The Sea 
by John Banville.
Picador, 264 pp., £16.99, June 2005, 0 330 48328 5
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‘Just as the pearl is the oyster’s affliction,’ Flaubert wrote in a letter in 1852, ‘so style is perhaps the discharge from a deeper wound.’ It is an arresting image, not because it was news then that the artist was in some way a wounded soul – someone whose suffering was the source and inspiration of his art – but because we would expect the wound to surface in the writing in the form of ideas or preoccupations rather than as sentence structure or rhythm or verbal mannerism. But even if we agree that the sounds of a novelist’s sentences are soundings of his condition, it is difficult to spell out the connections between them: Flaubert isn’t sure whether a style is itself an affliction, or merely the discharge that comes from one. He wants us to believe, as a man of his times, that beautiful things come from terrible things, and that beautiful things are themselves terrible, that writing is the disguised autobiography of the afflicted soul, and that unredeemed nature is precisely this: a producer of styles and pearls and discharges, and indeed of sentences about what nature is like.

Once we take it for granted that there is a wound in the (modern) artist, it is interesting to be reminded that we may have been looking for it in the wrong place, that we might have the wrong picture of how suffering turns into words. Writers don’t suffer with ideas, they suffer in style. ‘Everything,’ writes Axel Vander, the sly hero-narrator of John Banville’s Shroud, ‘has to be qualified.’ And style is the way the writer qualifies himself, or whatever it is he feels is in need of qualification. The question Banville has always asked in his novels is: what must a self, or an identity or a narrator be (or be like) if qualification is the name of the game? To qualify something or someone is at once to legitimate it, and to go on explaining it. Banville, an extraordinary stylist, has always had an ear for the strange equivocations that language is riddled with, and an obsessive interest in men who are unable to sustain their ‘identities’, who are haunted and nearly broken by their own theatricality, men with mysterious wounds who are living with a sense of impending catastrophe; men who believe, as Vander does, ‘that every text conceals a shameful secret, the hidden understains left behind by the author in his necessarily bad faith.’ Banville suspects that all forms of self-creation, including writing, are forms of necessarily bad faith, and he manages to make this suspicion heartening. There is no contemporary writer so subtle or so gleeful about the inevitable shams and feints of character.

As far back as Birchwood, published in 1973, Banville has been fascinated by the amateur dramatics of self-fashioning, but the struggle his early characters went through to legitimate their points of view was tempered by the sense that, nothing more substantial being available, mystique would have to do (‘Being a man with a secret was a full-time role,’ the narrator of The Newton Letter finds himself reflecting). The possibility that women may not be the only sphinxes without a riddle, or that this is a condition now suffered only by men, has haunted all Banville’s heroes; but in his recent novels – The Untouchable, Eclipse, Shroud and The Sea, books that seem retrospectively to form a quartet – the narrators have been, in their different ways, successful men who have a sneaking and a not-so-sneaking suspicion that there really is nothing to them. Not merely that they are frauds, but that once they start writing accounts of themselves they are unable to find anything resembling a truth against which they can measure their unfathomable falsehoods. ‘I am a stranger,’ announces Alexander Cleave, the collapsing actor-hero of Eclipse: ‘No one can put a name to my face, I cannot even do it myself, with any surety. There is no present, the past is random, and only the future is fixed.’ Banville’s heroes are always flamboyant about their futility, and there is usually something seedy and shrewd about their despair: histrionics, exile and cunning keep them going.

The Sea, too, is cast in the form of a memoir written by a man in a crisis. Once again self-exposure is the theme, along with the abiding sense that the modern self has nothing to expose other than its acts of self-exposure. Banville is having his sly way with all the modishness so freely available in the intellectual and the not-so-intellectual culture, in the cults of secrecy and scandal that are so unrevealing. But the difference that makes all the difference, and that makes The Sea perhaps more remarkable in its way than the previous three novels, is that its narrator, an art historian called Max Morden, has none of the grandiosity, swagger or amused self-obsession that drives the narrators of the earlier books. Max is an undistinguished man. He has lost his wife, who has recently died of cancer, and has returned to the scene of his childhood holidays and erotic awakenings; it is also the scene of a childhood trauma, the deaths by drowning of two friends. The narrative interweaves Max’s memories of his childhood relationship with a mysterious and alluring family on holiday and the more recent ordeal of his wife’s diagnosis, illness and death. And more or less all that Max gleans, apart from the great grief that assails him, is that the mind – his mind – compulsively and restlessly goes on making connections, to no apparent purpose. ‘Everything for me is something else, it is a thing I notice increasingly,’ he writes, knowing it is not a ‘thing’ at all, because there are no longer any things, and if everything is something else then nothing is anything in itself.

There are, as ever with Banville, disturbing and uncanny twists in the tale. His familiar cast of quasi-emblematic figures (sinister people with red hair, ominous dogs, the retarded child, the shifty vagrant, the adored bemusing daughter) makes The Sea, like most of his novels, at times as intensely self-referential and visionary as Blake’s Prophetic Books, or Yeats’s Mythologies. And the customary absence of the overtly political means that conclusions about allegiance can never be too easily jumped to. In The Sea Banville has written an utterly absorbing novel about the strange workings of grief, and the gratuitous dramas of memory. The only story that Max has to tell is the story of what happens to come to mind; and however artful the novelist, this is all he can do as well.

Since we are haunted now by the idea of being haunted by the past, it is tempting for contemporary novelists to try and come up with new metaphors and analogies for memory, as though memory itself were the medium and had to be made new. And whenever we find a memory or a dream in a novel we take for granted its meaningfulness. Anything that occurs unbidden must be significant, it’s assumed, so when such things are staged they come with a guarantee. But Banville wants us to see that memory can be as random, as futile and baffling in its prompting, as anything else that happens to occur to us; and that what we see without looking – including our memories and our dreams – can be fascinating without being in any way intelligible or revealing. ‘Strange, is it not,’ Max reflects, ‘the way they lodge in the mind, the seemingly inconsidered things?’ (‘Seemingly unconsidered’ would be a quite different proposition.) Since Max does not present himself, as Banville’s narrators often do, as too archly knowing, the effect is not stagey: ‘strange’ here means strange – rather than ‘not strange at all’, or ‘strange only if you have missed the point’. It would be easy to say, and it is often and easily said, that the things that matter most to us are those we have never considered, the things we won’t allow to occur to us. Banville wants to keep faith with the arbitrary, unfounded inventions of memory; as though it might be the act of remembering itself that we value, rather than what our memories refer to, or what we take them to refer to. ‘The past, I mean the real past, matters less than we pretend,’ Max writes, pretence pointedly taking the place of belief. Max is vexed by the question of what all the pretending is for, and why the supposed past is so alluring – when it may not even be the past at all.

The Sea quickly involves the reader in a web of allusions and associations: or rather, possible associations and allusion, because one can never be quite sure whether there are allusions lurking that one may or may not have caught, or of how, if at all, the allusions are intended. In Banville’s novels the allusions are like jokes: you’re not quite sure what you’ve got when you’ve got them. For example, it is Titus Andronicus – a character, like Max, without a wife and with a daughter – who says, at a moment of extreme grief: ‘I am the sea.’ And Titus Andronicus, as it happens, makes one of the very few references in Shakespeare to cedars (‘but shrubs, no cedars we’). This matters, we might feel, because the boarding house that was once the holiday home of Max’s childhood friends is called ‘The Cedars’. Max refers to his memoir as his ‘journal of the plague year’ and to his wife as ‘Mrs Bones’; the dog he tormented as a child is called Pongo. You don’t need to know Defoe, Berryman’s Dream Songs or One Hundred and One Dalmatians – all grief stories in their different ways – to get what Banville is up to. It’s Max himself who isn’t quite sure what he’s up to in making these casual references (he may not have read Defoe but just noticed the title); as if he and his author are wondering what kind of currency all this literariness is, what all this fervent commitment to language and in-jokes is about. Banville has written that for Hoffmansthal, ‘the disjunction between the thing and the thing named, between signified and signifier, opened a vertiginous prospect’, and this seems to be true of Banville himself. Indeed The Sea often takes the form of a radical interrogation of his own methods, and the Modernist and contemporary suppositions on which they have been based.

At the beginning of the book, as Max approaches The Cedars for the first time since his childhood, he is struck by a memory that seems at odds with at least one powerful modern version of childhood memories: ‘I approached The Cedars circumspectly. How is it that in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known returning in a different form, become a revenant? So many unanswerables, this the least of them.’ The mock admiration in referring to Freud as ‘all the authorities’ is tempered by the bizarre implication either that there is no such thing as a new experience or that the adult has invented the child he seems to remember, and pretended, for some reason, that the new experiences of his childhood were somehow uncanny. What makes Max’s question the least of the unanswerables – especially in a book so obsessed by the provenance of childhood memories – is never addressed in a book that, by virtue of its being a novel and not a book by one of the authorities, is free to work by suggestion and intimation. ‘How the mind wanders,’ Max remarks, ‘even on the most concentrated of occasions.’ It would be reassuring to believe that either in concentration or in distraction some sort of revelation might be at hand, or at least that something of significance might emerge; but it is Max’s experience that the hunger for epiphanies has become part of the problem rather than the solution.

The Sea opens with a portentous and over-familiar vacating – ‘They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide’ – but only because Banville wants to tell us a new story about an old story: a story about loss that has no truck with recovery, and no truck with the consolations of despair. Departure brings with it the possibility of return, but the only character who returns in the book is Max, a man who is continually telling us, with genuine modesty, how little he knows about both the world and himself (‘Directly below me there was an oak, or perhaps it was a beech, I am never sure of those big deciduous trees, certainly not an elm since they are all dead’). Such authorities as now remain, like the cancer specialist who treats Max’s wife, speak certainly only of death. But Max returns to his past, and what he finds most starkly is that the authority of the past, of the personal past, has departed too. ‘I am amazed,’ he writes, ‘at how little has changed in the more than fifty years that have gone by since I was last here. Amazed, and disappointed, I would go so far as to say appalled, for reasons that are obscure to me, since why should I desire change, I who have come back to live amidst the rubble of the past?’

The Sea is a great book of unanswerables. Another thing all the authorities tell us is about the ubiquity of change. Not only does Max find things more or less the same, he has also been taught to desire change – to make a virtue or a desire out of necessity – and he can’t help but find this puzzling too. No one since Proust has been better able to recover the charged and dreamy atmospheres of what seems to be childhood but, as Max keeps pointing out, is more accurately thought of as the dubious artfulness of memory. The gods are also our childhood selves, and if childhood was no longer taken to be the referent of our memories of childhood – if our childhood departed, as Max’s may have done on the day his two friends drowned – we would lose the foundations of our so-called selves. We wouldn’t know what to refer to to make sense of our lives. In The Sea memory has designs on the narrator, but to no discernible purpose.

If for Freud and Proust, in their different ways, memory was of desire (if what we call memories are enigmatic pictures of difficult desires), then for Banville memory is like an artist without a vision, without anything as vivid as a wound to compel him. ‘The room was much as I remembered it,’ Max remarks as he re-enters a room from his childhood, ‘for memories are always eager to match themselves seamlessly to the things and places of a revisited past.’ Banville never suggests in The Sea that memory is simply wishful, reassuring, deceptive or unreliable. It may be all these things, but Max knows only that memory is having its way with him, and it never adds up. You can return to your childhood haunts, you can write a memoir, but you are forever at the mercy of what happens to occur to you, of the words you find yourself writing. Having ‘come to do his grieving at The Cedars’, Max discovers that he has lost far more than he would have thought possible. He is finally becoming one of the unself-possessed. ‘I think I am becoming my own ghost,’ he writes, as it begins to dawn on him that all writers are ghost-writers. Max constantly wonders whether various of the characters, including himself, are ‘impostors’, as though something is being concealed. By the end of the novel the last vestige of that old hope has gone. As his wife is dying in the hospital, Max has another of his unbidden childhood memories, and it is an emblematic anti-epiphany. He remembers walking into the sea, and then stopping:

As I stood there, suddenly, no, not suddenly, but in a sort of driving heave, the whole sea surged, it was not a wave, but a smooth rolling swell that seemed to come up from the deeps, as if something vast down there had stirred itself, and I was lifted briefly and carried a little way towards the shore and then was set down on my feet as before, as if nothing had happened. And indeed nothing had happened, a momentous nothing, just another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference.

The persistent wish for accuracy, expressed by the qualifications, is not diminished by the fact that this is a description of a memory of nothing much happening. It is largely benign. He writes that it is only ‘as if’ something vast down there had stirred itself because there is nothing vast now, and no down there in which it lives: the deeps, like the gods, have departed. ‘Another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference’ is a wonderful piece of mock anthropomorphism: ‘great’ when applied to the world can only be banal or ironic. And the ‘sort of driving heave’ is just like a memory coming from somewhere (or nowhere), briefly transporting us, preferably leaving us closer to reassurance but actually leaving us much as we were. Memories, when they are not ‘great unanswerables’, are ‘momentous nothings’.

The disillusionment with memory that is everywhere in The Sea, though nowhere polemical or wearingly insistent, is a testament to the fact that – for those for whom the gods have departed – memory has become redemptive. And, as Max intimates at several points in his own unpretentious way, the one thing we can’t seem to save ourselves from is the wish to be saved, the wish for satisfying conclusions. ‘After all,’ Max asks, ‘why should I be less susceptible than the next melodramatist to the tale’s demand for a neat closing twist?’

It would be misleading, though, to suggest that Banville writes novels that are essays in disguise. His books weave together an extraordinary lyricism, an immediacy of sensuous impressions, and a set of abiding preoccupations about the nature of identity. The Sea has in it, like all of Banville’s novels, marvellous half-witting parodies of the diligent earnestness of academic prose in which you are never quite sure who the joke is on. In virtually every paragraph sincerity and authenticity are played off against each other. And by making Max an academic – and not a maverick academic like Axel Vander in Shroud – Banville is freer to exploit his doubts about his own seriousness, about whether the contemporary ideas he entertains have got anything to do with him, any more than his memories have.

The Sea contains both elegy and mock-elegy: elegy for the saving graces of memory, mock-elegy for the pretentiousness and pretensions of language. So when Max launches into an impassioned speech about his personality or lack of it, he is at once cogent and clever and too subtle and possibly, from his own point of view, none of these things:

From earliest days I wanted to be someone else . . . I knew myself, all too well, and did not like what I knew. Again I must qualify. It was not what I was that I disliked, I mean the singular, essential me – although I grant that even the notion of an essential, singular self is problematic – but the congeries of affects, inclinations, received ideas, class tics, that my birth and upbringing had bestowed on me in place of a personality. In place of, yes. I never had a personality, not in the way that others have, or think they have. I was always a distinct no-one, whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone. I know what I mean . . . ‘Why not be yourself?’ she would say to me in our early days together – be, mark you, not know – pitying my fumbling attempts to grasp the great world. Be yourself! Meaning, of course, Be anyone you like.

At this moment Max becomes, in the writing, the indistinct someone he aspires to be: he loses personality and becomes voices, sentences at odds with one another, observations and possibilities and hesitations that clamour for attention. In Dostoevsky, there are these moments of release into a startlingly articulate delirium which we end up thinking of as the writer’s distinctive style. Banville, as many people have said, is in this company.

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