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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

he must go down to the sea again... (updated)

Started reading Banville's The Sea last night. His prose is beautiful (I've jotted the page numbers of somany pages where a sentence or a paragraph seemed so absolutely right), but this kind of remembrance and self-examination is usually a tool leading to an unpleasant revelation of some kind. So I can read for 15-20 minutes before the tension gets the better of me, and I put it down for awhile. I remember Danielle saying that Max Mordent was not a particularly likable character and several passages of his childhood behaviors do give pause. Are they foreshadowing of some kind? Thinking about his name - Mordent - I went from morbid to mordant. A mordant is a fixative when dyeing cloth, and as many quilters dye their own cloth these days, I hear it frequently. But mordant can also mean critical or caustic.

The attention to detail is remarkable and beautifully recorded. I should pull passages to quote, but the visual image Banville created of the picnic is so vivid and complete that it will probably remain as the most memorable portion of the book for me. Since the book is so short, I should finish tonight if I can force myself to read the last little bit. At this point, all of the characters are ghosts in several senses of the word.

I did finish. And was surprised and not surprised. The writing is marvelous, Banville's language often a joy, but caring about any of the characters was difficult. I will go back over some passages before returning the book to the library, just to read some of those sentences once again, but although I sympathized with Max at times, not one character claimed much emotional attachment.


  1. I never thought about what Max's name might mean--he was a caustic character. The prose was lovely and I know the picnic scene you are talking about. I wouldn't even mind rereading it at some time (though later), but I have to agree that the characters were not particularly likeable--any of them. I am curious about his other books, but I have so many others that are calling out to me right now, he will just have to stay on my list.

  2. I'm a bit ambivalent, but inspite of his ability to craft beautiful prose passages, my inability to form an attachment to his characters doesn't encourage trying another one any time soon.

  3. Very interesting musings on the meaning Max's name! Given Banville's precision with language, I'll bet that all those associations were deliberate.

    I'm totally with you on your point about having to put the novel down every now and then before the tension got the better of you. I know a number of people dismissed it as a boring novel in which not much happens. But for me, that tension you describe made it quite suspensful. I found it moved along quite quickly despite the density of the language. In the end I loved it, I think precisely because of that push-me-pull-you of the lush, slow language combined with the underlying tension. I didn't become a fan of Max, but I did become a fan of Banville!

  4. Kate, you are right...I don't think anything about Banville's prose is less than deliberate. Even the idea of mordant as a fixative, something that "fixes" a dye into fabric to form a "stable insoluble compound" can have meaning for this character who wanted to be more than he was and never felt that he'd achieved it.

    I also agree that the tension created suspense; I felt I was waiting for an unpleasant or tragic event the entire time, and Banville waits until the very end to deliver, both what you expected and what you didn't expect.

    When I talk about books, I'm not really giving critical comments, but emotional comments. Banville kept me enthralled with the words and with simply stated facts about the precision/ imprecision of language that I agree with and wish I could have written myself.

    The fact that Max isn't a completely likable character, doesn't mean that I couldn't catch glimpses of myself in him. Not an admirable man in all ways, but one who seems to be trying to come to grips with some vacancy, some emptiness within himself, and that is a worthwhile endeavor, if not a pleasant one to watch.

    Emotionally, I did not enjoy the book, but it might be a novel that would be great fun to teach.

  5. Thanks so much for this post. I own this book and haven't read it yet. When I do, I'll return here to compare notes.

  6. Framed, I'm eager to know what you think. Most people seem to have loved it, and it is hard not to love someone who can create such beautiful prose, but in the end, it seemed so cold to me.