John Banville (2005): The Sea. London: Picador.
A masterpiece. This was the first word that occured to me after reading John Banville’s award-winning novel, The Sea. It is similar to a glass of wine the real bouquet of which only reveals itself at second draught… or to a girl whose beauty only strikes roots in your mind at second sight. A girl whose tiny gestures you may walk past at first, but there is still something that makes you return to her time and again. Something that makes you unable to take your eyes off her face no matter how hard you try and that makes you turn her pages so as to discover the deeper levels of her intellectual depth and beauty.
I came across the Hungarian edition of Banville’s novel the other day when I was hanging about in a local bookshop on the corner to find something to read for the weekend. Standing in front of the shelf for world literature a small book caught my eyes. The sea – it was its title. It may sound funny but all of this was going on after a coffee with my best friend when we had had a light chat about escaping from our everyday lives to somewhere where the totality of life can be discovered again. Our idea naturally occurred was spending some years sailing on the sea. So it is no wonder that a book under such a title was so appealing to me on that day.
Banville seems to feel attracted by visual arts, especially painting, and it is somehow evident that he has learnt to write from the great impressionists. His novel is like a huge canvas on which the scenes of his story painted in vivid colours show up one by one. It is typical that I caught myself in the very act of re-reading and re-reading his paragraphs again and again. His sentences require careful reading, similarly to a situation when we want to memorize all the flavours of a delicious meal. I really felt tempted to remember his words so much that I narrowly missed learning the whole text by heart. The text itself is organized into major units that can be evaluated individually like the individual works of a painter. These units could easily be taken out of the totality of the text and could be read as individual short stories. This is the strength of this novel. The power of Banville lies in this ability of his: he can lay out a scene through dropping some closely knit sentences, while avoiding any unnecessary details. The story itself is about a man who tries to rake over the ashes of the past, but, to be honest, it is completely indifferent as to the merits of the novel. Banville can write masterpieces on whatever as a topic, I am sure. He can consistently avoid luxuriating in the abundance of adjectives or spending too much time describing minor details. Banville is the writer of the big pictures. He has become an impressionist of modern novels by giving full descriptions through only a few strokes of his brush, so it is his readers who must finish off his paintings. The touches he adds to a picture are far from being concrete, but they are still evident. This is the reason why we must re-read his sentences time and again. We need to dig deeper in his broad strokes of the brush to find the minor details all of which are hidden under the surface of vivid colours. It is weeks since I finished reading this book, but I cannot get that out of my mind even today…