Sepulcher by the sea
In his Booker Prize winner, John Banville presents a man entombed by grief and memory
By John Banville
Knopf, 197 pp., $23
If one can invoke the idea of fierce lyricism without it sounding either coy or oxymoronic, surely that is the term to signal the chill and beauty of the Irish writer John Banville's novels. His protagonists tend to be men whose brilliance is rivaled only by their icy remove; their anguish is self-imposed, the requisite fallout from a classically tragic flaw. Even the emotions are cliff walks: desperate rage, self-obliterating longing, homicidal passion. Only the language, great goddess, she, reclines above the clouds, safely out of reach of the human stain but there to scatter light upon the dreariness of man.
''The Sea," then, which last month received England's coveted Man Booker Prize, is a piece of violent poetry -- an autumnal, elegiac novel whose desolate story is carried along by the sweet and stormy tides of its exquisite, sometimes too exquisite, prose. ''They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide," begins the novel, and this melancholy indictment contains within it all the atmospheric gloom of the story itself: its themes of desertion, alienation, an exorable and demanding sea. Its narrator is a man named Max Morden, and in fact mortality is all over him -- his wife, Anna, has died of cancer in the past year, leaving Max alone with his grief and his ravaged, only half-decent heart. Staggering through the mist of the newly bereaved, he has returned to the seaside town where he used to holiday with his parents when he was a boy -- an only boy, we might add, who from that vantage point found a way to hone his immutably solitary self. Willfully inconsolable, flinching under the care of his only daughter, Claire, Max has lugged along his monograph on the French painter Bonnard, a project he alternately turns to for succor and belittles himself for not finishing. The two men could not be more different: Bonnard, with his infinite moods of light evoked by palette, and his churlish Boswell, Max, a man whose range is equally vast but far more married to the grave.
The sea that serves as the leitmotif in Banville's (and Max's) story is a darkly seductive force, offering a mirror of his own deep reaches but also the key to, as he perceives it, his ''mythic past." For Ballyless, as the town is called, and the old boardinghouse where he has taken up lodging, form the scene of a passage in Max's young life that promised everything and marked him forever, and those long-ago summers are the focus of much of the novel. Doomed to one of the town's cramped ''chalets" with his unhappy parents (''I loved them, probably"), Max soon became enchanted with the Grace family, who stayed in the grander house to which he has now returned. There was white-haired, devilish Chloe, her mute twin brother, Myles (by turns exotic and sinister), and a shy girl named Rose whose role as governess is as nebulous as it is half-hearted. Mr. Grace is a threat and a buffoon, cruel and comic but finally, unquestionably, the alpha male. Mrs. Grace is no doubt an unremarkable woman at the seashore -- bored and slightly overweight, tolerating a so-so marriage and twins who confound her. But in Max's eyes, she is the recipient of all his sensual innocence, pounding at the door of adulthood: the earth goddess who, merely by standing up or yawning, can shatter his poise and his heart.
The Graces! They might as well be named the Furies, or the Sirens. Max's loyalties will shift, of course, as he makes his way from Mrs. Grace to Chloe, and the metamorphosis parallels our own growing knowledge of Max the man -- Max the cold father, the ersatz art historian, the widowed narcissist whose grief is a stand-in for the howling rage of abandonment. This transformation, from martyr to ordinary monster, may be the central brilliance of ''The Sea." Never did a novel seem so fey from its beginning, with its dark, raging tides and its white-haired children, and yet the power of Banville's prose -- as gorgeously formidable as the cliffs on the Irish Sea -- distracts us from the truth, which is that the narrator, unlucky bloke that he may be, is not a likable man. Our first clue is with his treatment of his daughter, whom he levels with one horrid swipe in conversation, then says to us, ''I know so little about her, really, my daughter" -- oblivious to his own behavior or his impact upon others. This lack of self-regard is a mystery to Max but a diagnosis to us: The bulk of ''The Sea" is an exploration of how a man so brilliantly cultivated and articulate lacks the core of self that provides us with a moral footing.
This ghostly presence is a theme in all of Banville's fiction, a sometimes diabolical search for self where the rhapsodic prose is the salvation, if not the rudder, in a world without much warmth or natural instinct for things turning out well. Even poor Max confesses, amid his blunderings and shortcomings, that a sort of ''cosiness" is all he ever really wanted -- he who realizes, despite his return trips to Ballyless, that the past ''matters less than we pretend." So ''The Sea," a story both camouflaged and uplifted by its beauty, is an existential thriller of sorts -- its central character the missing corpse as well as liberator, a man trying to gain purchase on the rock face of life despite its bitter nonchalance.
All of which makes this novel, of course, unspeakably sad. Max knows enough to glimpse his own shortcomings and hate himself for them, grimly afraid that ''all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it." And there is Anna, brave and dying Anna, sorry to leave him but not so sorry, in the end, because she has long entered that other country of the dying where the law insists that not much matter anymore. But the boy who became Max -- innocent, like all boys, until proven guilty -- was a yearning and half-broken child who loved a white-haired girl, and that truth unfolding will be the backdrop for the sorrier story of his adulthood. ''The Sea" is treacherously smart, and haunting, and its story of a ravaged self in search of a reason to go on is cloaked in wave after wave of magnificent but hardly consoling prose. As with Bonnard's paintings, such beauty for its own sake can take you only so far -- naming or locating the emotion but hardly possessing it. So Max, neither in spite nor because of his limitations, is left to cope as a newly elected citizen of that place he's ill equipped to bear: the great democracy of death, which cares not a whit how good or bad you are, only that you are, and then are not.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com.