A Banville novel is, by now, a recognizable entity, and a Banville protagonist’s speech is tinged not only with the inflections of Joyce, Beckett and Nabokov but also with the echoes of other Banville protagonists. They are a fiercely articulate, cold-hearted, sullied lot, these men, mired in loss and loathing, baffled by their own detachment, by their dark hearts. Whether guilty of murder or of espionage, or merely of complex and willful deceptions, Banville’s creations live at least double lives. They give the lie to any notion of a coherent self, even as they promote, or appear to, the myth of such a thing.
Max Morden, the narrator of The Sea, Banville’s new novel (winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize), sits comfortably in the company of such rogues as Axel Vander (Shroud), Victor Maskell (The Untouchable), Freddie Montgomery (The Book of Evidence) and Alexander Cleave (Eclipse). Like most of them, he is aging, solitary, a drinker, culturally sophisticated and slightly fussy. Many of Banville’s men are more moved by art than by people–Montgomery, in The Book of Evidence, to the point of murder–and Morden, for his part, is at work on a monograph on Bonnard. Like his fictional fellows, he bears the hidden imprint of a shadowy and socially disappointing parent (when he first took his future wife to meet his mother, “Ma was living in a flat by the canal, a dim, low place that smelled of her landlady’s cats”) and chiefly the burden of not wanting to be who he is. He might be speaking for any Banvillean when he reveals, “From earliest days I wanted to be someone else…I never had a personality, not in the way that others have, or think they have. I was always a distinct no-one, whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone.” Zelig-like, secretive, careful, aspirant–these are the men who populate Banville’s imagination.
For all this, Max Morden differs, somewhat, from his predecessors. Recently widowed (or, as he puts it, “widowered”), he has retreated into memory, the memory of a relatively satisfied life. He recalls both the myth and the reality of his wife, Anna, with considerable tenderness (although he regards his daughter Claire from a cheerfully brutal remove: Banville’s men aren’t big on fathering). From the diagnosis of Anna’s cancer through her death, he records in intermittent, vivid bursts the last year of their life together, as well as their meeting, and her significance to him as a liberator of his soul: “What Anna proposed to me, there in the dusty summer dusk on the corner of Sloane Street, was not so much marriage as the chance to fulfill the fantasy of myself.” (Anna is treated, incidentally, by a doctor whose significant surname, Todd, strikes Max powerfully, even as the echoes of his own apparently do not.) Largely measured, mournful but contained, Max reveals in a single particularly vehement burst the force of his emotion in the face of his loss: “You cunt, you fucking cunt, how could you go and leave me like this, floundering in my own foulness, with no one to save me from myself. How could you.”
His is the raging grief of a man whose identity was altered, or completed, by his wife, a man who sees himself now as “a person of scant talent and scanter ambition, greyed o’er by the years, uncertain and astray and in need of consolation and the brief respite of drink-induced oblivion.” And his response, after Anna’s death–in addition to a fair amount of drinking–is to unearth, with willful sorrow, the self he was before Anna, before adulthood, to rediscover the time and situation that were “the true origin in me of self-consciousness.” It is a self, of course, that has never really left him: “The past,” he notes at the outset of the book, “beats inside me like a second heart.” The novel, then, sitting only tentatively in the present, is above all the intertwined tale of two pasts: Max’s assemblage of the fragments of his lost marriage and his reliving of the childhood summer, on the cusp of adolescence, when he first fell in love.