Sunday, March 1, 2009

I would not swim again...

As I was driving to work one April morning last year, Renée Montagne, host of NPR’s Morning Edition introduced a story I just couldn’t turn off. Irish authorThe Man Booker Prizemany literary novelsone of the finest living writers. Okay. She had my attention. He’s turned to writing hard-boiled crime fiction… I’m afraid I may have groaned with a dark, gnawing anticipation.

The author was John Banville, who has taken to writing genre fiction under the pseudonym “Benjamin Black.” In his literary guise, Banville is an author with a reputation for lushly stylized prose. His last literary novel, The Sea, won the 2005 Man Booker Prize. He is the kind of writer who labors over his novels, polishing each and every phrase and word. As Benjamin Black, however, he is capable of writing 1500 words in a morning—it would take Banville more than a month to write that much—and has published 3 books in as many years.

Shall we say I was intrigued? Intrigued, and impulsive. Within a week I had purchased both Christine Falls—the first of the crime novels—and The Sea. Impulsive, but distracted. As it turns out, it took me until February of this year to actually begin reading the books. At the tail end of a week with the flu I picked up Christine Falls, and the next evening I had finished it.

It delivered. It was not a book of complex character development, or intricate plotting, but it was alive with fog, cigarette smoke, and whiskey—its noir atmosphere breathed with suffocating secrets and misspent lives. And now, having finished Benjamin Black, I was ready for John Banville. The next day I began reading The Sea.

The Sea is a slim book. The final, single-sentence paragraph closes full stop on page 195. Slim, but not brief. Within its covers is an entire world, a world of one man’s memories of two deaths—one at the beginning of his life and the other in his old age. The book takes the form of a sort of memoir written by Max Morden, as he weaves the events leading up to the childhood tragedy into the recent tragedy of his wife’s year long ordeal with cancer and her final demise, one emotively interpreting the other. Though Max’s thoughts seem to wander haphazardly through his memories, the book is actually very tightly focused. The wandering done is between a few particular places, between a few particular times, with a few particular people, and the entire story orbits around his grief and his questions of self and other.

Max’s narrative is, ultimately, about himself and his understanding of his character, his personality, his limitations, his loss. Because of this, there are only a few character portraits to develop. This is no Dickens or Dostoevsky. This is a single consciousness surrounded by the bare essential of “others”. Indeed, the others who reside in Max’s present are mere ghosts compared to the presence of the cast of his memory. But even those remembered ones are far off, unknowable, untouchable. They are gods—he names them so in the very first sentence of the book. They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. Max is the only person we ever really come to know, and that only so far as he allows.

Max, we learn, is a bit of a dilettante. Ostensibly an intellectual writer on art, the aging man has been frittering away his time playing at writing a study on the artist Pierre Bonnard—“A very great painter, in my estimation, about whom, as I long ago came to realise, I have nothing of any originality to say.” He is a man who perhaps had great dreams—ever striving to put behind him the embarrassment of his low brow upbringing—but he has long since realize that his is “free, fatally free, of what might be called the curse of perpetuance.” His work ends. It will not survive long beyond his death—what of him will last? Nothing.

Max is painfully aware of his own mediocrity and detests it. He is not the great man he would be. His loves were no great loves. His desires were not sublime. In him passion and zeal were only masks of anxiety. He is—dreadful to himself—bourgeois. He is not particularly likable, though I would argue he is no worse than most of us. He is not idealized—Banville is clear about this, that he finds the superhuman heros of fiction uninteresting. Max Morden is like the rest of us, and therefore while not pretty, his life and thoughts are relevant. They offer us an opportunity to peer into the dark spaces within, to shine some brief light on the pitch black of our closely guarded inner selves. And that quality characterizes the book as a whole. This is not a book that transports us away from the realities of our life—it instead offers us the space, the opportunity, to go inward, to see ourselves as we are, in weakness and failing. That is its genius.

The Sea does not offer a final, comforting affirmation. It does not condescend to teach us by way of some tidy moral couched in beautiful prose. It is a portrait of a very common sort of man in a state of grief towards the end of his life. Max Morden is revealed to us without judgment—The Sea gives color, tone, and texture to the man and his ruminations about his life. In this way it is painterly—as if to point it out, Max makes frequent reference to paintings, particularly those of Bonnard. But where Bonnard idealized his subjects, Banville contrasts the idealized subject to the subject in context, bringing greater contrast and poignancy to the reality behind the painting.

Banville handles all of this weightiness masterfully. In other hands such honesty could become a bludgeon that effectively beats the reader into darkness of spirit. But Banville’s excellent imagery, the beauty of his lines lifts the book up. It is like a sad song sung beautifully, and in that glimpse of beauty there is life and the possibility of hope. The Sea.

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