Richard Derus's Reviews > The Sea

The Sea by John Banville
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Real Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: When Max Morden returns to the coastal town where he spent a holiday in his youth he is both escaping from a recent loss and confronting a distant trauma.

The Grace family appear that long ago summer as if from another world. Drawn to the Grace twins, Chloe and Myles, Max soon finds himself entangled in their lives, which are as seductive as they are unsettling. What ensues will haunt him for the rest of his years and shape everything that is to follow.

John Banville is one of the most sublime writers working in the English language. Utterly compelling, profoundly moving and illuminating, The Sea is quite possibly the best thing he has ever written.


My Review: The experience of reading Banville is akin to the experience of going to a whole museum dedicated to Renoir or Monet: At first, the awestruck lip-smacking chin-drooling moaning of readerly joy:

They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam.
(p3, Picador hardcover edition)

This gorgeous, sumptuous repast, this unsettling, foreboding atmosphere, this unbearably tense muscle in the brain MUST be leading to some cathartic, catastrophic release! There is a great change coming, there is something to contrast this soft and lovely tone, this unsettling beauty, this pastry cream in a pool of custard frosted with whipped cream with. Well, now:

Could we, could I, have done otherwise? Could I have lived differently? Fruitless interrogation. Of course I could, but I did not, and therein lies the absurdity of even asking. Anyway, where are the paragons of authenticity against whom my concocted self might be measured? In those final bathroom paintings that Bonnard did of the septuagenarian Marthe he was still depicting her as the teenager he had thought she was when he first met her. Why should I demand more veracity of vision of myself than of a great and tragic artist?
(p218, Picador hardcover edition)

And there it is, the catharsis. Sorta kinda, anyway. As much as you'll be getting, so take it and like it. There's a backstory to the catharsis, but it's all written in the ever-so-much of a writer's writing, and like the sugary sweetness of Renoir and Monet, in large doses it simply doesn't wear all that well. One longs for a smudge of dirt on the painting, or a misplaced modifier in the sentence, or even no modifier at all. But no. No indeed, there is no surcease, and therefore there is surfeit.

Now if the assembled company will pardon me, I am off to eat plain zweiback, drink tap water, and stare at a blank wall for a while, until my senses are defatted.
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Quotes Richard Liked

John Banville
“Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him.”
John Banville, The Sea

John Banville
“The past beats inside me like a second heart.”
John Banville, The Sea

John Banville
“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.”
John Banville, The Sea

John Banville
“We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations.”
John Banville, The Sea

John Banville
“I had never liked, even feared a little, this wild reach of marsh and mud flats where everything seemed turned away from the land, looking off desperately toward the horizon as if in mute search for a sign of rescue.”
John Banville, The Sea


Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 11, 2012 – Finished Reading
December 31, 2012 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

there is no surcease, and therefore there is surfeit.
until my senses are defatted
this pastry cream in a pool of custard frosted with whipped cream
lip-smacking chin-drooling moaning of readerly joy


Richard, you are a prince with the English language. Do you talk this brilliantly? Do these words come with wings from your brain and walk only after being slowed by your poor, afflicted fingers?


Richard Derus Steve wrote: "Richard, you are a prince with the English language. Do you talk this brilliantly? Do these words come with wings from your brain and walk only after being slowed by your poor, afflicted fingers? "

I've been told that I write the way I talk, and it wasn't said with any notable enthusiasm. So yeah, I think I probably sound like this.

Thank goodness for keyboards! If I had to hand-write, I'd be mute. Fingers don't need to bend much while typing!


David Yeah, I tried this and The Untouchable, in which Banville made a spy story boring. Ever-so-much of a writer's writing, indeed - if he ever deigned to concern himself with a plot, I'd be interested.


Richard Derus David wrote: "Yeah, I tried this and The Untouchable, in which Banville made a spy story boring. Ever-so-much of a writer's writing, indeed - if he ever deigned to concern himself with a plot, I'd be interested."

Heavens to Murgatroyd! Banville has plots! They're just boring ones.


message 5: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Sun The museum full of Renoir is the perfect image to use to discuss your problem with this book.

Also explain to me why this sentence bothers me so much: "Utterly compelling, profoundly moving and illuminating, The Sea is quite possibly the best thing he has ever written."


Richard Derus Stephanie wrote: "The museum full of Renoir is the perfect image to use to discuss your problem with this book.

Also explain to me why this sentence bothers me so much: "Utterly compelling, profoundly moving and illuminating, The Sea is quite possibly the best thing he has ever written."


Thanks, and the reason it grates on MY nerves is its smarmy sycophancy. It reeks of insincerity, like the applause of the claque.

The loveliness of the writing is so overwhelming that I can't get to the story. Like David Mitchell,David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, et alii, I want to shout, "quit Writing and tell me the damn story!"


message 7: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Sun Richard wrote: "Thanks, and the reason it grates on MY nerves is its smarmy sycophancy. It reeks of insincerity, like the applause of the claque."

In addition to the smarminess, I think it's the "quite possibly" that makes me go cross-eyed instead of roll-eyed. Like they want to leave room to say his *next* book is possibly the best thing he has ever written.


Cecily Beautiful, Richard, and thank you for adding Renoir and Monet to my impressions of this beautiful book.


Richard Derus Cecily wrote: "Beautiful, Richard, and thank you for adding Renoir and Monet to my impressions of this beautiful book."

De rien, ma amie, and thank YOU for the lovely compliments.


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