No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, October 11, 2012

2012/47: The Sea -- John Banville

Yes, this is what I thought adulthood would be, a kind of long indian summer, a state of tranquility, of calm incuriousness, with nothing left of the barely bearable raw immediacy of childhood, all the things solved that had puzzled me when I was small, all mysteries settled, all questions answered, and the moments dripping away, unnoticed almost, drip by golden drip, toward the final, almost unnoticed, quietus. (p. 94)

Read on the beach, on the last day of summer (= last feasible sea-bathing day). I've owned this novel since it came out in paperback in 2006, the year after it won the Booker. No rush, eh?

Max, whose wife Anna has recently died of cancer, is staying at The Cedars, a guesthouse in an Irish seaside village. In his distant childhood, this house was the summer residence of the Grace family, who drew him into their circle, invited him on picnics, let him play their games. Max (though 'Max' wasn't his name then) was infatuated with Mrs Grace; intimidated by her husband's sense of humour; drawn into the orbit of the twins, Chloe and Myles (the latter of whom didn't speak). He imagined he knew the secret of Rose, the nanny. It takes him a long time to discover that he was wrong about her.

Max is not an especially likeable character: he's pedantic, discursive, rambling, and very sorry for himself. With some cause. His daughter has taken up with an unsuitable young man; his wife is dead. He's living at a seaside guest house, alone save for the mysterious Colonel (so caricatured that he must be an imposter?) and Miss Vavasour, the proprietress of The Cedars. Alone, he reflects on his childhood memories of Chloe and Myles and how they were lost to him; into that narrative is woven Anna's death and Max's sense of being 'no one', invisible. (People look at him but don't see him: this is an image that recurs throughout the novel.)

The Sea consists of a slow, simple tale glinting with gorgeous prose. Max's voice is sometimes irritating, but when he lets go of detail and focusses on a whole experience, the effect is breathtaking.

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