Friday, May 16, 2008

The Sea - a funny title, but a good one in the end, I believe.

John Banville's novel The Sea won the Man Booker Prize in 2005. A good sign, thinketh-moi for I tend to like books that have won the Booker or Man Booker. This notwithstanding (I love that word!!!), it took me some time to get into this particular book, so long in fact that I didn't really start liking it until the very end. No matter - analysing a book is almost as good (or as bad) as actually reading it!

It's quite a short book. This guy called Max goes back to the scene of his childhood holidays by the sea, a place where he hung out with the Grace family, who were of a higher class than him. He fell in love, first with the mother, Connie Grace, and later with her daughter, Chloe. The account of these past events is interwven with his present life, living as a lodger in The Cedars, (the former Grace family home) and the tale of his wife's unspecified illness. The book ends, gorgeously, with her death.

Not for the first time, it's all about style. Banville's pretty big on the imagery, and he does it beautifully. It's easy to visualise what he's writing about because the images he paints are so clear. Unfortunately, I've felt a bit saturated by this style ever since I read The English Patient. I wanted things to be stated clear as crystal, but still be amazing, like Solzhenitsyn, Coetzee and Camus. At the time I believe I referred to it as "beautiful obscurity - a cheap magic trick.", which is rather inaccurate and unfair, because as I just explained, Banville's imagery cannot by any means be called obscure, or cheap.

So I think I finally got over this mental block with this book. It's really quite wonderful. This is one of my favourite bits:
"In my mind they were held suspended in a vast bright space, upright, their arms linked and their eyes wide open, gazing gravely before them into illimitable depths of light."

This is about two people who just walked into the sea and kept walking until they drowned. Isn't that just a perfect image, right there?

It took me a similarly long tome to get used to the title. The Sea. Such a nothing title, I thought. Such a cop-out. It's set by the sea, so what? But I eventually realised that, somehow, the image of the sea is the most important one in the book, in a way I can't quite put my finger on. I don't know if I can explain it, but I'll do my best: it's an image of infinity, of flatness, of grey monotony (no stormy or sunny weather in this book) which to me seemed like a brilliantly accurate metaphor for Max's life. It permeates everything, flowing through and giving everything this grey, distant flatness, like looking at everything through clear water at the rippled miniature sand dunes on the ocean's bottom.

One thing I liked right from the start was the characterisation. I honestly don't think I've ever read a book whose characters are so uniformly dislikeable. I hate them all, but I love their realism. These are characters you can believe in, because they are all so faulty that they couldn't possibly not exist. No Mary Sues in sight!

I'll finish on another of my favourite quotes, a memorable paradox about the existence of God:
"Given the world he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him."

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