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"All of life...no more than a long preparation for leaving."
on 18 December 2005
Booker Prize-winning author John Banville presents a sensitive and remarkably complete character study of Max Morden, an art critic/writer from Ireland whose wife has just died of a lingering illness. Seeking solace, Max has checked into the Cedars, a now dilapidated guest house in the seaside village of Ballyless, where he and his family spent their summers when he was a child. There he spent hours in the company of Chloe and Myles Grace, his constant companions. Images of foreboding suggest that some tragedy occurred while he was there, though the reader discovers only gradually what it might have been. Now at the Cedars, he contemplates the nature of life, love, and death, and our imperfect memories of these momentous events.
As Max probes his recollections, he reveals his most intimate feelings, constantly questions the accuracy of his memory, and juxtaposes his childhood memories and his recent memories of his wife Anna's "inappropriate" illness and her futile treatments. Through flashbacks, he also introduces us to his earlier life with Anna and his fervent hopes that through her he could become someone more interesting. "I was always a distinct no-one, whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone," he says, confessing that he saw her as "the fairground mirror in which all my distortions would be made straight."
More a meditation than a novel with a strong plot, The Sea brings Max to life (such as his life is), recreating his seemingly simple, yet often profound, thoughts in language which will startle the reader into recognition of their universality. To some extent an everyman, Max speaks to the reader in uniquely intimate ways. In breathtaking language, filled with emotional connotations, he captures nature in perfect images, often revealing life as a series of paintings--"a Tiepolo sky," a hair-washing scene reminiscent of Duccio and Picasso. He objectifies his thoughts about memory through Pierre Bonnard's many portraits of "Nude in the Bath," paintings of Bonnard's wife in which she remains a young girl, even when she is seventy years old. Images of the bath and the sea pervade the novel--cleansing, combined with the ebb and flow of life.
Lovers of plot-based novels may find that the lack of external action and the novel's focus on the interior battles of an ordinary man of about sixty fail to engage their interest. Other readers, who may have faced the deaths of family or friends and recognized the limitations of memory, however, may see in Max a kindred spirit to whom they respond with empathy. I have rarely read such a short book so slowly--or reread with pleasure so many passages of extraordinary beauty and import--and I felt a connection with Max that I have never felt before in any of Banville's previous novels. I loved this novel. Mary Whipple