The Sea by John Banville

Don’t read this review of The Sea if you don’t want to ruin the surprise ending because I’m going to give part of it away. If you’re at all like me, you may find it preferable to know, to know more than what the jacket cover reveals, that there was a death in the narrator’s childhood that he revisits in memory as an old man. At the end of the book the narrator relates the sudden double death of twin children. And he reveals the true identity of Miss V, their former governess, now the narrator’s landlady, which the narrator, otherwise forthcoming, keeps from his audience. Instead of being surprised at the ending, I would have preferred to have been given careful and haunting hints that would have allowed me to vaguely and unconsciously guess at what was coming. I imagine the overall experience of reading this book will be improved on a second reading now that the end is already in view.

Banville’s The Sea is a wonderfully written story that would be story enough without the shocking surprise. I don’t know what the function of the surprises is, aesthetically I mean. The deaths themselves reinforce the notion that even in (or especially in?) Arcadia, Death is usually found lurking. But the surprise of the deaths just jolted me and made me sad, unnecessarily, and the revelation of pointlessly hidden identity made me feel tricked. I don’t know why a good captivating story should be defined by an event that comes without warning. The opposite seems truer to me. In a story, events are presaged, somehow, in retrospect.

I suppose Banville, who as his alter ego is a writer of thrillers and mysteries, has a fondness for that genre’s plot line. For me, The Sea is the very heart of the genre of literary fiction, which has very little use for such plots. The real power of the book, I feel lies elsewhere.

The writing is lovely, on every page. This is what literature should be. But I find most works these days calling themselves literary fiction don’t even come close to what Banville seems to do effortlessly. Once I got over the confusion of the ending, I went back to mull over what I really love about this book and I am grateful to Banville for having written it. There is so little out there worth the time. First I loved existing in the mind of this narrator, an authentic and enlightening experience. Novels ought to do this to us, for us, teach what it’s like to be someone else, bestow on us greater powers of empathy. I didn’t always like the narrator, Max (his hypersensitivity to odors, his cruelty to dogs and his insensitivity to his parents), but I understood what it was to be him and that’s the point.

Max is grieving his wife’s death, and wondering what death means in general. He meditates on the way in which people live on in the memories of those left behind, a consoling thought, until he adds that once those people die there is a second death of the first. The next offered solution to the perennially undefined dilemma of being human is successful self-expression. There is a universal desire to be known to another, that, if one could achieve it, would satisfy and make a life seem as if it had done something, done the thing it set out to do at last. Max admits, “I do not entertain the possibility of an afterlife, or any deity capable of offering it. Given the world he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him. No, what I am looking forward to is a moment of earthly expression. That is it, that is it exactly: I shall be expressed, totally. I shall be delivered, like a noble closing speech. I shall be, in a word, said.” As a writer I am wholly sympathetic to Max’s (Banville’s?) ultimate desire.

It’s important to note that this raising of self-expression as the highest attainable good comes after a description of the fall, when Max falls in love with Chloe (one of the twins), his other. “She was I believe the true origin in me of self-consciousness. Before, there had been one thing and I was part of it, now there was me and all that was not me. But here too there is a torsion, a kink of complexity. In severing me from the world and making me realize myself in being thus severed, she expelled me from that sense of the immanence of all things, the all things that had included me, in which up to then I had dwelt, in more of less blissful ignorance.”

Sadly, we find that Max’s relationship with his wife, as good as it gets as it was, lacked the kind of intimacy that would have reconnected him with another and the world. They didn’t know each other, not in that full way that would have been a good substitute for the “immortality” of being remembered. They did not know each other in the way that a reader can when he or she shares the existence of a character in fiction. So I’m sad for Max in the end, but not too because he has been “said” in this book.

Bravo Banville. I did not need the shocking ending, but ultimately it did not distract from the beauty of this meditation on the meaning of completeness.

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