Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 2005 – The Sea, by John Banville

John Banville won the Booker Prize for ‘The Sea’, but it is of a piece with his other novels, which deal with the tests of time – and the impossibility of turning it back

John Banville: Wexford’s coast is a place of ‘narrow horizontals’. Photograph: Frank Miller

John Banville: Wexford’s coast is a place of ‘narrow horizontals’. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

‘How is it”, wonders Max Morden, the art historian who narrates John Banville’s Booker Prize- winning novel The Sea, “that in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known returning in a different form, become a revenant?”

As in so much of Banville’s work, The Sea deals with the uncanny nature of time and memory, the way that, as Morden complains, “it has all begun to run together, past and possible future and impossible present”. Time, rather than history, is at the core of Banville’s work. In that he can be seen as a writer not, like so many of his predecessors, in search of Irishness, but in flight from it.

After college Banville worked as a clerk for Aer Lingus before joining the Irish Press as a subeditor in 1969. He later joined The Irish Times, where he served as literary editor from 1988 to 1999. His first novel, Birchwood (1973), is a brilliant black comedy in which that historic Irish genre, the Big House novel, is detonated.

At a surface level, Banville’s “Revolutions” trilogy – Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter (1982) – could be seen as self-consciously European at a time when, for the Irish, membership of the EU seemed to point the way to an awakening from the nightmares of history. More importantly, the dark comedy of those books lies in the way time (the great scientific concern of the physicists) is mocked by history (the absurdities of day- to-day life).

“Memory,” says Morden in The Sea, “dislikes motion, preferring to hold things still.” One of the constant fascinations of Banville’s leading characters is with painting, the form in which time seems to stand still. From Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence (1989) to Victor Maskell in The Untouchable (1997) to Oliver Orme in The Blue Guitar (2015), painting seems to offer the possibility, perhaps illusory, of stopping the flow of life towards death.

Morden is another of these figures. But death has already shattered the illusions of art: he is grieving for his wife Anna, who has died of cancer. He returns to the seaside Irish village, a dozen miles from a larger town, where he spent his childhood holidays with his unhappily married parents: “The town is Ballymore, the village is Ballyless, ridiculously perhaps, but I do not care.”

The more literal-minded might suggest that the town is Wexford, where William John Banville was born, the youngest of three siblings, and that it is to the Wexford coast, with its “narrow horizontals”, that Morden now returns. He is both trying to escape from “loss, grief, the sombre days and the sleepless nights” and confronting his own private history.

He stays in a guest house in which another family, the Graces, had stayed in the long-ago summer in which most of the novel unfolds.

In memory, Max as a boy watches the elegant, self-contained Graces, Carlo and Constance, and their twins, the taciturn Myles and outgoing Chloe. He falls in love with Constance and dreams himself “at once her demon lover and her child”. This infatuation leads back to the same place, the only place in which things really do hold still: death.

And yet in Banville’s work there is something else that does hold still, that manages to defy time and death. It is the novel itself. Banville’s prose, even at its most knowing and ironic, seems to be chiselled sentence by sentence into imperishable stone. It manages to create at least the illusion that it has escaped chaos and contingency.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at ria.ie

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