Not to be confused with The Sea, The Sea

John Banville
Knopf, 2005

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 vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. i would not swim, no, not ever again.

Someone has just walked over my grave. Someone.

Banville’s Booker Prize winner was on my radar for years. The blurbs compare him to Nabokov, setting expectations for metafiction.

So far it strikes me as ultra-naturalist in a great way! Sure, it’s non-linear, but nothing is ontologically up for grabs.

The stylistic verve is there. The prose has a driving rhythm that approaches straight iambic pentameter: “I wonder why the house was built like that, sideways-on, turning a pebble-dashed windowless white end-wall to the road; perhaps in formal times, before the railway, the road ran in a different orientation altogether, passing directly in front of the door, anything is possible.”

And there’s the narrator’s vocabulary: a mixture of archaic, idiomatic, medical jargon, and annoyingly formal word choices.

Before Anna’s illness i had held my physical self in no more than fond disgust, as most people do — hold their selves, I mean, not mine — tolerant, necessarily, of my sadly inescapable humanity, the various effluvia, the eructations fore and aft, the gleet, the scurf, the sweat and other common leakages, and even what the Bard of Hartford [Wallace Stevens??] quaintly calls the particles of nether-do. 

Max Morden is an overread fellow. He strikes me as someone like the historical Nabokov, curmudgeony, casually snobby, not one to blame themselves. But Max is a lot more depressed than Vladimir ever was, I imagine. Also a shamelessness about their verbal resources.

This aspect annoyed the literary press a little. Would people be irritated by a painter who used obscure techniques or revived ancient ones? It’s not a great analogy, because language is still conventional, is expected to be more socially integrated. But that seems like a good approach to the dramatic material here, the grieving, the resentment, the aloofness.

Who are the gods in that opening narrative block? The wonderful seascape description, Max’s literary consciousness, and with Joyce never being far off in the constellation, we can assume it’s the Greek gods. We have an old world vacating the space. And of course the last line, announcing the work as a narrative from beyond the grave. It’s a sharp shift from the pictorialism above to a referential moment. The opening block in its entirety is something like a shifter, a way of re-inscribing the traces of the classical world in a hope to understand the present one. That salvo kicks the whole novel off, in lieu of an erudite epigraph. I guess you can have that or erudite prose, but not both!

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