Monday, June 22, 2015

Live in the past, do I?

The SeaThe Sea by John Banville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read John Banville's The Sea in 2012, but knew when I put the book down that I would be opening it again. Now, three years later, new insights reveal themselves, although Banville's eloquence and diction strike me all the same.

In The Sea, the lonely and ageing Irish-man Max Morden returns to the seaside retreat where he used to spend his summer holidays as a child. Although he mourns for his recently deceased wife, it is the distant past that haunts him as he remembers the wealthy family that he met there: the "god-like" Graces. Throughout the novel, Banville recounts his childhood infatuation for Mrs. Grace, as well as his later fleeting romance with her daughter, the high-handed and unpredictable Chloe Grace. Yet the hulking and hairy presence of the father, Carlos Grace, taints our impression of the affluent family from the onset, just as the mute and enigmatic Myles - Chloe's twin - lends an unshakeable sense of spookiness to the whole story. It is through Max's revisitation of the "rubble of the past" that we discover the tragedy that befell the Graces and understand why our narrator remarks, "the past beats inside me like a second heart."

As a child, Max was a voyeur, scrutinizing the privileged lives of the Graces and trying to unravel the complex relationship between Rose, their governess, and the family. The intensity of the fascination that the Graces held for him explains why his past has such a firm grip on his present. Thus, it is no surprise that Max continues to observe his surroundings in his older years, but now peers into the windows of a bygone time.
To be concealed, protected, guarded, that is all I have ever truly ever wanted, to burrow down into a place of womby warmth and cower there, hidden from the sky's indifferent gaze and the air's harsh damagings. That is why the past is just such a retreat for me, I go there eagerly, rubbing my hands and shaking off the cold present and the colder future.
It is clear that Max, tormented by his deep-seated sense of shame and guilt (the roots of which we do not discover until the huge revelation at the end), is not the most reliable of narrators. For example, he insists that he has made particular references in the novel without having done so, just as readers discover later on that "Max" may not even be his real name.
"I was, one might say, not so much anticipating the future as nostalgic for it, since what in my imaginings was to come was in reality already gone. And suddenly now this strikes me as in some way significant. Was it actually the future I was looking forward to, or something beyond the future?"
Yet we sympathize with him nonetheless, seeing the pervasive alienation, deep-rooted grief and self-inflicted misery that has pursued him throughout his life; such are layers to the novel I had not registered so thoroughly three years ago. Yet The Sea retains its magnetism: it is a lyrical and carefully woven contemplation of a troubling childhood and difficult present, and our narrator's memories return to him with the consistency of waves and the weight of water.

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