Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Sea by John Banville

I recently finished this book by the Irish author, John Banville, whose brother Vincent (also an author writing under the name Vincent Lawrence) taught me mathematics many years ago in St. Joseph's School in Fairview. The story is about a man, Max Morden, whose wife dies of cancer. Following her death, he returns to the seaside town in Wexford where he spent his childhood holidays. It is written in flashback style and moves effortlessly and seamlessly from the present and the death of his wife to his childhood memories. It also deals with his very difficult relationship with his daughter. There is also a hidden tragedy lurking in the book that shocks when it is encountered.

This is a most beautiful book. What particularly struck me about it was the quality of the language and the imagery used. It is almost old-fashioned in its respect for language. Morden's parents had a difficult relationship and eventually the father left them, which caused great resentment in the child that lasted in the man. He captures the tensions perhaps felt by many men, however, when he speaks of his father taking the train down to their holiday retreat "in a wordless fury, bearing the frustrations of his day like so much luggage clutched in his clenched fists." How many men come home from work every evening feeling exactly that sense of frustration from their day? In similar vein, he later asks, "Are not the majority of men disappointed with their lot, languishing in quiet desperation in their chains."

Coming to terms with his wife's impending demise, Morden could see on all sides "portents of mortality." "My life", he says, "seemed to be passing before me, not in a flash as it is said to do for those about to drown, but in a sort of leisurely convulsion, emptying itself of its secrets and its quotidian mysteries in preparation for the moment when I must step into the black boat on the shadowed river with the coin of passage cold in my already coldening hand." What absolutely marvellous use of language, resplendent with mythical echoes!

Recalling his marriage to Anna, his wife, when so many people today decide not to marry, he says, "Today, when only the lower orders and what remains of the gentry bother to marry, and everybody else takes a partner, as if life were a dance, or a business venture, it is perhaps hard to appreciate how vertiginous a leap it was back then to plight one's troth." What a lovely observation on current attitudes to marriage in contrast to the excitement of many years ago.

Talking of God, he says, "Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him." A simple observation, but worth of consideration, nevertheless.

The traumatic events revealed in the book and the subsequent uncovering of the complete mysteries of the story make this a delightful read. The story is so beautifully constructed and so eloquently told that this book was, without doubt, a worthy winner of the Man Booker Prize 2005. Banville himself, I think, called it a "little book." In my view it is a little book that everybody should read and that should also be on the school curriculum. It is a long time since I have read such a beautifully written book. Reading it on the train while commuting to work, I suffered the embarrasment, on more than one occasion, of having to wipe a small tear from the corner of my eye.

When language has become so debased through the utilitarianism of business; the equivocation of politicians; the "spin" of advisors; texting; electronic mail, and the vulgarity of much modern discourse, it is no small pleasure indeed to read a truly eloquent novel.

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