obvious one that  Max Morden character is experiencing is the recent loss of his wife to cancer. The narrator is obviously grieving deeply, but his detachment in telling of it never really let me in to the experience. He does give some hint of who his wife was, but there is oddly little about the experience of being married before the onset of illness, though this  final stage is described acutely.

The real subject of the book, and where all the narrative interest lies, is a family Max became involved with as a child on a seaside holiday. They belong to a different, higher social stratum than his family, and he is early fascinated by them. They are, in fact, odd and fascinating, though not what you would call likeable. The father is a kind of satyr, the mother an earth goddess, the twins oddly alienlike, and then there is the enigmatic Rose, who appears to be some kind of governess.

Unfortunately for me, this all felt a bit too much like an indie movie that I had seen one or two times before. I don't know that this is really fair to the book, and obviously it didn't mar the experience of the judges for the Man Booker prize, as they awarded Banville it in 2005.

I have to say that his early book  Kepler, which was a biographical novel about the early German astronomer, was much more interesting to me when I read it some years ago. It seems to me that Banville's aesthetic impulse is to grow quieter and quieter and more detached. It will be interesting to see tonight if this is more congenial to others than it was to me.        


  1. I have noticed this Banville ripple, and though I can´t say I worry too much about what other people think or say about crime fiction, I wonder whether his condescension may be some kind of self-defence.

    Well, each to his own, but it seems that nowadays every second literary author in Scandinavia tries his hand on crime fiction - which is the only genre that seems to thrive during this d... crisis. Again, I wonder why.

  2. Right, and I don't even know if he actually intends to be condescending. I think he really does try and do something different with each form himself, but it would be ironic if the crime fiction actually turned out to be better.

    I have Christine Falls here somewhere in the house so I suppose I should give it a go once I find it.

    Funny, I was just thinking about how far I have to go in the Global Reading Challenge--and I took the easiest one!