After his wife’s death, a grief-stricken widower withdraws to the seaside village where he once spent his holidays as a boy. There he ponders his marriage, his childhood, his first love, and his own existence.
The Sea is not a plot-driven novel, though there is more to the plot than many critics have suggested. Neither is it character-driven, even if the characters are quite memorable— the dreamy, distracted and irascible Max Morden most of all. Read it for the fun of looking inside Max’s head and deciding whether he is endearing or appalling. Most of all, read it for Banville’s lush, rhythmic, sensuous prose.
I. Banville on Nabokov
Perusing the first ten pages of The Sea, I was pleasurably reminded of Nabokov. I’m not the only one: when critics seek comparisons and influences for Banville’s style, they typically cite the author of Lolita and Pale Fire. Banville admits to loving Nabokov, though he has his quibbles:
Nabokov was a great love of my youth, but I find his artistic self-absorption and tone of self-satisfaction increasingly irritating.
Artistic self-absorption? Irritating tone of self-satisfaction? When Banville won the Man Booker prize for The Sea, he commented in his acceptance speech that it was “nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize.” And here is his answer to the question, “Do you really hate your own novels?”
Yes! I hate them. I mean that. Nobody believes me, but it’s true. They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame. They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me.
He sounds like that cheerleader we all knew in high school, svelte and perfectly sculpted, who used to complain about how much she hated her thighs.
Here is another of Banville’s comments on Nabokov:
I love Nabokov’s work, and I love his style. But I always thought there was something odd about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I read an interview in which he admitted he was tone deaf. And I thought, that’s it—there’s no music in Nabokov, it’s all pictorial, it’s all image-based.
I disagree. Nabokov’s style is prosaic –the apotheosis of prose– but he is hardly deaf to the aural qualities of his language. The famous first lines of Lolita clearly illustrate this:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
It’s true, however, that Nabokov is far less interested in rhythm than in other types of sound effects, like alliteration. Being Irish, what Banville values the most is an underlying musical pulse, the rhythm of artlessly artful speech:
I took up the teapot and the tea, making them rattle—my hands were shaking— but she said no, she had changed her mind, it was brandy she wanted, brandy, and a cigarette, she who did not smoke, and rarely drank.
II. Annabel Lee
I want to suggest that, at least where The Sea is concerned, the influence of Nabokov, and specifically of Lolita, goes well beyond style. Let us begin with our narrator, Max Morden. I agree with what Ted Gioia had to say about Max:
Like Nabokov, Banville is skilled at capturing that fussy, almost neurotic inward tilt to the psyche that imparts to a narrator a certain solipsistic élan. Max Morden, the petulant widower who guides us through The Sea, fits the bill with precision. “The tea bag is a vile invention,” he announces in a typical aside, “suggestive to my perhaps overly squeamish eye of something a careless person might leave behind unflushed in the lavatory.”
Gioia, of course, is comparing Max Morden with Humbert Humbert, the master of solipsistic élan. But the resemblances do not end there. Humbert is (by his own account) tall, dark and very good-looking; at least in his youth, so was Max. Both men are insomniacs with hypochondriac tendencies. Both cast a mostly disapproving eye on the world about them and produce what (if I may permit myself the pun) can only be called a mordant commentary. Both are “scholars” with no apparent financial means and no intention of supporting themselves. And most strikingly, as boys of eleven or twelve both conceive a passion for a young girl who dies, leaving an indelible psychic imprint.
Here we reach the crux of the matter. The boy Humbert loved a girl named Annabel Leigh who was vacationing by the Riviera. The experience (we are to understand) left him forever fixated on certain girl-children of Annabel’s age, those who physically resembled her. Annabel in turn is Nabokov’s none too subtle allusion to the poem by Edgar Allan Poe in which the narrator speaks of his own dead love:
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love —
I and my Annabel Lee —
Annabel Lee is the literary ancestor of Max’s love Chloe Grace, by way of Humbert’s Annabel and Lolita herself. And here too is the sea, which gives the novel its ruling metaphor and its title.
III. The Gods
They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.
Throughout his tale, Max repeatedly describes the members of the Grace family as godlike. This impression is inspired partly by the wonder with which young Max beheld the Graces, who belonged to a more exalted social and economic world than his own. But the Graces also possessed archetypal qualities, especially in regard to sexual characteristics, which evoked for Max the ancient gods. It was the erotic exploits of these beings that most took my fancy. Constance Grace, for instance, is a statuesque, ample earth mother, as in this scene when the twelve-year-old Max looks up her skirt as she lies on the beach:
One moment she was Connie Grace, her husband’s wife, her children’s mother, the next she was an object of helpless veneration, a faceless idol, ageless and elemental, conjured by the force of my desire, and then something in her had suddenly gone slack, and I had felt a qualm of revulsion and shame…
Carlo Grace is by turns a wry, comic satyr and a hirsute, masculine Olympian:
I think now that it was from Carlo Grace I first derived the notion that I was in the presence of the gods. For all his remoteness and amused indifference, he was the one who appeared to be in command over us all, a laughing deity, the Poseidon of our summer, at whose beck our little world arranged itself obediently into its acts and portions.
Chloe and Myles have the mythic aura that all twins possess, but they are also eerie in other ways, fickle, cruel, magnetic. Myles especially is like the changeling offspring of some nereid, mute of tongue, and webbed of foot. At first Max seeks out the Grace twins because of his crush on their mother. But soon he transfers his affections from mother to daughter. Is it far-fetched to detect a faint structural echo of Humbert’s dual relationship with Charlotte Haze and her daughter?
IV. Intermittently Reliable Narrators
Max and Humbert have a great deal in common, but much separates them as well. Though it marks him forever, Max’s early experience with Chloe Grace does not transform him into an anguished pedophile. Nor does he possess Humbert’s mad genius. In Lolita, one always has the feeling that Humbert is controlling the narrative for his own purposes, manipulating the reader, laying out certain trails of clues and withholding others. From long experience at hiding his predilections, he is alive to how others perceive him, and always aware of the reader, the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” who will judge him by his words. For this reason, in spite of the intimacy of his confession, one never feels that one can fully trust Humbert’s account.
Max, on the other hand, is far less adroit. True, he has a Humbert-like moment when he writes of his first kiss with Chloe:
This one took place— no, was exchanged— no, was consummated, that is the word, in the corrugated-iron picture-house, which all along has been surreptitiously erecting itself for this very purpose out of the numerous sly references I have sprinkled through these pages.
Other times we seem to be hearing his thoughts rather than reading his written words:
Chloe, her cruelty. The beach. The midnight swim. Her lost sandal, that night in the doorway of the dancehall, Cinderella’s shoe. All gone. All lost. It is no matter. Tired. Tired and drunk. No matter.
Max has Humbert’s sardonic humor and knack of observation, and he believes he knows what his putative reader is thinking.
But wait, no, that is not it. I am being disingenuous—for a change, says you, yes yes.
But Max also has some blind spots you could drive a truck through, particularly when it comes to the females in his life. The most interesting of these is his attitude toward his wife’s artistic ability:
At the time she was trying to become a photographer, taking moody early-morning studies, all soot and raw silver, of the bleaker corners of the city. She wanted to work, to do something, to be someone. The East End called to her. Brick Lane, Spitalfields, such places. I never took any of this seriously. Perhaps I should have.
“Trying to become a photographer.” How patronizing is that? Later, we learn that Max, an art historian, despised Anna’s portraits of him:
I was young and smooth and not unhandsome—I am being modest—but in those photographs I appeared an overgrown homunculus.
What a desperate, beseeching smile I wore, a leer, a very leer. She trained her camera on a fresh-faced hopeful but the pictures she produced were the mug-shots of a raddled old confidence trickster.
In her last days in the hospital, Anna has their daughter Claire smuggle in a camera, and takes photographs of the other patients who willingly reveal to her their scars, their mutilations, their bodily horrors. The pictures have a powerful impact on Serge, an old friend of Anna’s who develops them, but Max is oblivious, preoccupied with his suspicions about Serge and Anna:
“Any news of Annie,” he warbled to himself, making a jingle of it, and gave another snuffly laugh down his nostrils. I saw myself run forward with a cry and hustle him to the window and heave him headlong down into the cobbled street. He gave a grunt of triumph and came up with a thick manila envelope, but when I reached out to take it, he held back…
Banville borrows from himself, and quite liberally. The Sea contains a surprising number of echoes of Banville’s Eclipse, a narrative of a man’s attempt to escape from himself after a traumatic event by withdrawing to his childhood home, where he meets ghosts from the past and present…
Remember Max’s disgust at the sight of used tea bags? Here is Alex Cleave entering his old house:
There were crusts of bread on the kitchen table and used tea bags in the sink, obscene, squashed brown things.
It is Chloe who first causes young Max to become aware of himself objectively:
She was I believe the true origin in me of self-consciousness. Before, there had been one thing and I was part of it, now there was me and all that was not me.
Compare Alex Cleave’s childhood memory:
I clearly recall the day I first became truly aware of myself, I mean of myself as something that everything else was not.
Here is Max on his perception of his own physicality:
I have developed too a queasy fascination with the processes of my body, the gradual ones, the way for instance my hair and my fingernails insistently keep growing, no matter what state I am in…
And Alex Cleave on the same:
I marvel at the matter my body produces, the stools, the crusts of snot, the infinitesimal creep of fingernails and hair.
Both Max and Alex have extremely sensitive noses, especially when it comes to their perceptions of women:
I recall her provocatively meaty smell.
…her mother, whose feral reek, for me the stewy fragrance of life itself… was the thing which first drew me to her…
I like, for instance, the brownish smell of women’s hair when it is in need of washing.
…a dull flat grey faint stink, like that of unwashed hair…
Here is Max remembering the dingy flats where he lived with his mother, after his father absconded:
The smell in the hall was like the smell of my breath when I breathed and rebreathed it into my cupped hands to know what it would be like to be suffocated.
Alex says that there is a “stale, brownish smell” that haunted him as a child:
It was like the smell I made when I cupped my hands over my nose and mouth and breathed the same breath rapidly in and out.
I could go on. I list these resemblances not as criticism, but in support of the observation that Banville is reworking the same material, like Monet obsessively repainting his haystacks and water lilies. The Sea incorporates these ideas so organically to the work that I would not want them changed. The re-used material reveals that one of the big differences between Banville and Nabokov is Banville’s earthiness. In spite of his exquisite sensitivity to colors, textures and shapes, Nabokov is far too cerebral, even celestial, to focus much on bodily matters, and when he has to (for instance, when he speaks of Humbert’s passions), he always employs a delicate periphrasis. Banville is far more chthonian, more present in the bodies of his narrators. I do not know whether that is the Irishness of him or the Banvilleness of him. Interestingly, and surprisingly for two authors so alive to the senses, neither Banville nor Nabokov (to my lasting regret) has much to say about food.
While we are on the subject of repetitiveness, here are the Five Words Banville Must Never Use Again:
1. Flocculent. (Actually, any word with the Latinate suffix -ulent should be “bansville.”)
2. Quiff. (It has a vaguely obscene sound. Especially “oiled quiff.”)
3. Brownish. (When used of smells. If of a color, I reluctantly permit it.)
4. Crapulent. (It’s not what you think, but see #1 above.)
5. Gleet. (It’s way worse than you think.)
VI. Memory and Time
When Humbert seeks out the near-adult Lolita in order to lay his heart abjectly at her feet, she tells him, “The past [is] the past.” When Max Morden speaks to his daughter of his boyhood by the sea, she replies, “You live in the past.” Of Chloe Grace, Max writes,
Her hands. Her eyes. Her bitten fingernails. All this I remember, intensely remember, yet it is all disparate, I cannot assemble it into a unity…
She wavers before my memory’s eye at a fixed distance, always just beyond focus, moving backward at exactly the same rate as I am moving forward. But since what I am moving forward into has begun to dwindle more and more rapidly, why can I not catch up with her?
Memory and time are two of Nabokov’s great themes. One of my favorite lines from his memoir, Speak, Memory, is this:
I have journeyed back in thought—with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went—to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits.
In Banville’s novel, the sea is polyvalent metaphor, a bit like the white whale in Moby Dick. But it seems to me that the sea represents time, with its inescapable cycles, and the tidal influx of memory that surrounds and nearly overwhelms Max. In the final episode, when Max gets “sozzled” and goes out to the beach to collapse in the sand with his bottle, he sees lights bobbing in the distance like will o’ the wisps. “I must have imagined them,” he says. “There are no fishing boats in these waters.” But in his drunkenness, he rises:
It was not the damp and chill, however, that made me struggle to my feet at last, but a determination to get closer to those lights and investigate them; I may even have had some idea of wading into the sea and swimming out to meet them.
Swimming out into the sea of memory, to be reunited with the gods of his youth, Chloe Grace and Myles Grace, to hide from himself and everyone else by disappearing into the past, is what Max has selfishly been trying to do from the beginning of the book. But in place of this rather grandiose consummation, Max has to suffer the indignity of being rescued from the beach by a fellow lodger, collected by his newly peremptory daughter, and ignominiously carted home to dry out under the supervision of her much-despised fiancé, the “chinless amorato” Jerome. He richly deserves this blackly comic ending, of course, and in his heart of hearts, in spite of his grumbling, he assents. Because Max’s life, his personhood, even his existence have always been dependent in some profound sense on his relationships with women.
First there was Chloe Grace: If she was real, so suddenly was I.
Then there was Anna: The chance to fulfil the fantasy of myself.
If they defined Max’s past, it will be his daughter Claire, who drags him, complaining all the while, into his future.