Heavy With Grief and Mourning, Thick With Eccentric Verbiage

Early on in John Banville’s new novel, Max, a man of about 60, takes his wife, Anna, to a medical

Early on in John Banville’s new novel, Max, a man of about 60, takes his wife, Anna, to a medical specialist. “The consultant’s name was Mr. Todd. This can only be considered a joke in bad taste on the part of polyglot fate. It could have been worse. There is a name De’Ath, with that fancy medial capital and apotropaic apostrophe which fool no one.”

This is only page 10 of a dense 195 pages. I read it over several times, trying to find the required voice or tone, but I’m still at a loss.

The novel is called The Sea, and I’ve read enough of Mr. Banville’s work to know that the title is bound to be metaphoric, as The Waves was for Virginia Woolf. Not that Mr. Banville will deny us rhapsodic and brilliant descriptions of the sea in its tidal spasms, the spiteful weather and the fickle light. He’s Irish, after all, surrounded by uncertain seas. And just as we allow Mr. Banville, or any novelist, the freedom to choose his title, so he names his people. In which case, why this grinding coyness over Todd (who indeed announces Anna’s imminent death from cancer), why the skittishness with De’Ath? Why “apotropaic apostrophe,” and why the coming revelation that Max’s full name is Max Morden, which stands for “murder” in the same German language, as well as the southern terminus of the London Underground’s Northern Line?

Why is Mr. Banville blaming a polyglot fate when the choice is all his? What sort of signal is this for a novel that’s heavy with real grief and mourning, in which the sea, ultimately, is the undeniable natural force that will claim us all, just as—in life—it sometimes patiently allows itself to be a panorama of peace or beauty or calm? This turns out to be a novel in which Max goes back to a humdrum seaside resort after the death of Anna, and is there reminded of his first awakening to life and love 50 years earlier, when he met the Grace family (and I am quite content to ride the wave and let “grace” bring other meanings into play). There’s nothing sportive, coruscating or especially witty in this book. Like everything else by Mr. Banville that I’ve read (and liked), the novel is founded in the gradual uncovering of true, if shy, feeling. He’s Irish.

There’s a review quoted in my proof copy, from the London Sunday Telegraph, which refers to Nabokov and embraces Mr. Banville’s “fastidious wit.” At which point, please go back and read that short paragraph about Mr. Todd and tell me whether I’m crazy or not. The Toddery seems to me terribly miscalculated, a shot at humor or wordplay that has scant chance of being the glove to enclose the cold hand (Mr. Banville is extraordinary on coldness) of death. And the weirdness of “apotropaic apostrophe” only lays a foundation for regarding Max as a befuddled lexicographer, much more intrigued by odd verbal usage than gripped by life. Such a book might be attempted (though whenever Nabokov had such a character, they were his demented villains). I don’t think Max is meant to be crazy or unfeeling, and if this is just his little private joke—the kind of thing that might have driven Anna nuts on her way to death—then it needs to be more carefully handled.

This is the point at which I should remind you that John Banville’s The Sea has just won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in London. Now, there have been Banville works in the past—The Untouchable (1997), for instance, about a Blunt-Philby figure—that I could see winning prizes, and I don’t doubt his ability in the future to write masterpieces. But The Sea has me marooned.

There may be a comic construct at work that has missed me in the night. We don’t know very much about Max Morden, except that he’s apparently engaged on a big book about the painter Bonnard. He admits later that he “has got no farther than half of a putative first chapter and a notebook filled with derivative and half-baked would-be aperçus.” I’m not quite sure whether Bonnard is being employed as a dead end (forever painting picnic tables and portraits of his wife in the bath where she might be asleep or dead). I myself cherish Bonnard, and I can feel in Mr. Banville’s writing the patient, sponge-like eye soaking up light and surfaces and rendering them as paint filled with fondness as no one else has done. On the other hand, there’s enough socio-economic realism in The Sea for us to feel that Max lacks his own money, that Anna had a lot of it, and perhaps that’s why in his life he has accomplished so little.

He’s a mystery: Sensitive to a fault to the memories of hurt and the passions of childish cruelty, he also sprinkles his book with eccentric verbiage: levitant, cracaleured, horrent, cinereal, glair, torsion, caducous, velutinous, bosky and so on. It’s not just that this learning isn’t shared by the other characters in the story; far more deadly, it’s an ostentation that takes away from the emotion in Mr. Banville’s best writing.

I won’t claim that a marriage of parts has been achieved, but there’s an intent to set the loss of Anna and the attempt to negotiate grief with the loosening-up the young Max felt at the hands of the Graces. More or less, if he’s Irish and this place is somewhere in Ireland, then the Graces seem English—higher in class and funds, raffish in behavior and, especially in the daughter Chloe, a prod designed to open up Max’s closed parts. This account of junior love and sex is very much in a British tradition that depends on cold hands and hot flushes, but Mr. Banville does it very well. They’re at the movies and the one projector runs out of film:

“Above us the screen retained a throbbing grey penumbral glow that lasted a long moment before fading, and of which something seemed to remain even when it was gone, the ghost of a ghost. In the dark there were the usual hoots and whistles and a thunderous stamping of feet. As at a signal, under the canopy of noise, Chloe and I turned our heads simultaneously and, devout as holy drinkers, dipped our faces toward each other until our mouths met. We could see nothing, which intensified all sensations. I felt as if we were flying, without effort, dream-slowly, through the dense powdery darkness. The clamour around us was immensely far-off now, the mere rumour of a distant uproar.”

I can enjoy that sort of writing for far more than 195 pages, and it’s not even the best passage in The Sea—“devout as holy drinkers” seems a lovely, natural metaphor, felt yet hardly noticed. Against that, sample these sense-jarring flights of fancy: “the trees swaying still, like hungover drunks” or “Showing his tarnished dentures in a ghastly display of grins and grimaces, he had the look of a hyena bobbing and squirming before the heedless advance of a hippo.”

Too much of The Sea is an elbow in the reader’s ribs, and a weird uneasiness on the part of the writer. So the book got the Booker this year. So be it. I’d be surprised if John Banville didn’t have a notion that his full poetic burden of a man haunted by Bonnard and deprived of his wife remains undelivered.

David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf), reviews books regularly for The Observer. Heavy With Grief and Mourning, Thick With Eccentric Verbiage