John Banville was the surprise winner of the Booker Prize in 2005 with his lyrical novel The Sea. Literary pundits had put their money on Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George walking away with the prize or a repeat Booker success for Kazuo Ishiguro and Never Let Me Go.
No-one was more surprised than the Banville at his success, particularly because he felt that two of his earlier books were more like the “middle-ground, middlebrow work” that he felt judges tended to choose. By contrast he considered The Sea to be more of an “art novel”. It was a comment which ruffled more than a few feathers among the literary elite.
Banville’s description of The Sea as an ‘art’ novel could be considered a strange term for a novel that relies on the well-used device of a character returning to a place that played a significant part in his earlier years. But that simplified version of the plot doesn’t to justice to a novel that is a richly textured and patterned meditation on the nature of memory and loss and of the bitter-sweet nature of first love.
In The Sea,the widowed art historian Max Morden returns to the seaside village where as a young boy on the verge of adolescence, he once spent a family holiday. It’s a trip that is at once an escape from the traumatic loss of his wife but at the same time an opportunity to confront a dramatic event that occurred during that summer seaside sojourn. The nature of that event is held back from the reader until the closing pages of the novel, not because Banville is planning a big dramatic reveal but because his real interest is the process of recollection. Morden’s odyssey into his past takes place through a series of vignettes which reveal his relationships with his father, his wife and his daughter. He recalls also the Grace family who also holidayed in the same resort and whose allure he found impossible to resist.
This is a tale that sucks you in; that takes you along meandering lanes of memory only to suddenly detour to a different time and place and then unexpectedly switch direction yet again to bring us back to the here and now. Banville has been compared to Beckett though at the 2013 Hay Festival he told the audience his favourite authors are Henry James and Georges Simenon (though not the Maigret novels he was at pains to emphasise).
Reading The Sea is a hypnotic, mesmerising experience largely due to Banville’s mastery of the atmosphere-laden sentence. The opening of the book is tantalisingly enigmatic:
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.
With an opening like that, I was hooked. And I hope you will be too. This was the first Banville book I had read. I know it will not be the last.