The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews The
 by John Banville.
The Sea
by John Banville

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

People who don’t read novels—a group that may include half of the
adult population, if you believe the horror stories—aren't really put
off by all those pages.  Five hundred? A thousand?  Who cares and
who’s counting!  It’s the
words that scare these non-readers away,
especially the big ones not found in everyday conversation.  “I love
words but I don't like strange ones,” Will
Rogers once sad, summing up this attitude.  
“You don't understand them and they
don't understand you.”

Of course, the general public might be
surprised if they actually read what passes
for literary fiction these days.  Many
graduates of prestigious writing programs
have apparently used their time in the
ivory tower mastering the nuances of
trailer trash slang, text messaging jargon
and a style of semantics that makes Larry
King look like Demosthenes by comparison.
They are, in the parlance of today, just
keeping it real.

Then there are writers such as John Banville, who represent
everything the bookophobes fear.   He uses what we used to call
“five dollar words” when I was a youngster—although I’m not sure
whether they have depreciated to a buck or inflated to a C note with
the passing years—and in general shows a fastidious care with his
sentences that few of his peers can match.  Will Rogers would not

In Banville’s
The Sea, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2005,
every page is dotted with words such as assegais, horrent, cinereal,
knobkerrie, prelapsarian and mephitic. Where others would
mention the quiet, he refers to the “flocculent hush.”   Our author—
or is it the narrator—especially likes medical terminology, so the
reader confronts references to adipose tissue, erythema,
climacteric, strangury, eructations and the like.  Clauses such as “the
declivities of my shoulders on either side of the clavicle notch” or
“the taut concave integument below his breast-bone” are par for the
course.   And a garden description won’t deign to mention a shrub,
but will call attention to “
Lupinus, a genus of the Papilionaceae.”

If Banville can’t find a term sufficiently esoteric, he invents one.   
When I looked up “avrilaceous” on the web, I was surprised to learn
that the only author to use this term is John Banville.  I guess that is
what happens when you exhaust all the existing five-syllable words
in the dictionary . . . you get to create some new ones.

The Sea reminds me of that other exacting wordsmith of the literary
realm, Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his first nine novels in
Russian, but when he switched to English, proved he knew it better
than the native speakers.  Also like Nabokov, Banville is skilled at
capturing that fussy, almost neurotic inward tilt to the psyche that
imparts to a narrator a certain solipsistic élan.  Max Morden, the
petulant widower who guides us through
The Sea fits the bill with
precision. “The tea bag is a vile invention,” he announces in a typical
aside, “suggestive to my perhaps overly squeamish eye of something
a careless person might leave behind unflushed in the lavatory.”  
You get the idea.

After his wife’s death following a long illness, Morden decides to
escape . . . back into the past.  He leaves his home behind and sets up
residence in a seaside boarding house where he had pursued a
furtive romance as a youngster decades before.   The setting inspires
both Proustian recollections of the past and mordant
reconsiderations of his present plight, mixed together artfully in a
rich and often shocking memoir.  

Not everything adds up in our narrator’s self-disclosures.  At one
point he uses the term “we medical men”—but Morden is not a
doctor but a failed art historian, if we can believe his own account.  
Another passing comment, tossed out but never explained, lets out
that Max is not his real name.   Does our main character have
something to hide?  Perhaps.  Yet it is hard to accuse him of any
cover-up, because the sins and indiscretions he frankly admits to
during the course of his memoir are more than serious enough, and
presented by him without the slightest apparent tinge of guilt or

I can easily imagine this book infuriating readers, and not just those
who don’t like big words.   Highbrows of various stripes are often
more easily offended than the working class folks who get their
stories from TV and movies, and Banville makes no attempt to
placate their sensibilities.  My copy of this novel came from a
second-hand store, and I can tell from the scrawled marginalia left
by the previous owner, that Max Morden—and perhaps John
Banville—met with moral disdain, if not disgust.

Yet I can’t help approving of a book—and, yes, an author—that takes
language so seriously, and fearlessly pushes characters into even the
darkest recesses of their own psyches.  This is not a story for the
faint-hearted, but so be it. In the midst of a mainstream culture that
is all too often glib and noisy,
The Sea is as refreshing as . . . well, as a
flocculent hush.  
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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