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The Old Man & The Sea

Award Winning Fiction

By John Banville


I’m not confident I grasped the full genius of Banville’s Booker winner. I’m not even so sure as to the impact it had on me, though it did have one – like footfall upon wet sand, a definite impression was left. But how long will this vague feeling last, and will it be swept flat by a wave of further reading?

Yup. I’m almost certain it will. And here is my theory: I’m too young for the book, not ready just yet. Could that be it? Like A la recherche de temps perdu, could it be that Banville is writing in another language, one I’ve yet to acquire – something along the lines of him having more to remember but me having it all to look forward to?

Not that our narrator had much to look forward to. Just death in various forms. Death of those he loved, death of his masculinity, of his pride and reason; and the death of his career when, at becoming a kept man, his creative juices dried right up.

If it’s a rom com you are after, please look elsewhere. Here, in The Sea, there is the grunt work of days so enjoyed by early Ian McEwan – McEwan at his most pessimistic, his darkest, when his plot was unquestionably boring, and drip-paced, and leaking into puddles of the macabre.

But Banville’s work is supremely executed, in comparison to that ‘70s pish. The Sea should be a slog (and yes some parts are, because all the book is, to put it bluntly, is a chapterless sequence of mundane and pitying thoughts) but the majority is written with care – such care, and such attention, that the writing elevates the narrative well beyond its natural height.

The strength of the prose is thrilling. And it’s sensual to the bone. Having lost his wife to cancer, our narrator travels back to a seaside town from his childhood:

Although it was autumn and not summer the dark-gold sunlight and the inky shadows, long and slender in the shape of felled cypresses, were the same, and there was the same sense of everything drenched and jewelled and the same ultramarine glitter on the sea. I felt inexplicably lightened; it was as if the evening, in all the drench and drip of its fallacious pathos, had temporarily taken over from me the burden of grieving.

I could quote from the whole book, it reads like a song. But as a person in their 20s, I approach it with fascination, like an exhibit at a zoo: a placard about cockroaches’ migratory habits. Surely we’re all impressed by mother nature’s turns, but that roachey scoop won’t accompany me to the supermarket next week. The individual awe felt is unlikely to arise again in my day-to-day life.

If fiction reflects the human soul, I just don’t recognise myself yet in this mirror – I can’t penetrate its image at all deeply. So here’s my theory in a nutshell. It’s that fiction is ageist. Like Disneyland hates your tiny dad, like he hates your mum’s ‘lady-driving’. Like Hugh Grant can’t get nominated for an Oscar. There’s a shielded (and comparatively welcome) inequality in everything we read, whereby we’re weighted on our ability to relate.

So I can see, superficially, that it’s incredible: Banville weaves timelines and memories in a seamless quilt, wrapping one colour, one thread with another, so always bringing something new to the eye. But quilting, let’s face it, is an oldie’s game.

The Sea
(UK: Picador, 2005)
Paperback, pp. 272

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