John Banville, The Sea — February 20, 2010

John Banville, The Sea

Cover of The Sea: all soft colors of a seaside cliff; yawn

I don’t mean to be flip, but [book: The Sea] reminded me of Ray from Achewood:

Poetry IS boring and difficult. Take a look at this line by Tennyson, in his rimjob of a poem Tintern Abbey:

FIVE years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.–Once again

Sounds to me like someone was gettin paid by the word. That’s a pretty long way of saying that you’re standing by a creek. Here is how that could be written instead:

DOGG check it I am by this creek;
and I got hell of emotions…in my brain

Basically we all get annoyed when someone uses the old-fashioned Tennyson-type style because you know the writer is just copying the greats and probably wears a gaelic thumb ring. Modern poets cant do that thee, thou, wrestd from sweet Aprils bosom kind of crap cause modern people dont talk that way.

In [book: The Sea]’s case, it can be reduced as follows: “My wife died a while ago, and I am sad, and now I *think* about my *memories*.”

[book: The Sea] is the sort of paint-by-numbers exercise that you’d get if you wrote your book with a particularly boring, sensitive [newspaper: Times of London] reviewer in mind. (Not [newspaper: The Guardian]. I would never try to write for [newspaper: The Guardian], knowing that their Digested Reads series is out there, waiting.) I envision that John Banville decided he wanted a book which would be called “elegiac” and “autumnal” and would win the Booker Prize. So he wrote that book, and the reviewers called it elegiac and autumnal, and it won the Booker. Yay on him.

It is a very gray book. Our narrator is renting a room from one of your classic spinster landladies, hair all bunned up and meals all eaten from a tin. What is the story with this landlady? We certainly get that she’s spinsteresque. Anyway, our narrator is a widower. His late wife spends nearly of the book dying, and little else. It sure would be nice to learn something about the late wife, other than that she died. Anyway, so his mind wanders freely over his youth spent at the shore. He kissed a girl there. She almost took her clothes off for him once. Then she died. The clothes-removing girl is capriciously violent and kind of gross; I envision an unkempt tomboy. She and her parents are staying in their highfalutin place at the shore, which is where our narrator meets her.

The shore itself is gray. The girl’s parents are essentially nonentities. Or maybe single-entities: the mother is fat, but apparently not obscenely so; the father has a big belly and laughs a lot.

And … that’s about it. Our narrator lives in his little room, thinks about his past, and mourns the loss of his wife. What’s amazing about this mourning is that it never really sheds any light on his late wife; he’s talking about other people, but he’s really talking about himself. Perhaps this is The Point, but this is not a Point in whose company I care to spend 200 pages.

If [book: The Sea] is supposed to be read for any particular reason, I guess it must be for the language. Banville spends lots of time choosing words. The book is about the words more than it’s about what they say. Our narrator is a self-described dilettante who writes about art history, so the words often compare things to paintings. Grey things, that is; it compares grey things to paintings. Grey, grey, grey. For 200 pages.

This is a self-consciously belletristic book. It is also self-consciously trying to remind us of Nabokov’s [book: Speak, Memory]. Its self-conscious parroting only serves to remind you of the unbridgeable distance between [book: Speak, Memory] and [book: The Sea].