Synopses & Reviews
In this luminous new novel about love, loss, and the unpredictable power of memory, John Banville introduces us to Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife. It is also a return to the place where he met the Graces, the well-heeled family with whom he experienced the strange suddenness of both love and death for the first time. What Max comes to understand about the past, and about its indelible effects on him, is at the center of this elegiac, gorgeously written novel — among the finest we have had from this masterful writer.
"Banville's magnificent new novel, which won this year's Man Booker Prize and is being rushed into print by Knopf, presents a man mourning his wife's recent death-and his blighted life. 'The past beats inside me like a second heart,' observes Max Morden early on, and his return to the seaside resort where he lost his innocence gradually yields the objects of his nostalgia. Max's thoughts glide swiftly between the events of his wife's final illness and the formative summer, 50 years past, when the Grace family-father, mother and twins Chloe and Myles-lived in a villa in the seaside town where Max and his quarreling parents rented a dismal 'chalet.' Banville seamlessly juxtaposes Max's youth and age, and each scene is rendered with the intense visual acuity of a photograph ('the mud shone blue as a new bruise'). As in all Banville novels, things are not what they seem. Max's cruelly capricious complicity in the sad history that unfolds, and the facts kept hidden from the reader until the shocking denouement, brilliantly dramatize the unpredictability of life and the incomprehensibility of death. Like the strange high tide that figures into Max's visions and remembrances, this novel sweeps the reader into the inexorable waxing and waning of life." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A peculiar and profound satisfaction comes from experiencing the prose of John Banville. Like some aged liquor, potent and malty, his writing demands to be imbibed in appreciative sips, little by little." The Independent on Sunday
"Unlike so many novels, I was forced to read with the dictionary at my side. The Sea satisfies because it gives the reader...a rigorous workout." Oregonian
"What The Sea offers in abundance is beautiful writing." Denver Post
"They say no critic can write great fiction, and certainly great critics have produced some conspicuously failed novels. But a great novelist can turn even a critic...into a compelling protagonist." Los Angeles Times
"[T]reacherously smart, and haunting...its story of a ravaged self in search of a reason to go on is cloaked in wave after wave of magnificent but hardly consoling prose." Boston Globe
About the Author
John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. The author of thirteen previous novels, he has been the recipient of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. He lives in Dublin.
Reading Group Guide
Man Booker Prize Winner
“A piece of violent poetry—an autumnal, elegiac novel whose desolate story is carried along by the sweet and stormy tides of its . . . magnificent prose. . . . Treacherously smart and haunting.” —The Boston Globe
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of John Banvilles The Sea, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize.
1. The Sea
is made up of three temporal layers: the distant past of Maxs childhood, the recent past of his wifes illness and death, and the present of his return to Ballyless. Instead of keeping these layers distinctly separated, Banville segues among them or splices them together, sometimes within a single sentence. Why might he have chosen to do this, and what methods does he use to keep the reader oriented in his novels time scheme?
2. Morden frequently refers to the Graces as gods, and of course the original Graces were figures in classical mythology. What about these people makes them godlike? Does each of them possess some attribute that corresponds, for instance, to Zeuss thunderbolt or Athenas wisdom? What distinguishes the Graces from Maxs own unhappily human family? Are they still godlike at the novels end?
3. When Max first encounters the Graces, he hears from the upstairs of their house the sound of a girl laughing while being chased. What other scenes in the book feature chases, some playful, some not? Is Morden being chased? Or is he a pursuer? If so, who or what might he be pursuing?
4. Morden is disappointed, even “appalled” [p. 4], to find the Cedars physically unchanged from what it was when the Graces stayed there. Yet he is also disappointed that it contains no trace of its former occupants [p. 29]. What might explain his ambivalence? Has he come to Ballyless to relive his past or to be free of it? Given the shame and sadness that suffuses so much of his memory, how is one to interpret his sense of the past as a retreat [pp. 44-45]?
5. “How is it,” Max wonders, “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, a revenant?” [p. 8]. What might account for this sense of déjà vu? What episodes in this novel seem to echo earlier ones, and are there moments when the past seems to echo the future, as if time were running backward? In this light, consider Maxs realization that his childhood visions of the future had “an oddly antique cast” [p. 70], as if “what I foresaw as the future was in fact . . . a picture of what could only be an imagined past” [p. 71].
6. How does Banville depict the other characters in this novel? To what extent are they, as Max suggests, partial constructs, as Connie Grace was “at once a wraith of my imagination and a woman of unavoidable flesh and blood” [p. 65]? Does Maxs voice, wry, self-reflexive, and resplendently vivid, give these characters an independent life or partially obscure them? Are there moments when they seem to peek out from beneath its blanket and show themselves to the reader?
7. Throughout the novel Max suffers from an overpowering, all-pervasive sense of guilt. Is this guilt justified? What are his crimes, or using another moral language, his sins? Has he managed to atone for any of his failures or redeem any of his spoiled relationships by the novels end? Is such redemption possible in this novels view of human nature?
8. On learning that she is fatally ill, both Max and Anna are overcome by something he recognizes as embarrassment, an embarrassment that extends even to the inanimate objects in their home. Why should death be embarrassing? Compare the grown Maxs shame about death to his childhood feelings about sex, both his sexual fantasies about Connie Grace and their subsequent fulfillment with her daughter.
9. Significantly, Maxs fantasies about Mrs. Grace reach a crescendo during an act of voyeurism. What role does watching play in Maxs sense of others? Has observing people been his substitute for engaging with them? How does he feel about other people watching him? And what are we to make of the fact that Max is constantly watching himself—sometimes watching himself watching others, in an infinite regress of surveillance and alienation?
10. Max is a poor boy drawn to a succession of wealthy women, culminating in his very wealthy wife. Was his attraction to them really a screen for social climbing? In loving Connie and Chloe and Anna, was he betraying his origins? Are there moments in this novel when those origins reassert themselves?
11. Why might Max have chosen the painter Bonnard as the subject for a book? What episodes from the painters life parallel his own or illuminate it metaphorically? Note the way the description of the Graces picnic recalls Manets Dejeuner sur lHerbe. What other scenes in the novel allude to works of art or literature, and what is the effect?
12. The Sea has a triple climax that features two deaths and very nearly a third. In what ways are these deaths linked, and to what extent is Max responsible for them? Do you interpret his drunken night walk on the beach as an attempt at suicide? How does your perception of Max change in light of Miss Vavasours climactic revelation about the events that precipitated Chloes drowning?
13. Just as the critical trauma of Maxs life grew out of a misapprehension, so the entire novel is shrouded in a haze of unreliable narrative. Maxs memories are at once fanatically detailed and riddled with lapses. He freely admits that the people in his past are half real and half made up. “From earliest days I wanted to be someone else,” he tells us [p. 160], and a chance remark of his mothers suggests that even his name may be false [p. 156]. Can we accept any part of his account as true? Are there moments in this novel in which reality asserts itself absolutely? What effect do these ambiguities have on your experience of The Sea?