Kathy's Reviews > The Sea

The Sea by John Banville
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it was ok
bookshelves: fiction

The Sea really bugged me. I've never read another John Banville novel, so I don't know whether this one is typical of his writing in general, but nothing irritates me more these days than a writer who has considerable gifts at his command who writes novels that function as elegant window displays for the considerable gifts at his command. The plot of the book, such as it is, finds middle-aged Max Morden retiring to a rented house by the sea, near the "chalets" where he spent his boyhood summers, to mourn his wife's death and think about the past. The first person account intercuts Max's memories of his wife's final months with his memories of a "significant" summer he spent by the sea, during which he became fascinated with the Graces, a family a rung or two higher on the social ladder than Max himself. I put "significant" in quotation marks, because I can't for the life of me figure out what's significant about Max's relationship with the Graces, other than the opportunity it affords Banville to display his considerable gifts, and -- what's worse -- I can't even fathom what's significant about his wife's death other than the opportunity it affords Banville . . . well, you get the idea. The premise of the novel seems to be "Hey, look at me, everybody, I'm the 'heir to Nabokov.' The back of the book says so. And besides, my book is filled with Beautiful Prose." The linking of Banville's name with Nabokov on the back of the book does Banville a considerable disservice. I kept expecting withering satire and a devastating prose style (Banville is good, but he's not that good), and all I got was the narrator's tendency to pepper his recollections with big, bloated words.

"Character-driven" novels are not of themselves a bad thing. Perhaps my favorite novel of the last thirty years (Gilead) relies more on character than on plot. If you're going to rely on character, however, you'd better make sure your characters are at least one, and preferably all, of the following: a) sympathetic; b) compelling; c) more than merely a place marker for inflated, if not particularly profound, ruminations on the Big Questions.

One of Banville's passages may illustrate what bothers me most about this book. In the passage, Morden describes the photographs his terminally ill amateur-photographer wife has taken of fellow hospital patients -- all of whom have, apparently cheerfully, consented to expose their scars, wounds, and afflictions for the sake of . . . photographic immortality? . . . the gratification of their exhibitionist desires? . . . the betterment of mankind? I got stuck, as I read this passage, trying to figure out why the people in the photographs had agreed to present their private suffering in so public a fashion. Then I realized they were props, placed on stage to be rearranged and remarked upon, to give the leading man something to do while he wows us with his method acting. Oh, come on, one might object, isn't Yorick's skull a prop? Of course, but it's not merely a prop. We admire Hamlet's ability to make him live again, but that's just it. He makes him live again. Nobody really lives in Banville's novel, including his narrator, and perhaps that's not surprising in a novel that is mostly about death. What's more surprising, though, is that, for all his lovely style, Banville leaves us with very little impression that anyone in this book ever really has lived.

In the book's final passages, Max Morden likens the moment of his wife's death to a moment in his childhood when he had been lifted up by a suddenly surging sea, carried toward shore a bit, and then set down again. It was, he says, "as if nothing had happened. And indeed nothing had happened, a momentous nothing, just another of the great world's shrugs of indifference." That's what it feels like to read
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
March 7, 2008 – Shelved
April 1, 2008 – Shelved as: fiction

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)

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Henry Kathy, you fall into the trap you accuse John Banville of stepping into - self aggrandizement. You are either very young or have never suffered loss, thus you did not connect with the complexity of the emotions this self-engrossed character experiences. Yes, he is self-engrossed. Accusing the author of grand-standing just because he chooses to portray a character in a certain way is a naive approach to critique a novel. Well, at least the Booker Prize judges thought differently.

Kathy Henry,

I won't quibble with you about whether my review is a form of grandstanding. Perhaps it is, but after all I'm just a lowly, obscure reader posting my thoughts on goodreads. John Banville is -- as you point out -- a Booker-prize winning novelist and is thus a bigger and more worthy target.

I'm not particularly young (I think I'm about the same age as you), and I'll leave it up to others to decide whether I'm naive or not. A little naivete is a good thing, in my opinion, but in any event I don't think I'm naive enough to believe that the pronouncements of the Booker prize committee should cow me into pulling my punches.

message 3: by C. (new) - rated it 4 stars

C. I think your point about the whole book being a little bit of nothing is very true. But to me, that was the whole point of the book. It was sad, in a sort of pale, indifferent way, that this man should have spent his whole life doing a whole lot of nothing. That this 'significant' summer in his childhood is the biggest thing that has ever happened in his life.

Stephen M I completely agree with your review.

Elizabeth Adams Yes, this is exactly how I felt about the book and what I said in my own review. Thanks for saying the truth.

Sonia Raikova Your review summarises my own opinions of The Sea so succinctly I couldn't have put it better myself!

Ronald Geigle Kathy: Thanks for the review. Many good points. As for the photographs of the people in the hospital, I had almost a sense of Max's wife tormenting him a bit, since she knows that he doesn't want to face the harsh things that life sometimes has to offer. Especially (dare I raise this) the "prolapsed womb" -- she shows him the "death" of this thing that he fantasizes about, as if she is laughing at him and his teenage heat. The people are smiling, I think, because they are taunting him with: "See, I can live with reality and its awfulness...and you can't."

message 8: by Nat (new) - rated it 3 stars

Nat Hi Kathy - I've included a quote from your review on my blog. http://www.lividlili.com/the-sea-john... Please let me know if you have a website I can link to! Cheers.

Louise Gigi A perfectly pitched review. The Sea is one long poem. A very long over worded poem in search of an editor.

message 10: by Zee (new) - rated it 2 stars

Zee Random thoughts from reading your review and others' comments:

Max, for a narrator who is so observant as a husband and as a man, completely fails as a father to really SEE his own daughter. Is it because she isn't attractive to him and doesn't have any discernible smell, and so disappoints him?

Kathy, I appreciate your review. Just because someone writes pretty sentences doesn't mean when they are all put together and glued into a big stack, the result will make an engaging story. And we aren't required to love a book just because it won a prize!

I, for one, got tired of reading about armpit hair and body smells ad nauseum, even if words like unctuous and stentoriously were thrown in every so often for our reading pleasure.

Banville also writes under pen name Benjamin Black, if anyone wants to check him out.

message 11: by Karen (new) - added it

Karen Downes Agree. If this hadn't won the Man Booker, would anybody read it??

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