When I was still at university, I held a weekend job as a receptionist at a local nursing home. For most part, it was a pleasant experience: it paid well, it was challenging enough without being boring, and most of the people were friendly enough. There was, however, a small legion of despondent octogenarians – Stadlers and Waldorfs without the sense of humour or, indeed, each other, lonely and perpetually complaining about the ills of the society that had slipped from their grasp. I never liked those men very much; hardly anybody did. To understand why people feel the way they do doesn’t mean they automatically become more likeable.
That, in a sense, is the problem of John Banville’s The Sea. The narrator is one of those grumpy old men, arrogant and disappointed in his surroundings. He’s as unlikeable as they come; there are few redeeming features to his character. He’s mean to his well-intentioned daughter, looks down on his landlady and his fellow tenants, his parents, the patrons of the bars he visits. He’s an art historian, as is his daughter, because of course they are. Max, as his name may or may not be, has ensconced himself in the seaside town where he used to vacation as a child, taking up lodgings in a boarding house that, back then, used to be inhabited by a family he was friendly with, and he now spends his days drinking and remembering his past. The story is told in a long meander through history, touching on his relationship with childhood sweetheart Chloe, his wife Anna and her illness and death, and his dysfunctional family. There is no logic throughout the story; it is merely a collection of semi-intoxicated ramblings of a depressed old man.
Thinking back on the men I used to know in the nursing home where I worked, it is wholly realistic, but Max is such a pill that reading the novel becomes a drag. The criticism often levelled at literature – that it is written both for and by old white guys – appears here so severely that, at times, it reads like a parody. The way Max chooses to phrase his thoughts – “in Chloe the world was first manifest for me as an objective entity” – doesn’t do anything to relieve the reader of this image, and when he describes himself, at one point, as having “Valhallan petulance” the description is so perfect I almost hoped it was irony.
But that seems unlikely, as Banville is a crafty wordsmith. Descriptions are vivid and beautifully worded, with turns of phrase such as “the polished pewter light of the emptied afternoon” and “the cooling engine was still clicking its tongue in fussy complaint.” There are words: integument, etiolated, cicatrice, maenads, euphonious, penumbral, catafalque. At times it reads like a word-of-the-day calendar, but the language is undeniably beautiful and appropriate.
So did I like this book? No. Not really. The language was amazing, rich and flowing, and Banville knows his craft. But the book’s conclusion reads as if his editor decided it required more action; the last ten pages or so undo everything the book has reached before that, putting a stopper on Max’s epic, geriatric tantrum. And I’m not even sure I liked those first pages, either. As a work of art, it stands – an object to be studied, mulled over, reflected on. As a book, a narrative to get lost in on rainy Sunday afternoons or endless train rides, it is too aloof and out of reach.