Monday 19 August 2019

John Banville: lord of language

The Sea By John Banville Picador, st£16.99

The Sea By John Banville Picador, st£16.99

Gerry Dukes A new novel from John Banville (this is his 13th) is always a welcome event. His novels have won awards, a Booker shortlisting, the James Tait Black Black Memorial Prize, the first GPA Book Award, the Guardian Fiction Award. Banville's novels have been filmed and adapted for the stage. No home should be without his back-list.

Some years ago, during lunch with a Scottish poet who was then a copy-editor at Secker & Warburg, he told me, impishly, that he had enjoyed recommending to John Banville that he remove two of the three occurances of the word "lugubrious" from the pre-publication text of of one of his novels.

Banville duly accepted the recommendation, though with some reluctance. The dark, doleful and mournful music of the word was and is very much in tune with the tone of Banville's imagination. In this new novel that imagination is again on show in all of its easy and playful power, its apparently effortless reach and grasp.

As was the case with most of its precursors, The Sea is a first-person narrative coming from the pen (a Swan!) of one Max Morden, an art historian who has been working, supposedly, on a "big book on Bonnard," the great French painter, for more years than he cares to mention.

There is no urgency in the matter because Max has had the good fortune to marry a fortune that allows him to be a dilatory dilettante. But Max is "made up" in more senses than one. When he first brought his new wife to meet his deserted mother she hissed at him, "Why does she keep calling you Max......Your name is not Max." His reply, "It is now," allows the reader a glimpse of swathes of the "back story" that Banville, characteristically, omits.

There are three times in Morden's narrative: the recent past during which his wife Anna, diagnosed with terminal cancer, takes a year to die; the distant past - over half a century ago - when Max, in childhood, spent a holiday at a seaside village and the present, the time of writing of his memoir.

So, the novel is about love and its various avatars, loss and grief, memory and its precisions and imprecisions, the delicate and sometimes indelicate process of assembling a plausible self.

Banville's Morden is quite mordant at times, hardly surprising given the deplorable condition of the planet we inhabit. The consultant who delivers the dread diagnosis is called Mr Todd, "a joke in bad taste on the part of polyglot fate". In the midst of his misery Morden muses on the surname De'Ath with its "fancy medial capital and apotropaic apostrophe which fool no one., Morden has much in common with Banville's other narrators who casually throw out little mysteries for the reader to worry. Gabriel Godkin, in Birchwood, in his first paragraph, invokes his friend Sabatier, much to the befuddlement of those who do not busy themselves in kitchens or step warily in the mean streets of our cities. Freddie Montgomery, in The Book of Evidence, larrups his host's Pomerol into a lamb stew, much to the chagrin of those readers who know of better things to do with it.

But Morden's mordancy is a kind of jauntiness to hide distress. He was born and brought up for some of his formative years in the town of Ballymore and taken for a holiday in a tacky "chalet" with his unhappy parents to the seaside village of Ballyless. There he falls in with the Grace family, mother and father, the twins Chloe and mute Myles and the governess Rose.

The Graces have a car and are renting a real house with a garden and gravelled drive. To young Morden these people are gods, a different order of being, from another world. He quickly, swooningly falls in love, if that is the right expression, with the mother, Constance. Banville has always been magnificent on haplessness and hopelessness, on the stupidities we wittingly inflict upon ourselves.

In short order young Morden transfers his affections to Chloe, a transfer which ultimately triggers a slew of misunderstandings and misprisions that lead inexorably to a double disaster seared into his memory and from which recovery is hardly possible. In a bold and inexplicable move Morden takes a room, following his wife's death, in the very house the Graces had rented all those years ago. Here he encounters his ghosts and composes (what a word!) his memoir.

It is probable that for Banville, by now, superlatives have begun to lose their charm, given that so many have been used about his craftmanship, his astonishing linguistic mastery, his stylistic control. All these are in evidence here, along with his signature effects - those land and skyscapes, the fall of light in Bonnardish interiors, the lapsings and leakings of flesh.

The Sea is a beautiful novel, challenging and richly rewarding. In a country whose esteemed leader can say, with a straight face, that obesity "is the fastest growing health problem we face", it is a comfort to know that we have a lord of language among us.

Gerry Dukes is an academic

and critic.

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