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The New Canon: The Sea by John Banville

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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 said, 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 buck or inflated to 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 approve.

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 regret.

I can easily imagine this book infuriating readers, and not just those who don’t like big words. Academics and 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.

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About Ted Gioia