Ah, beautiful nonsense…. Jill’s review of John Banville’s The Sea

photoHere’s something you probably don’t know about my boss: she must read books that make the longlist, the shortlist, and win the Man Booker Prize.  So I’m pretty sure that’s why she purchased John Banville’s The Sea.  It won the Man Booker in 2005.  And here’s something about me, which I doubt will come as a surprise: I, too, am obsessed with the Man Booker Prize.  I remember when I first learned of it maybe fifteen years ago, back when it was still called The Booker Prize.  I found it fascinating that a book prize existed for the former British Empire.  The downside of living in the United States when it comes to the Man Booker is that many of the books aren’t widely publicized here until they make the longlist, which means they are not easy to find.  And since I learn about them so late in the game, that means I don’t have a favorite to root for!  These are silly things, I know, but that’s how my brain works.  I’m thinking about writing an essay about how my early life as a reluctant sports fan shaped my reading life, and this affinity for book awards is probably one of the things that transferred.  But where was I?  Oh yes, The Sea.  I wrote the following sentence after reading the first little bit of the book, after spending Friday 1/24 swilling coffee and doing our blog-a-thon.  To win the Man Booker Prize a book must be filled with beautifully written nonsense about the impermanence of memory, at least that’s what I see in reading the first fourteen pages of The Sea and comparing with my memories of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (which won the Man Booker in 2011).  Ultimately The Sea was about a bit more than that, but there was a fair amount of beautiful nonsense as well.

The Sea is a small book, only one hundred ninety five pages, but Banville doesn’t waste a word, hence the overabundance of post-its in my picture above.  It is the story of Max Morden, recently widowed, who takes a trip to the coast where he vacationed as a child with his parents.  His wife, Anna, had a year-long battle with cancer that left Max drained and Anna gone.  So he takes off for a while.  And reminisces about a summer he spent with the Grace family in Ballyless, and his wife’s illness, and then he gets a concussion after falling down drunk on his way home from a local pub, and his daughter comes to get him and take him home.  And that’s the end.

So this is not what we would call a plot-driven book.  These days few award-winners are.  The undiscovered country in literature is the human mind.  “The past beats inside me like a second heart (10),” says Max, as he arrives at the Cedars, and he flashes to the distant past, the more recent past, and back to the present in a continuous, seamless loop.  I don’t know that I’ve read a book that moves so effortlessly amongst timelines before.  Maybe The House of the Spirits?  But no, Allende is good, but she isn’t this good, and it pains me to say that.  Take this example: “Happiness was different in childhood.  It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things—new experiences, new emotions—and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be the marvelously finished pavilion of the self.  And incredulity, that too was a large part of being happy, I mean that euphoric inability fully to believe one’s simple luck.  There I was, suddenly, with a girl in my arms, figuratively, at least, doing the things that grown-ups did, holding her hand, and kissing her in the dark, and when the picture had ended, standing aside, clearing my throat in grave politeness, to allow her to pass ahead of me under the heavy curtain and through the doorway out into the rain-washed sunlight of the summer evening.  I was myself and at the same time someone else, someone completely other, completely new.  As I walked behind her amid the trudging crowd in the direction of the Strand Café I touched a fingertip to my lips, the lips that had kissed hers, half expecting to find them changed in some infinitely subtle but momentous way (109).”  See what he did there?  He is an older man, talking about how it feels to be a kid, and then all of a sudden he is the younger version of himself, and so are we, and we are remembering, remembering, remembering.  We are there with Max and Chloe Grace.  We are Max and Chloe Grace.  And this is just one example.  I was drawn into this story.  It’s called The Sea, and this is a reference to the ocean that Ballyless is near.  But remember the end of The Great Gatsby?  “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?”  The various time lines of The Sea seamlessly move forward and back, forward and back, like the tides.

I found so many lovely passages in this book; I wish I could share them all with you guys.  But that would probably make for a boring post.  I initially thought that this book was going to be very similar to The Sense of an Ending, but it wasn’t, not really.  Looking back, that book was a long meditation on memory, with a bit of plot thrown in for good measure.  The Sea does it a bit better.  Yes, there are lots of thoughts about memory and time and aging.  But the actual things that happen are interesting, and the characters become more, not less, sympathetic as time goes on.  By the end of The Sense of an Ending I didn’t really like any of the characters, but The Sea was different.  They all grew on me.  They were all somehow fairly complete characters by the end, which is surprising.  The characterization is very subtle, but I can see them all in my head, every single one.

At the end of the copy of The Sea that I have there are blurbs about eight of John Banville’s other books.  They all sound weird and none of them sound interesting.  I know this is a weird way to end a positive review, but it was so surprising to me that I didn’t want to read any of the author’s other books.  Usually when I enjoy a book, I find the author’s other books appealing as well.  Bethany said that she had never picked up The Sea but that she had never been able to make it through any of Banville’s other books that she had started.  Bethany, I think you might like this one, but based on what I read about the others I understand why you didn’t finish any of them.

This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Important Award Winners, Fiction - literary, John Banville, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Ah, beautiful nonsense…. Jill’s review of John Banville’s The Sea

  1. bedstrom says:

    If you want to know about potential Booker nominees before the longlist comes out, go to http://www.amazon.co.uk and subscribe to their fiction newsletter. You won’t know for sure which books will make the longlist, but at least you’ll know when new books are published in England. Canadian amazon will work too (I use it to get my Alice Munro books before they’re published in the U.S.).

    • badkitty1016 says:

      I hadn’t thought about that. I have always wondered about ordering from amazon.co.uk, because the Thursday Next books always come out there before they come out here, but I’ve never actually done it.

      • bedstrom says:

        I ordered all of my Harry Potter books up until the last two from amazon.co.uk. They were delivered right on time every time, and while the shipping costs more, I don’t remember thinking it was unreasonable. I thought it was worthwhile for the British covers.

      • badkitty1016 says:

        You like the British covers of the Harry Potter books better, too? I actually tend to like most British covers better than the American ones.

  2. simon682 says:

    I like beautiful nonsense.

  3. Ed Butterfield says:

    I read ‘The Sense of an Ending’ immediately before reading ‘The Sea’, and I have to say that it felt like reading the same book. There are so many similarities with the novels it’s almost as if Julian Barnes had recently read ‘The Sea’ when he say down to write ‘The Sense of an Ending’.

    Firstly, both are narrated by a middle aged academic reflecting and mediating on their childhood and their past. Both narrators clearly have unresolved issues to do with their respective pasts, and both narrators withhold their burdens until the final few pages. Also, both generated the same feeling towards them as characters; both are quite pathetic and I disliked both but I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why.

    Both are written in that postmodern self reflexive style that tends to do quite well critically – the language was flowery and ‘beautiful’ in both, but I felt that it was to mask the fact that neither really actually told a story. They were both just middle aged guys talking about their regrets.

    And there’s more; both books are split into two roughly equally sized ‘chapters’ or parts. Both writers have the initials ‘JB’. Both titles begin with ‘The Se…’ And, unsurprisingly, both won the Booker prize. Because both are essentially the same formula for a book, just with slightly different ‘stories’ (I use the term loosely).

    Who knows, maybe John Barnes and Julian Banville are the same person? No, wait; John Barnesville? Jonilan Banvilles? Dang, memory is a fragile thing, isn’t it? (In case you’re not sure, read either of their books as they both feature the fragility and imperfection of memory as a pretty key theme.)

    I say, let’s combine the two writers and their novels as they’re practically the same read anyway:

    ‘The Sense of an Ending Sea’ by Julian Banville’ – Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

    That leaves 2005 vacant for ‘Never Let Me Go’, the book that should have won that year. Now there’s a cracking read…

    • badkitty1016 says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ed! I completely agree that these books were essentially the same book. I wish I’d read them closer together so I could have just written one review. I did enjoy them both, primarily because I enjoy reading about the fragility of memory. I found the narrator of The Sense of an Ending to be much less sympathetic than the narrator of The Sea, though neither will go down as favorite characters….

  4. Pingback: Update on Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Parts II – III | Postcards From Purgatory

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