It is not clear what we should take from The Sea, John Banville’s brooding novel about an old man looking over his life, its early parts, and his early awakening. He apparently did not use well whatever knowledge he gained through his early loves, at least based on his sometimes harsh assessment of his daughter’s life. I say harsh because his voice and tone are tinged with disappointment, but his views are not expressed harshly because he understands his daughter and why she made the choices she did, but because he recognizes his own failures in her.
Parts sing, but they cannot carry the whole, as even when they do sing they also lose the melody:
She is in my memory her own avatar. Which is the more real, the woman reclining on the grassy bank of my recollections, or the strew of dust and dried marrow that is all the earth retains of her? No doubt for others elsewhere she persists, a moving figure in the waxworks of memory, but their version will be different from mine, and from each other’s. Thus in the minds of the many does the one ramify and disperse. It does not last, it cannot, it is not immortality. We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations. I remember Anna, our daughter Claire will remember Anna and remember me, then Claire will be gone and there will be those who remember her but not us, and that will be our final dissolution. True, there will be something of us that will remain, a fading photograph, a lock of hair, a few fingerprints, […] yet none of this will be us, what we are and were, but only the dust of the dead.
Morbid, but accurate, even if two things ring false: the “grassy bank of my recollection” is a ridiculous metaphor because there is nothing about recollections that imply a grassy bank or anything like it, and also the word “ramify”, which, though I know what it means, stuck out as a word used more because it sounds literary in an intimidating and exclusive fashion than because it is appropriate. Here it distracts from the narrative—demonstrating why it is so seldom used.
Oh, and aside from the writing, it would also be nice if The Sea were at least a little bit funny. It’s hard to be ceaselessly grim about someone who, despite being bent by regret—and possibly criminal alliteration—lived reasonably well. Do we have a right to demand heroic events and achievements? Obviously not, but it’s hard to see tragedy through Banville’s novel, though that seems his target.
I wonder if the current big deal European literature obsession with the past is actually a large trend or just most obvious in Booker winners. I’m tempted to make facile generalizations on the basis of a small subset of prize-winning works that most of the U.K. probably hasn’t read and probably hasn’t even heard of, but I’ll avoid that in favor of raising the question and then not exploring the answers to it.
At least one novel I have read, however, takes what The Sea aims for and hits the mark. Contrast it with Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a much better book dealing with similar themes but told from the perspectives of people living their lives, and the former shrivels away. Atonement deserves its big prize, as its metaphors do not strain and its language does not ascend to heights before falling off them because it’s too heavily encumbered.