Absorbingly, the past drowns the present



The Sea

John Banville

Alfred A. Knopf / 199 pages

Faced with the relentless approach of old age, the protagonist of John Banville's Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea plunges with headstrong nostalgia into the past. Obsessed with memory in the immediate aftermath of his wife's death from cancer, Max Morden picks up his life entire and moves it to the seaside town where he grew up and where his imagination was captured by a well-to-do family, the Graces.

Narrating the present, the near past and the deep past by turns, Max is memory's willing captive. An art historian - his specialty is the French post-impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard - he looks at his past as a series of vivid and endlessly fascinating tableaux. "Memory dislikes motion, preferring to hold things still," he observes.

All of Banville's 14 novels are graced with exquisite word-pictures, and Max observes the world around him with an aesthete's attention to minute distinctions of form and color: "A breeze smacked down on the beach and swarmed across it slantwise under a skim of dry sand, then came on over the water, chopping the surface into sharp little metallic shards."

Although the novel is concerned with events and relationships, Banville's novel is at heart not about any of these. Rather, its true subject is that most evanescent and interior thing, human memory. Through Max, Banville explores the way this particular form of consciousness operates and how emotion and memory become so intertwined as the years pass that they are finally indistinguishable. In this respect, Banville is heir to writers like Marcel Proust and Henry James, for whom the lived life is less fascinating than the way it is processed within the mind of a specific self. According to James' values and parlance, The Sea is that highest form of the art of fiction, a drama of the consciousness.

It takes a sure hand and an absolutely arresting style to make this sort of highly interior, small-scale fiction compelling. Banville, his sentences strikingly visual and perfectly tuned, is more than equal to the challenge. Moreover, the character in whose mind we spend the whole of this short novel is neither remarkable nor likable. Having made the climb to the middle class, Max is a bit of a snob. He is comically self-absorbed, squeamish and habitually condescending to women. The book doesn't invite us to identify with him, so when his interior monologue hits a nerve, it has to do with the truly universal aspects of human experience - vanity, ambivalence about mortality, awe of the natural world, romantic and sexual infatuation.

In a sense, despite its narrow point of view and mundane subject matter, burrowing psychological fiction like this is more ambitious than fiction with a wider lens. For most of The Sea, Banville succeeds brilliantly at making quite gripping reading out of the dwindling, ordinary life of an ordinary man. The drabness of Max's present existence is offset by the heady, luminous quality of his memories. The day he kissed Chloe Grace "had been sombre and wet and hung with big-bellied clouds when we were going into the picture-house in what had still been afternoon and now at evening was all tawny sunlight and raked shadows, the scrub grass dripping with jewels and a red sail-boat out on the bay turning its prow and setting off toward the horizon's already dusk-blue distances."

Of course, everyone's memories seem splendid and suggestive to them, and for most of the novel it doesn't appear that Banville is making any special claims for the extraordinariness of Max's past, however much the character may be rapt at the ongoing slide show in his head.

At the end of the book, however, we learn that the memories Max has immersed himself in are part of an extraordinary story indeed. Secrets are revealed, and The Sea snaps into focus as a very different book than it had appeared to be, a book with a twist and a scandal at its core. To my mind, it becomes a lesser one: no less intelligent and skillful, but less moving and ambitious than when it was apparently scrutinizing mundane experience.

This lovely and searching book didn't need a splashy ending to make a lasting impression. The one it appends feels like an afterthought, and a nonfatal but disappointing betrayal of the aesthetic convictions that make most of The Sea so quietly seductive.

Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago. She maintains a blog about books and the arts at www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight.

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