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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42930-8
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The author of The Untouchable (“contemporary fiction gets no better than this”—Patrick McGrath, The New York Times Book Review) now gives us a luminous novel about love, loss, and the unpredictable power of memory.

The narrator is Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who, soon after his wife’s death, has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child—a retreat from the grief, anger, and numbness of his life without her. But it is also a return to the place where he met the Graces, the well-heeled vacationing family with whom he experienced the strange suddenness of both love and death for the first time. The seductive mother; the imperious father; the twins—Chloe, fiery and forthright, and Myles, silent and expressionless—in whose mysterious connection Max became profoundly entangled, each of them a part of the “barely bearable raw immediacy” of his childhood memories.

Interwoven with this story are Morden’s memories of his wife, Anna—of their life together, of her death—and the moments, both significant and mundane, that make up his life now: his relationship with his grown daughter, Claire, desperate to pull him from his grief; and with the other boarders at the house where he is staying, where the past beats inside him “like a second heart.”

What Max comes to understand about the past, and about its indelible effects on him, is at the center of this elegiac, vividly dramatic, beautifully written novel—among the finest we have had from this extraordinary writer.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

I


They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.

Someone has just walked over my grave. Someone.



The name of the house is the Cedars, as of old. A bristling clump of those trees, monkey-brown with a tarry reek, their trunks nightmarishly tangled, still grows at the left side, facing across an untidy lawn to the big curved window of what used to be the living room but which Miss Vavasour prefers to call, in landladyese, the lounge. The front door is at the opposite side, opening on to a square of oil-stained gravel behind the iron gate that is still painted green, though rust has reduced its struts to a tremulous filigree. I am amazed at how little has changed in the more than fifty years that have gone by since I was last here. Amazed, and disappointed, I would go so far as to say appalled, for reasons that are obscure to me, since why should I desire change, I who have come back to live amidst the rubble of the past? I wonder why the house was built like that, sideways-on, turning a pebble-dashed windowless white end-wall to the road; perhaps in former times, before the railway, the road ran in a different orientation altogether, passing directly in front of the front door, anything is possible. Miss V. is vague on dates but thinks a cottage was first put up here early in the last century, I mean the century before last, I am losing track of the millennia, and then was added on to haphazardly over the years. That would account for the jumbled look of the place, with small rooms giving on to bigger ones, and windows facing blank walls, and low ceilings throughout. The pitchpine floors sound a nautical note, as does my spindle-backed swivel chair. I imagine an old seafarer dozing by the fire, landlubbered at last, and the winter gale rattling the window frames. Oh, to be him. To have been him.

When I was here all those years ago, in the time of the gods, the Cedars was a summer house, for rent by the fortnight or the month. During all of June each year a rich doctor and his large, raucous family infested it—we did not like the doctor’s loud-voiced children, they laughed at us and threw stones from behind the unbreachable barrier of the gate—and after them a mysterious middle-aged couple came, who spoke to no one, and grimly walked their sausage dog in silence at the same time every morning down Station Road to the strand. August was the most interesting month at the Cedars, for us. The tenants then were different each year, people from England or the Continent, the odd pair of honeymooners whom we would try to spy on, and once even a fit-up troupe of itinerant theatre people who were putting on an afternoon show in the village’s galvanised-tin cinema. And then, that year, came the family Grace.

The first thing I saw of them was their motor car, parked on the gravel inside the gate. It was a low-slung, scarred and battered black model with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood steering wheel. Books with bleached and dog-eared covers were thrown carelessly on the shelf under the sportily raked back window, and there was a touring map of France, much used. The front door of the house stood wide open, and I could hear voices inside, downstairs, and from upstairs the sound of bare feet running on floorboards and a girl laughing. I had paused by the gate, frankly eavesdropping, and now suddenly a man with a drink in his hand came out of the house. He was short and top-heavy, all shoulders and chest and big round head, with close-cut, crinkled, glittering-black hair with flecks of premature grey in it and a pointed black beard likewise flecked. He wore a loose green shirt unbuttoned and khaki shorts and was barefoot. His skin was so deeply tanned by the sun it had a purplish sheen. Even his feet, I noticed, were brown on the insteps; the majority of fathers in my experience were fish-belly white below the collar-line. He set his tumbler—ice-blue gin and ice cubes and a lemon slice—at a perilous angle on the roof of the car and opened the passenger door and leaned inside to rummage for something under the dashboard. In the unseen upstairs of the house the girl laughed again and gave a wild, warbling cry of mock-panic, and again there was the sound of scampering feet. They were playing chase, she and the voiceless other. The man straightened and took his glass of gin from the roof and slammed the car door. Whatever it was he had been searching for he had not found. As he turned back to the house his eye caught mine and he winked. He did not do it in the way that adults usually did, at once arch and ingratiating. No, this was a comradely, a conspiratorial wink, masonic, almost, as if this moment that we, two strangers, adult and boy, had shared, although outwardly without significance, without content, even, nevertheless had meaning. His eyes were an extraordinary pale transparent shade of blue. He went back inside then, already talking before he was through the door. “Damned thing,” he said, “seems to be . . .” and was gone. I lingered a moment, scanning the upstairs windows. No face appeared there.

That, then, was my first encounter with the Graces: the girl’s voice coming down from on high, the running footsteps, and the man here below with the blue eyes giving me that wink, jaunty, intimate and faintly satanic.

Just now I caught myself at it again, that thin, wintry whistling through the front teeth that I have begun to do recently. Deedle deedle deedle, it goes, like a dentist’s drill. My father used to whistle like that, am I turning into him? In the room across the corridor Colonel Blunden is playing the wireless. He favours the afternoon talk programmes, the ones in which irate members of the public call up to complain about villainous politicians and the price of drink and other perennial irritants. “Company,” he says shortly, and clears his throat, looking a little abashed, his protuberant, parboiled eyes avoiding mine, even though I have issued no challenge. Does he lie on the bed while he listens? Hard to picture him there in his thick grey woollen socks, twiddling his toes, his tie off and shirt collar agape and hands clasped behind that stringy old neck of his. Out of his room he is vertical man itself, from the soles of his much-mended glossy brown brogues to the tip of his conical skull. He has his hair cut every Saturday morning by the village barber, short-back-and-sides, no quarter given, only a hawkish stiff grey crest left on top. His long-lobed leathery ears stick out, they look as if they had been dried and smoked; the whites of his eyes too have a smoky yellow tinge. I can hear the buzz of voices on his wireless but cannot make out what they say. I may go mad here. Deedle deedle.



Later that day, the day the Graces came, or the following one, or the one following that, I saw the black car again, recognised it at once as it went bounding over the little humpbacked bridge that spanned the railway line. It is still there, that bridge, just beyond the station. Yes, things endure, while the living lapse. The car was heading out of the village in the direction of the town, I shall call it Ballymore, a dozen miles away. The town is Ballymore, this village is Ballyless, ridiculously, perhaps, but I do not care. The man with the beard who had winked at me was at the wheel, saying something and laughing, his head thrown back. Beside him a woman sat with an elbow out of the rolled-down window, her head back too, pale hair shaking in the gusts from the window, but she was not laughing only smiling, that smile she reserved for him, sceptical, tolerant, languidly amused. She wore a white blouse and sunglasses with white plastic rims and was smoking a cigarette. Where am I, lurking in what place of vantage? I do not see myself. They were gone in a moment, the car’s sashaying back-end scooting around a bend in the road with a spurt of exhaust smoke. Tall grasses in the ditch, blond like the woman’s hair, shivered briefly and returned to their former dreaming stillness.

I walked down Station Road in the sunlit emptiness of afternoon. The beach at the foot of the hill was a fawn shimmer under indigo. At the seaside all is narrow horizontals, the world reduced to a few long straight lines pressed between earth and sky. I approached the Cedars circumspectly. How is it that in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known returning in a different form, become a revenant? So many unanswerables, this the least of them. As I approached I heard a regular rusty screeching sound. A boy of my age was draped on the green gate, his arms hanging limply down from the top bar, propelling himself with one foot slowly back and forth in a quarter circle over the gravel. He had the same straw-pale hair as the woman in the car and the man’s unmistakable azure eyes. As I walked slowly past, and indeed I may even have paused, or faltered, rather, he stuck the toe of his plimsoll into the gravel to stop the swinging gate and looked at me with an expression of hostile enquiry. It was the way we all looked at each other, we children, on first encounter. Behind him I could see all the way down the narrow garden at the back of the house to the diagonal row of trees skirting the railway line—they are gone now, those trees, cut down to make way for a row of pastel-coloured bungalows like dolls’ houses—and beyond, even, inland, to where the fields rose and there were cows, and tiny bright bursts of yellow that were gorse bushes, and a solitary distant spire, and then the sky, with scrolled white clouds. Suddenly, startlingly, the boy pulled a grotesque face at me, crossing his eyes and letting his tongue loll on his lower lip. I walked on, conscious of his mocking eye following me.


From the Hardcover edition.
John Banville

About John Banville

John Banville - The Sea

Photo © Douglas Banville

John Banville, the author of fifteen previous novels, has been the recipient of the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Award, the Franz Kafka Prize and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. He lives in Dublin.
Praise | Awards

Praise

“Remarkable. . . . The power and strangeness and piercing beauty of [The Sea is] a wonder.”
The Washington Post Book World

“With his fastidious wit and exquisite style, John Banville is the heir to Nabokov. . . . The Sea [is] his best novel so far.”–The Sunday Telegraph

The Sea offers an extraordinary meditation on mortality, grief, death, childhood and memory. . . . Undeniably brilliant.” –USA Today

“A gem. . . . [The sea]is a presence on every page, its ceaseless undulations echoing constantly in the cadences of the prose. This novel shouldn't simply be read. It needs to be heard, for its sound is intoxicating. . . . A winning work of art.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

Awards

WINNER 2005 Man Booker Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
Man Booker Prize Winner

“A piece of violent poetry—an autumnal, elegiac novel whose desolate story is carried along by the sweet and stormy tides of its . . . magnificent prose. . . . Treacherously smart and haunting.” —The Boston Globe

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of John Banville’s The Sea, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

About the Guide

In this hypnotic tour de force of mood, language, and psychological revelation, the Irish novelist tells the story of a bereaved man desperately sorting through the strands of his memory—the memories of his recent loss and those of the losses that came before it. Those various strands are by now so intertwined and tightly knotted that Max Morden doesn’t know which of them causes him the greatest pain. But as Banville’s sinuous narrative plays out, it becomes apparent that Morden is in danger of being strangled by his memories, especially by the ones he has invented. If one theme is most prominent in The Sea, it’s the treachery of memory and the fluidity of the boundary that separates recollection from fabrication.

In his late middle age, Morden is a sometime art historian desultorily at work on a book on the French painter Bonnard. His wife, Anna, has recently died of cancer, and although their marriage was based on an unspoken contract of mutual ignorance (“The truth is, we did not wish to know each other. More, what we wished was exactly that, not to know each other,” p. 159), he is now half-deranged by grief. His grief has brought him back to the seaside village of Ballyless, where he used to spend summers as a child and where, some fifty years before, he became involved with a family named the Graces. Max’s parents were poor, but the Graces were wealthy. They rented an entire house, had their own motor car—with a touring map of France negligently displayed on the shelf under the rear window—and treated each other with faintly sardonic indulgence. Max fell in love with them.

Or, rather, he fell in love with two of them. The first object of his desire was Connie Grace, a lush, overpoweringly sensual woman who greeted her children’s new friend by offering him an apple. Max’s contact with her was limited to heartbroken yearning and guilty spying. Fulfillment came from her daughter Chloe. She was his own age, and she was blonde, imperious, and more than a little cruel. She came with her own attendant spirit, her mute twin Myles. Chloe gave Max his first kiss. She introduced him to the rapturous humiliation of the lover whose love is never fully returned. And finally, she brought him his first experience of death, an experience so catastrophic that everything he feels now may only be an echo of it.

The layers of Max’s past do not rest neatly on top of each other like geological strata but rather shift and overlap like ocean currents. They coexist with the ebb and flux of a present in which he drinks too much, fends off his daughter’s attempts at caring for him, and observes the other occupants of his rooming house, the same house where the Graces once stayed. Banville’s accomplishment is to orchestrate these currents of memory and perception as deftly as more conventional novelists arrange plot twists, using them to reveal his narrator and lay bare the deceptions that lie at the heart of his consciousness, and perhaps of all consciousness. The result is a work of symphonic power whose structural inventiveness coexists with an oceanic depth of feeling, and whose prose demands to be read out loud.

About the Author

John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. Between 1988 and 1999, he was the literary editor of The Irish Times*. The author of twelve previous novels and one collection of short stories, he has been the recipient of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. The Sea won the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

*See the web page “Contemporary Writers” of the British Arts Council:
http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth13

Discussion Guides

1. The Sea is made up of three temporal layers: the distant past of Max’s childhood, the recent past of his wife’s illness and death, and the present of his return to Ballyless. Instead of keeping these layers distinctly separated, Banville segues among them or splices them together, sometimes within a single sentence. Why might he have chosen to do this, and what methods does he use to keep the reader oriented in his novel’s time scheme?

2. Morden frequently refers to the Graces as gods, and of course the original Graces were figures in classical mythology. What about these people makes them godlike? Does each of them possess some attribute that corresponds, for instance, to Zeus’s thunderbolt or Athena’s wisdom? What distinguishes the Graces from Max’s own unhappily human family? Are they still godlike at the novel’s end?

3. When Max first encounters the Graces, he hears from the upstairs of their house the sound of a girl laughing while being chased. What other scenes in the book feature chases, some playful, some not? Is Morden being chased? Or is he a pursuer? If so, who or what might he be pursuing?

4. Morden is disappointed, even “appalled” [p. 4], to find the Cedars physically unchanged from what it was when the Graces stayed there. Yet he is also disappointed that it contains no trace of its former occupants [p. 29]. What might explain his ambivalence? Has he come to Ballyless to relive his past or to be free of it? Given the shame and sadness that suffuses so much of his memory, how is one to interpret his sense of the past as a retreat [pp. 44–45]?

5. “How is it,” Max wonders, “that in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known returning in a different form, a revenant?” [p. 8]. What might account for this sense of déjà vu? What episodes in this novel seem to echo earlier ones, and are there moments when the past seems to echo the future, as if time were running backward? In this light, consider Max’s realization that his childhood visions of the future had “an oddly antique cast” [p. 70], as if “what I foresaw as the future was in fact . . . a picture of what could only be an imagined past” [p. 71].

6. How does Banville depict the other characters in this novel? To what extent are they, as Max suggests, partial constructs, as Connie Grace was “at once a wraith of my imagination and a woman of unavoidable flesh and blood” [p. 65]? Does Max’s voice, wry, self-reflexive, and resplendently vivid, give these characters an independent life or partially obscure them? Are there moments when they seem to peek out from beneath its blanket and show themselves to the reader?

7. Throughout the novel Max suffers from an overpowering, all-pervasive sense of guilt. Is this guilt justified? What are his crimes, or using another moral language, his sins? Has he managed to atone for any of his failures or redeem any of his spoiled relationships by the novel’s end? Is such redemption possible in this novel’s view of human nature?

8. On learning that she is fatally ill, both Max and Anna are overcome by something he recognizes as embarrassment, an embarrassment that extends even to the inanimate objects in their home. Why should death be embarrassing? Compare the grown Max’s shame about death to his childhood feelings about sex, both his sexual fantasies about Connie Grace and their subsequent fulfillment with her daughter.

9. Significantly, Max’s fantasies about Mrs. Grace reach a crescendo during an act of voyeurism. What role does watching play in Max’s sense of others? Has observing people been his substitute for engaging with them? How does he feel about other people watching him? And what are we to make of the fact that Max is constantly watching himself—sometimes watching himself watching others, in an infinite regress of surveillance and alienation?

10. Max is a poor boy drawn to a succession of wealthy women, culminating in his very wealthy wife. Was his attraction to them really a screen for social climbing? In loving Connie and Chloe and Anna, was he betraying his origins? Are there moments in this novel when those origins reassert themselves?

11. Why might Max have chosen the painter Bonnard as the subject for a book? What episodes from the painter’s life parallel his own or illuminate it metaphorically? Note the way the description of the Graces’ picnic recalls Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. What other scenes in the novel allude to works of art or literature, and what is the effect?

12. The Sea has a triple climax that features two deaths and very nearly a third. In what ways are these deaths linked, and to what extent is Max responsible for them? Do you interpret his drunken night walk on the beach as an attempt at suicide? How does your perception of Max change in light of Miss Vavasour’s climactic revelation about the events that precipitated Chloe’s drowning?

13. Just as the critical trauma of Max’s life grew out of a misapprehension, so the entire novel is shrouded in a haze of unreliable narrative. Max’s memories are at once fanatically detailed and riddled with lapses. He freely admits that the people in his past are half real and half made up. “From earliest days I wanted to be someone else,” he tells us [p. 160], and a chance remark of his mother’s suggests that even his name may be false [p. 156]. Can we accept any part of his account as true? Are there moments in this novel in which reality asserts itself absolutely? What effect do these ambiguities have on your experience of The Sea?

Suggested Readings

John Banville, The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena; Samuel Beckett, Molloy and Malone Dies; Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground and “A Gentle Spirit”; William H. Gass, The Tunnel; Henry James, The Ambassadors and “The Beast in the Jungle”; D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; Vladimir Nabokov, Glory, Lolita, and Laughter in the Dark; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past; W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz.

  • The Sea by John Banville
  • August 15, 2006
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9781400097029

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