Yulia's Reviews > The Sea

The Sea by John Banville
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Apr 21, 08

bookshelves: read-to-me-by-frank, enjoyably-awful
Read in January, 2006

I actually put this book in the same category as James Frey's "Million Little Pieces": so bad, it was enjoyable to read. But of course this was bad in entirely more ambitious, pretentious ways than Frey could ever achieve. It's been about two years since I read this, so forgive my lack of specificity, but I'll try to pin down some examples of appalling devices that both rankled and tickled me.

-Balliteration: Banville, perhaps due to his over fondness for the first letter of his last name (as others have been shown to feel, in psychology studies), found it wise to buffet us with a bounty of bubbly, bouncy balloonish words beginning with "b" to give us a sense of what, I'm still not sure.

-What was it called again? A device. Numerous times, Banville shows a sudden amnesia for common objects, which comes off as implausible after he has put so much attention showing off his knowledge. An example was his not knowing a common tree: a pine, was it? And what is that tool we use to record our thoughts? A pen?

-Which leads very well in to my next observation: I had the distinct sense Banville wrote this with a thesaurus in one hand and his cock in the other (I apologize to younger readers of this review). Am I merely hurt that I had to look up so many words I'd never heard of before? No. What shocked me was that, when I looked up all four definitions of one word, not one of them made sense in the context in which it was used, and it was not a term that could possibly be used as a symbol or metaphor, due to the specific nature of the word. Unfortunately, I forget which it was, but for a while, Frank and I did have a game of testing our memory of the various words Banville used.

-His choice to leave all identifiable plot to the last twenty pages, so that . . . we could see he was capable of telling a story? So the book ended on a high note of grief? So that the book of loose ends is tied up and made whole? I've read too many books in which the plot occurs in the last chapter to be amazed or blown away or impressed by the conclusion. In the end, it's a mere device to produce tension when it couldn't be created in a more honest fashion (because of course the protagonist already knows all the secrets that are kept from the reader).

What was most surprising was that, when I picked up "Christine Falls," which Banville felt it necessary to publish under the name Benjamin Black dare his reputation as a serious writer be tarnished, I discovered he could in fact write properly and engagingly without the above devices. Does that point to my having more common tastes? I trust my intelligence enough to say that this discovery merely points to the fact that Banville has lost sight of what "impressive writing" is.

But for whatever it's worth, it was fun to mark up the margins of this book. Bravo?
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Patrick Your second point is spot on. Amidst excruciatingly constructed sentences and metaphors (many of which are failures), the narrator second-guesses himself left and right.


message 2: by Gail (new)

Gail Snort.


Henry Dixon Sadly, some people have an education that do not require them to write with a thesaurus in one hand. Once again, the naive assumption that a novelist is his character - cf. the inappropriate Frey comparison.


message 4: by Yulia (last edited Jul 27, 2008 12:39PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Yulia I think you mistake my comment on Banville's conflicting attempts for his character to be hyper-literate and yet unaware of the most common objects and realities. It's a device to distract the reader and take the place of real plot and tension, his philosophical wanderings and flashbacks. but if you consider him a good author, well, we share little in common and it's of no use explaining that Banville actually misused words he claims to use so effortlessly. And yes, this is coming from a girl who knows her vocabulary and has no desire to list proof of my intellectual credentials to a stranger who can't spot a sharp mind when he comes across one. But I suppose we'd disagree on that as well. I find your comment insulting. Goodbye.


message 5: by Henry (last edited Jul 27, 2008 05:10AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Henry Dixon Oh dear, Yulia.

None of my comment was directed at you personally - unlike your personal attack on the credentials of a respected award-winning author (the sexual reference in your review refers). I was in fact just saying that I do not think every author writes with a thesaurus in hand - no reflection on your intellectual credentials.

But as you are taking it so personally, I apologise.

You are an avid reader - with a wide interest - and I think it's great that you have reviewed so many books. However, it is inevitable that on a public forum people will disagree and you will become a very unhappy person if you take all differences in point of view as personal attacks.

So, keep reading and writing _ I'll continue to read your reviews and hopefully one day we'll discover more common ground.


message 6: by Yulia (last edited Jul 27, 2008 12:37PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Yulia Or you could stop reading my reviews and commenting on them.

Obviously not every writer uses a thesaurus. I never suggested so.


Garry I know that this is terribly long after your review, but I wanted to tell you that I really appreciated it. I've just written a review on this book, and made some very similar observations... anyway... thanks :)


Yulia Time hasn't dimmed my reaction to this book, so of course I still appreciate your connecting with the frustration I expressed in my review :) Kindred spirits are always welcome.


message 9: by BohoMon (new) - added it

BohoMon Thanks for this review. I read for beautiful prose first, but it lays flat if that is a novel's raison d'être. I'm still going to give this one a go, to know what the fuss is about, but will go in with eyes wide open.


bernie coleman I'm commenting because it's the first review on the page regarding the book. I would have to disagree with the rating - but with some disclaimers. Banville's language is gorgeous in this novel. His "wordiness" isn't removed from the novel at all - though I can understand the frustration (and also understand the frustration with the plot). One has to read deeply at times, I find, to associate certain words used. I've read this a few times and I found in my reading that in the end, this obsession with words (like memory and grief) is hugely Ironic (which Banville has a history of). Banville's narrator evokes a sense of inadequacy when it comes to language and memory and obviously queries history. I really do get what you're saying, but ironically, it seems to me, this is what the story largely evokes on a critical level. Banville's Benjamin Black stories, on the other hand, deal with certain issues in a more straightforward or "normative" style. It's the difference between focusing on artful literature (though I hesitate to say "artful", I mean it as not only concerned with plot/story evolution but concerned with presence of words, sentences, layout, style etc) or just good, well-written literature and story. It may seem pretentious to some readers. But this is definitely a great novel stylistically. I like your points - this is what this place is about. I'm sick of reviewers raving or scathing without evidence or justification on this website.


message 11: by Gary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary This was the first novel I had read for a while and I took a long to read it on on my bus commute. I devoured every every word, clause and sentence. Banville is an absolute master of the English language as Amis said. The plot seemed to pass me by possibly because I didn't look for one and was passed caring dining out on his sumptuous prose. Make no mistake, if an inspiring writer needs to know how to construct a beautiful sentence, this book is a must. In fact, to tell you a secret, I hardly ever read novels nowadays but I shall read this again and I hardly-ever re-read a story. Yes, sometimes you feel slightly ignorant when you come across a word that you don't know. So what, look it up. Gather a new word you conceited pompous arse. Banville plays with you and plays with himself just walking the line between quality writing and pure self-indulgence because he can. Do you think you you could write as well as Banville? In your fucking dreams. The reviewer who complained about a word not having a meaning in the context. Get over yourself darling. Do you really thing Banvile and his editor misunderstood a word? Doubtful really don't you think. Take a step back and breathe a little deeper; some oxygen may refresh parts that shallowness doesn't reach.


message 12: by Garry (new) - rated it 1 star

Garry Really? I'm sure Yulia has a thick skin and defend herself, but that doesn't mean I can't respond.

I very much appreciate a reviewer who tells it like it is. I might not agree (although I did with this one.... completely....) but it will always give me a new perspective to consider.

In short, bugger off. Personal insults are not welcome.


Themba Mabona it's such a shame this is the first review that pops up. people could get the wrong idea. however, if one is of the conviction that authors are to write novels custom fitted to one's own mental lexicon and range of experience then this is spot on.
anyway, still a damn shame.


message 14: by Lana (last edited Sep 05, 2014 03:19PM) (new) - added it

Lana Bastasic Although the writing has its shiny moments (I remember someone's ears described as a thing one might have dried and smoked and, furthermore, I quite enjoyed the Dr. Todd episode), and the psychological aspects of the memory-driven character is admirable (smelling some Proust there), throughout this novel I've encountered numerous examples that underline Yulia's review.

Look at this sentence, for instance. Now, this is a man driving with his daughter who had just asked him if he was going to stop the car since she'd been feeling car-sick:

- Let me alone, I cried at her in my mind, let me creep past the traduced old Cedars, past the vanished Strand Café, past the Lupins and the field that was, past all this past, for if I stop I shall surely dissolve in a shaming puddle of tears. -

This, firstly, is not believable. I do not see this sentence passing through the driver's head. (a) A second ago, he was almost cheerfully commenting on the Lupins place; b) when things pass through our heads, they rarely adopt such a Keatsian form.)

Secondly, "dissolving in ... a puddle of tears", in my opinion, is not a very original metaphor. It is, at best, a lazy one. Sadness measured in tears is surely not a device one would expect from an award-winning author.

Thirdly, this comes from a writer who's claimed that sentimentality is the definite death of art, and the sentence is obviously not meant to be ironic.

I realize that I'm only focusing on one sentence here, but I feel that this is precisely what we should be doing when it comes to an author who is, obviously, acknowledged and admired for his "literary prose".

As for the "writers are not their characters", a view I normally share and cherish: the whole passage on him (the protagonist, who in this case is a writer) being a genius and not a mere "worker" or, god forbid, "dabbler", brings to mind a certain man who, upon winning the Booker, said it was "nice to see a work of art win the Prize” and then went on to say how "The Sea" was a "heavily crafted, highbrow book". (This was just a note on his arrogance, which is completely unrelated to the writing itself. Although one could argue that the author should let his/her arrogance show its unflattering knickers far from the very text.)

All in all: no writing is made better merely by replacing each "dirty" with "raunchily begrimed", or your "sad" for "a puddle of tears". (And bare in mind that this opinion is brought to you by a HUGE Nabokov fan - also an arrogant prick, yet an annoyingly talented one.) After having read just half way through "The Sea", I found myself feeling thirsty for some Henry James, or even Chekov. Just to get one sip of that powerful simplicity that a true master can render with no apparent struggle.

Just my opinion. :D


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