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No Reflection Home: Two Novelists Meditate On Age In Brisk But Weighty Novelettes

John Banville


Emily Flake

The Sea

Author:John Banville
Release Date:2005
Publisher:Knopf
Genre:Fiction

By John Barry | Posted 12/28/2005

John Berger and John Banville have several things in common—first names, initials, the Booker Prize. And they’ve both come out with thin, 200-page novels in which aging, reflective narrators return to old haunts, meet up with old ghosts, and contemplate their upcoming demises.

At the moment, the limelight belongs to the Irishman Banville. After pumping out novels for decades with total sales in the thousands, Banville has won the Booker Prize, England’s most prestigious literary award. And at his acceptance speech, he managed to rub a few people the wrong way by thanking his judges for finally choosing a real “work of art”—a dig against competitors and previous winners.

As a literary stylist, Banville is definitely arty. By the fourth sentence of The Sea, he refers to the ocean as a “vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam”—the sort of phrase most writers wait a few chapters before slipping in.

That pretty much sets the tone for the narrative voice: melancholic, swollen with imagery, and dyspeptic. The voice belongs to Max Morden, a 60-year-old art history professor returning to the seaside to poke around his family’s old vacation house while grieving the loss of his wife to cancer. Isolated, a little bitter, and seasoned with some old-fashioned Irish self-loathing, he doesn’t win you over by force of personality.

As we soon learn, he never had a personality to begin with. “From earliest days, I’ve wanted to be someone else,” he notes. “I was always a distinct no-one, whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone.”

That may explain the title. For Banville, this flat, somewhat becalmed “no-one” gives his rich, rolling language the chance to come to a strange sort of life. As he visits the coast where his family had vacationed 40 years earlier, Max replays scenes of early adolescence—particularly an entanglement with the Graces, an upper-class family who had been his family’s neighbors. The sexually charged relationship that he had with both the mother and daughter of the Grace family become gradually mingled with his wife’s death and his own philosophical ruminations.

Despite—or, maybe, because of—the bleak plot, The Sea finds its power in places you wouldn’t expect. Max is transformed into a sort of Achilles on the beach. As his memories wander, he gets gradually absorbed in the surrounding landscape. There are no big surprises, but the moody, phosphorescent quality of Banville’s writing comes to life as the character becomes transfixed by a still, silent world around him—the ocean, tiny physical details, and images of memories that he examines with the eye of a, well, professor of art history.

Berger has long since made his reputation—he received his Booker in 1972 for G., and he’s well known for his arts criticism. His latest, Here Is Where We Meet, is a barebones look at a writer, John, wandering the streets of Lisbon while revisiting old memories. The Proustian first name as a stand-in narrator gives him a way to mull over a world that is gradually being populated by the shades of the departed. In the process, John takes you through seemingly random scenes from the past chapter by chapter, revisiting a love affair in wartime London, Krakow in 1939, and cave drawings in France.

This pilgrimage is driven by a conceit: In late May, the aging narrator wanders through a Lisbon central square and runs into his mother, who died 15 years earlier. His conversation with her causes him to travel back through memory to earlier days and cities. As half daydream, half reawakening, the language crawls in fits and starts. Berger’s signature choppy style is better suited to longer novels—there are shimmering moments, but connections are, as the narrator admits, a little haphazard. Berger has a knack for suddenly taking you out of the fog, with moments of clarity that hit for much longer than the story.

Those moments of clarity, of course, are at the heart of Berger’s aesthetic. He moves from scenes of wartime Poland to a portrait of Jorge Luis Borges to a chapter devoted to descriptions of fruit. Those illuminations are presumably linked by mental associations; in his longer books, he offers a little more to work with. This thin work skips around and stops suddenly.

While neither writer is at the top of his game, these stripped-down incarnations have an interesting effect: In both these masters of ambiguity, there’s a conscious movement toward ending with a sort of moral equation. Banville’s Max has a mini-epiphany that sends him back to the drawing board of academia—injecting Chekhov’s “work” motif into a desolate landscape. Even more oddly, Berger, the aging postmodernist, concludes on a note that sounds a little like the ghost of John Gardner: “All you have to know is whether you’re lying or trying to tell the truth, you can’t afford to make a mistake about that distinction any longer.” Whether it’s their ages or the age they’re writing in, the sincerity shines through.

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