Sunday, November 27, 2005

"The Sea" by John Banville

I've just finished reading this book which won the Man Booker prize this year. In common with a lot of good literature, I had to be patient and open minded as I read it. But it was worth it. I also have an unfortunate tendency to read at bedtime and my concentration wanes. I'll have to get into habit of reading at more alert times.

The first person voice style is the initial element which hits you. I say voice because it comes across deliberately raw, rambling and unedited of course, just as one might think out loud. I found it vaguely irritating for awhile but I gradually admired the freedom of expression. Previously I had been used to the first person style as offering a balanced reference type character. However I increasingly found myself disliking many aspects of the Max Morden character as the novel developed. Even the revealing ending didn't assist me too much in rekindling a liking for him. For me I found this both strange and interesting.

The imagery and descriptive quality was poetically excellent and often amusing. The characters were all well defined, although I found Max's wife's character a little tricky to believe. Oddly, I felt Max's daughter Claire was a very key player. To me she represented the true outside world, offering some degree of objective normality if you like. In that sense she was a useful reference point and of course had the helpful experience of knowing her father and experiencing the death of her mother. It was Max's interactions with his daughter Claire which initially and slowly kindled my dislike of him. It would be too easy to say that Claire's lack of understanding of Chloe from Max's childhood was a factor in their relationship.

Disliking the main character was the last thing I expected when reading a novel promoted as centring on the man grieving for his lost wife and dealing with some strong childhood experiences. Max came across to me as a somewhat introverted, arrogant and self centred individual. There is ample solid evidence to support this opinion. His tragedies I feel don't excuse his behaviour and mental attitudes to others, particularly evident with his daughter. John Banville paints Max as a rather complex dark character. He is an interesting and very believable character but the story line and tragedy might have been more powerful if Max was intrinsically a more balanced human being. I wonder is there a macho element at play in a male author dealing with a male central character's raw grief. I found Banville even made Max's wife a little detached from believable manifestations of grief as she was coming to terms with death. I just felt there was a failed opportunity to create proper emotional empathy to the characters from the well set up story line. Even Chloe was a bit weird.

I waxed in admiration of the fusion of past and present throughout the book. There is a general tendancy for particular memories from our own childhoods to rekindle when something serious happens in the present. In that sense there is perhaps a varying personal dimension to the novel for readers.

I'm not entirely convinced that the book's structure facilitated maintaining the attention of the average novel reader. For a long time you are treated to seemingly rambling disconnected thoughts and events. You are not automatically hungry to read on. However on completion of the book you realise that you have in fact experienced a good work of literature. There are depths to revisit. The written constructions in the voice style first person wanderings were on balance interesting, refreshing and liberating, almost flirting with the ungrammatical. Like all good literature, the book challenges the reader, one needs to be patient to gain the most from it.

I suppose the lingering value of the book for me was the interesting style of writing and the poetic descriptions as well as the fun in analysing the character of Max Morden and others.


Sarah said...

Hi John, This is the first useful review I've read of the book. I assume I'll get round to reading it soon, but I find the over-literary reviews in the papers a bit off-putting. Thanks. Sarah

John of Dublin said...

Thanks Sarah, glad it helped. First review I've ever done! As Eamon Dunphy might's a good book, it's not a great book. I was glad I read it and I was enriched in some ways. It's easy enough to read actually and it's only about 280 or so pages if I recall.

I'm still struggling though James Joyce's "Ulysses", now there's a masterpiece...keeps you busy researching.

that girl said...

Well done on the review John, I got more out of your review than I did out of the novel itself which I simply couldn't warm to. By the time the story had actually started (last few pages) I had nearly lost the will to live...No more Banville for me I'm afraid

John of Dublin said...

Thanks for the positive comments. I had a browse through your own site and found it interesting. I've added a link to you from here. Keep up the writing! Feel free to add a link to my site if you want to. John Cowley

Sinéad said...

John, do you know something? I've had a very strange experience with The Sea. I liked it a lot when I first read it (possibly because I read it very quickly in advance of interviewing the man himself). A couple of months later, I realised I had forgotten much of the book and I dipped in to it again after it had won the Booker.
I found that I liked it less than when I'd read it first but I do think Banville is a writer that takes a while to warm to - and I wouldn't recommend anyone who had never read him, to start with The Sea.
You make some spot on points in your review John.

That Girl - I know what you mean, but don't write him off just yet! If you read only one more of his books, make it The Book of Evidence - it's a total page-turner.

Sarah - I've been put off by overly literary reviews too, which I think comes from reviewers attempting to match Banville's prosaic writing, but coming off, instead, as verbose.

John of Dublin said...

Sinead, I greatly value your comments, thanks. Excellent that you interviewed Banville. I like your Sigla added to my short link list of Quality Blogs!

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