The Oceanic Feeling

The Oceanic Feeling

John Banville’s latest novel, The Sea, winner of the Man Booker Prize, is a painstaking narrative of memory, grief and many losses, remarkable for what it richly conveys about what it is to be alive, while continuously experiencing loss.


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.

In his solitude, Max has regained the seaside village (here called Ballyless) where his childhood summers were spent. He has taken a room at the Cedars, a villa formerly inhabited by the dangerously glamorous Grace family, now run as a boarding house by the elegant and enigmatic spinster Miss Vavasour. Her only other lodger is Colonel Blunden, a man whose attentions to the landlady suggest a romantic interest, and whose claim to the title of “Colonel” strikes Max as particularly suspect: “He has the glazed flawlessness of an actor who has been playing the same part for too long…. He does a good job of hiding his Belfast accent but hints of it keep escaping, like trapped wind.” Max Morden, if anyone, ought to know: The year he met the Graces, he ascended to their social stratosphere from a far humbler realm, even though “the social structure of our summer world was as fixed and hard of climbing as a ziggurat.” Transformed by a lifetime married to Anna Weiss, he nevertheless retains memories of the rented chalet, “a slightly less than life-sized wooden model of a house” and of his modest, quarrelsome parents, his mother in a “crimplene swimsuit, mouse-pink, with a coy little hem stretched across tight just below the crotch. Her face looked bare and defenceless, pinched in the tight rubber seal of her bathing cap.” Needless to say, this mother could not swim.

Likened by a British reviewer to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, The Sea is certainly an open hymn to the lost life. Its theme may be more nakedly addressed, but it is no more fervently undertaken than in several of Banville’s other novels: He is a writer profoundly concerned with the way we live in and with what is gone, the way things and places live on without us, the highly emotional relation between the selves that look back now and the selves we were then. As Max asks, recalling the alluring Mrs. Connie Grace sprawled at a picnic many years before, “Which is the more real, the woman reclining on the grassy bank of my recollections, or the strew of dust and dried marrow that is all the earth any longer retains of her?”

Connie was Max’s first love. As a boy of 10 or 11, he saw in her a near-divine glory–“In those days I was greatly taken with the gods…. Or the idea of the gods, that is, the possibility of the gods”–even as he could clearly make out her indifferent humanity: “She was rather stocky, and her hands were fat and reddish, there was a bump at the tip of her nose…. She smelled of sweat and cold cream and, faintly, of cooking fat. Just another woman, in other words, and another mother at that. Yet to me she was in all her ordinariness as remote and remotely desirable as any a painted pale lady with unicorn and book.” Excited by her social elevation, her sensuality and in no small part by her slightly Satanic husband, Carlo (“I think now that it was from Carlo Grace I first derived the notion that I was in the presence of the gods…he was the one who appeared to be in command over us all, a laughing deity, the Poseidon of our summer”), the young Max also finds compelling playmates in the Grace children, twins named Chloe and Myles.

Inevitably, his attention turns from mother to daughter: He abandons the aging Connie for Chloe: “Yes, I was falling in love with Chloe–had fallen, the thing was done already. I had that sense of anxious euphoria, of happy, helpless toppling, which the one who knows he will have to do the loving always feels, at the precipitous outset. For even at such a tender age I knew that there is always a lover and a loved, and knew which one, in this case, I would be.” Theirs may initially seem a typical adolescent romance of furtive gropings and murky passions, but in light of one dramatic afternoon, “the day of the strange tide,” it is instead crystallized into something mythic. Following a silent sexual encounter between Max and Chloe in a beach hut, with Myles creepily looking on, Chloe and Myles turn tail and embark upon a mystifying apparent suicide. They are thereby forever inscribed in the roster of the divine, and Max is left, uncomprehending, in the company of the children’s nanny, Rose–known as “poor Rosie”–to try to understand what selfhood, sex and mortality might, together, signify. Even after all these years–after a life lived in the face of his momentous loss–it is to this first abandonment that he returns, only to find that while Miss Vavasour protests that “I can’t help you…. You must know that,” the sea itself remains, and beckons, and holds, perhaps, or is, the answer.

Banville is a highly literary novelist, in all senses: His diction is elaborate, often abstruse, notwithstanding his contention that “there is not a sentence anywhere in my work which, in terms of syntax, grammar and vocabulary, would not be understood by an eight-year-old equipped with a dictionary.” His characters, even as they confront life’s central passions and fears (self-lessness and death often chief among them), do so upon a severely constrained and stylized stage, from which the clutter of the everyday has been painstakingly removed. And in this instance, Max’s encounter with the godlike Graces and the fates that befall them, have more literary or dramatic urgency than actual resonance. What happens in this strand of the novel–the suicide in particular–happens not because it would ever, in life as we know it, happen, but because the story and its import require it. Chloe and Myles, as godlings should be, are inseparable, and intense, and their unspoken communications simultaneously attract and repel their friend: “How would it be? Like having one mind and two bodies? If so it was almost disgusting to think of…. How, how would it be? I itched to know.” They are known above all by their signs: Myles has webbed feet and, more portentously, is mute; Chloe, imperious and devil-may-care, is his conduit to the world. They are more significant than real.

Freud might have liked this novel, impregnated as it is with sex, death, water and memory. The Sea is, for those (like myself) with a high tolerance for the literary, a richly intriguing book. Banville is one of our pre-eminent stylists, and despite the odd precious locution (“A dream it was that drew me here”) this novel is impeccably written, in a prose that is like an intricate and glorious spider’s web, imbued with vivid detail (as when Carlo Grace struggles to open a bottle of wine at the picnic: “Mr. Grace clamped the wine bottle between his knees and strained and strained, his earlobes turning red”) and laced with black humor (“The tea-bag is a vile invention, suggestive to my perhaps overly squeamish eye of something a careless person might leave behind unflushed in the lavatory”).

It seems churlish, then, to quibble with so accomplished a rendition, a novel that confronts–as all of Banville’s novels do–life’s elemental concerns, and does so with such unstinting rigor. But perhaps that is exactly what unsettles: the rigor that gives Myles his webbed feet, and him and Chloe their unspoken communion, the rigor that makes them act as they do on the day of the strange tide. Max Morden is confused by their behavior, uncertain to the last whether his friends are divine or not; but I, who don’t share his delusion, and who spend a lot of time observing how people act, can find no earthly explanation for their behavior. It makes sense only because the novel requires it; and for this reader, that is not sufficient cause. This climax casts, then, a shadow, or perhaps a light, upon the entire narrative. If Colonel Blunden has “the glazed flawlessness of an actor,” and if the young woman who answers the former dairyman’s door gives “the impression of a young actress elaborately but not quite convincingly made up to look old,” then there is, too, about Max and his account an element of theater, a self-consciousness so thorough that we have ultimately nothing but the looking glass itself.

This makes sense, of course, given that Max is a man who has always wished himself other, a man for whom, with the realization of Chloe’s existence (“no one had yet been real in the way that Chloe was”), came the concomitant acknowledgment of his own (“And if she was real, so, suddenly, was I”). If he has remained ultimately uncertain somehow of his own reality, then it is fitting that we should remain uncertain of hers. Nevertheless, it is unnerving to feel even fleetingly that this life–this novel–is all stage lights and greasepaint, that in the end everyone–not just Max but Chloe, and perhaps Anna, too–is a blundering, fake Colonel Blunden.

Yet there is so much in The Sea that isn’t artifice, that is the painstaking record of memory, grief and loss. Max laments not only the loss of Anna, and of his childhood playmates, but the loss of his selves, and of possibility, and of childhood itself. As he observes, most truly and most painfully, “Happiness was different in childhood. It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things–new experiences, new emotions–and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be the marvelously finished pavilion of the self. And incredulity, that too was a large part of being happy, I mean, that euphoric inability to believe one’s simple luck.” Banville’s novel is remarkable in the end not for what it says, self-consciously, about life’s great themes but for what it knows, and richly conveys, about what it is to be alive, while continuously experiencing loss.

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