John Banville

"The Sea"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 29, 2006)

"On all sides there were portents of mortality.  I was plagued by coincidences; long-forgotten things were suddenly remembered; objects turned up that for years had been lost.  My life seemed to be passing before me, not in a flash as it is said to do for those about to drown, but in a sort of leisurely convulsion, emptying itself of its secrets and its quotidian mysteries in preparation for the moment when I must step into the black boat on the shadowed river with the coin of passage cold in my already coldening hand."

Booker Prize-winning author John Banville presents a sensitive and remarkably complete character study of Max Morden, an art critic/writer from Ireland whose wife has just died from a lingering illness.  Seeking solace, Max has checked into the Cedars, a now dilapidated guest-house in the seaside village of Ballyless, where he and his family had spent summers when he was a child.  In those days Max had spent hours in the company of the Graces, a wealthy family whose children, twins Chloe and Myles, became his constant companions. Images of foreboding suggest that some tragedy occurred while he was there, though the reader discovers only gradually what it might have been.  Now renting a room at the Cedars for an indefinite stay, Max broods about the nature of life, love, and death, relives earlier times, and tries to reconcile his memories, some of which are incomplete and imperfect, with the reality of his present, sad life.

As Max probes his memories, he reveals his state of mind and most intimate feelings, constantly questioning the accuracy of his memory, and juxtaposing his distant memories of Ballyless with his recent memories in which his wife Anna's "inappropriate" illness was diagnosed and her futile treatments begun.  Through flashbacks, he also introduces us to his earlier married life with Anna and his fervent hopes that through her he could become someone more interesting.  "I was always a distinct no-one, whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone," he says, confessing that he saw her as "the fairground mirror in which all my distortions would be made straight."

At the Cedars, his companion now is not the Graces but a pathetic "colonel" from Belfast, a dull, little man trying to woo Miss Vavasour, the manager.  Max, desiring solitude but feeling lonely, looks for solace in alcohol and in trips to the pub, occasionally with the colonel, but he is at loose ends, spending much time contemplating philosophical questions.  "The past, I mean the real past," he says, "matters less than we pretend," and he admits that for him, "Being here [at the Cedars] is just a way of not being anywhere."  Finding no solace or satisfaction from philosophy or religion, he comments that "Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him." 

As his stay lengthens, he begins to worry that "I am becoming my own ghost," but he continues to think about Chloe, his first love (after he abandoned his crush on her mother) and about Myles, her mute twin, as the three of them practiced swimming, explored sexuality and love, and tried to figure out the world as they saw it.  He muses about Anna, his wife, in whom "I had my first experience of the absolute otherness of other people," but he also notes that these people vanish from memory and cannot be recalled with clarity when they are out of sight, and he comes to no important recognition of memory as a soothing force in his life.

More a meditation than a novel with a strong plot, The Sea brings Max to life (as limited as his life is), recreating his seemingly simple, yet often profound, thoughts in language which will startle the reader into recognition of their universality. To some extent an everyman, Max speaks to the reader in uniquely intimate ways. In breathtaking language, filled with emotional connotations, he captures nature in perfect images, e. g., drawing parallels between broken eggs in a bird's nest when he was a child, and Anna in her illness, "as full and frail as an ostrich egg."  As an art lover, he also interprets life through art--"a Tiepolo sky," a hair-washing scene reminiscent of Duccio and Picasso, a death scene similar to something by Gericault and de la Tour. He objectifies his thoughts about memory through Pierre Bonnard's many portraits of "Nude in the Bath," paintings of Bonnard's wife in which she remains a young girl, even when she is seventy years old. Images of the bath and the sea pervade the novel--cleansing, combined with the ebb and flow of life.

An ordinary man in his late fifties or early sixties engaging in interior battles with personal demons may not appeal to readers who prefer snappy dialogue and action plots. But other readers, especially those who may have faced the deaths of family or friends and recognized the limitations of memory, may recognize in Max a kindred spirit.  I have rarely read such a short book so slowly—or reread with pleasure so many passages of extraordinary beauty and import—and I felt a connection with Max that I have never felt before in any of Banville's previous novels.  Intimate and personal, this is one of the few books that I have immediately re-read upon completing it.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 139 reviews
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(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 31 2003)

"Fury and fear, these are the fuels that drive me, mixed in equal measure: fury at being what I am not, fear of being found out for what I am. If, one day, one or other of these forces should run out, the violent equilibrium sustaining me will fail and I shall collapse, or fly off helplessly--like a slipped balloon."

Axel Vander tells us from the opening of this sensitive and tension-filled study of identity that he is not who he says he is. A respected scholar and professor at a California college, Vander is recognized by the literati for his thoughtful philosophical papers and books, especially his ironically entitled The Alias as Salient Fact: The Nominative Case in the Quest for Identity. Just before he leaves for a conference on Nietzsche in Turin, however, he receives a letter from a young woman in Antwerp, raising questions about his own identity and asking to meet with him. He agrees to meet her in Turin, and as the novel unfolds, we come to know more about the "real" Axel Vander and more about his mysterious correspondent, the disturbed Cass Cleave, whose madness does not preclude the truth of her discoveries.

Read excerptAuthor Banville has always specialized in short, dense novels in which his narrators are unreliable, even dishonest, often pretending to be other than who they really are as they deal with turning points in their lives. In The Untouchable, Banville's narrator, Victor Maskell, is a thinly disguised version of Anthony Blunt, who, with several other Cambridge friends, led a hidden life as a spy for Russia during the thirties and forties. The Book Evidence is a monologue by a man confessing to a murder which he does not really regret, though the reader does not know how much of the confession, which focuses on his life, rather than his crime of the moment, is really true. In Eclipse, the novel immediately preceding this one, Banville's narrator is Alexander Cleave, a stage actor who has "dried" onstage and who has returned to his childhood home, to relive memories and try to come to terms with the inner self which has betrayed him onstage. Cleave is worried about his disturbed daughter Cass, from whom he has heard no word in many months. Shroud tells us the story of the missing Cass Cleave, Alexander's daughter.

Like Banville's other narrators, the elderly Axel Vander of Shroud is hugely self-concerned but not self-aware. Consummately venal (though beautifully realized), he is a character who blithely takes advantage of whatever circumstances arise, with no concern for the consequences, except to himself. "Mendacity is second, no, is first nature to me," he says. "All my life I have lied. I lied to escape, I lied to be loved, I lied for placement and power; I lied to lie. It was a way of living." Now, facing the possibility that Cass possesses some damaging knowledge of his early life, he wonders "if other people feel as I do, seeming never to be wholly present wherever I happen to be, seeming not so much a person as a contingency, misplaced and adrift in time." He shares neither the past nor the core values which allow the rest of us to be part of our societies.

Cass Cleave has visions and seizures, and Vander regards her as mad, but she and Vander develop a relationship of almost religious significance. He is a depraved and amoral old man living a life of personal un-truth, while she is a sick, avenging angel, striving to connect the disjunctions in her life so that she can become an integrated, whole person. In Turin, where she joins Axel, she sees religious symbolism in common events, finding an ordinary breakfast a form of communion: "[The waiter] lifted the paper crown from the orange juice with a strange, grave movement of his hand, like a priest lifting the white cloth from the chalice....It was as if she had been submerged in something dense and dark and suddenly had risen up and broken soundlessly through the surface into the light, the radiance." By the end of breakfast, she sees herself as "the priestess bound to the shrine [Vander] by immemorial, unbreakable vows. She even had her sacred scepter, in the form of a fountain pen…"

Banville further develops the religious symbolism by his references to artworks, crucifixion scenes by artists from the various settings in which the novel takes place: Cranach, Bosch, Memling, and Van Eyck in his scenes from Antwerp and the North Countries, and Tintoretto, Mantegna, and Bellini in scenes from Italy. Always present in the background, of course, is the Shroud of Turin, which may be the real burial cloth of Jesus--or may not. Several scenes of Vander lying in bed, with the covers pulled up to his chin, bear unmistakable parallels with the images of Christ at his death. One character comments on a chapter title, "Effacement and Real Presence," from Vander's most famous book, pointing out that the Shroud with its image of Christ's face, is a form of "effacement," both hiding and revealing the face, an ironic reference to the real and the absence of the real, in the Shroud and in Vander's life.

Banville's novel is intense, highly compressed in its development of overlapping themes, and filled with suspense, both real and intellectual. The plot, though entertaining and often exciting, reveals the dark, interior worlds of Vander and Cass so fully that a more detailed plot summary might jeopardize the reader's own pleasure of discovery. Banville is a mastercraftsman who has interconnected every plot detail with his themes of identity and selfhood, the relationships we create with the outside world, and our desire to be remembered after our deaths. References to Nietzsche, to Svidrigailov (a character in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment), and to Harlequin appear and reappear as Vander's life unfolds, and they offer striking contrasts to the religious elements and the soulful self-examinations of Cass Cleave, at the same time that they place Vander in a larger, literary context.

Banville's prose is exquisite, creating mystery by introducing details at a snail's pace, conveying attitude, and acutely observing sensuous details and physical reactions. Often darkly humorous ("Nothing like a good, deep chestful of cigarette smoke to quell a morning cough…"), he satirizes novelists of local color ("Give me [instead] an anonymous patch of asphalt…"), and juxtaposes unlikely events from different times to convey information. In a love scene, for example, Axel alternates details of lovemaking with those of a mercy killing, while in another he describes the death of an unknown pedestrian, then thinks about his dead wife -- "Only in death has she begun to live fully for me." A master of irony, Banville provides voluptuous descriptions which contain both an idea and its antithesis simultaneously.

Unusual characters here captivate at the same time that they repel. As unpleasant as they may be, they come to life, even as some of them face death. Banville deliberately connects them with his previous novel, not only because Cass figures in both novels and because the themes are similar, but because the main characters in both novels are awaiting an eclipse of the sun--that astronomical convergence of dark and light, shadow and substance, distance and connection which illuminate the themes of both novels. Major surprises occur in the final five pages, not inserted as literary tricks, but generated naturally out of the action and interactions, as inevitable as the reemergence of the sun from its eclipse. When at the end, Vander finally decides to make a confidante of the mysterious Dr. Zoroaster, Banville's final irony occurs: the greatest evil of the Zoroastrian religion is the lie.

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Read a chapter excerpt from Shroud at

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Bibliography: (with links to

* Loose trilogy, each narrated by Freddie Montgomery, a convicted murderer.
++ Shroud is a sequel to Eclipse


Writing as Benjamin Black:



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About the Author:

John BanvilleJohn Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland in 1945. He was educated at a Christian Brothers' school and St Peter's College in Wexford. He worked as a computer operator for Aer Lingus in Dublin, an opportunity that enabled him to travel widely. He was literary editor of the Irish Times between 1988 and 1999. Long Lankin, a collection of short stories, was published in 1970. It was followed by Nightspawn (1971) and Birchwood (1973), both novels.


Banville's fictional portrait of the fifteenth-century Polish astronomer Doctor Copernicus won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was the first in a series of books exploring the lives of eminent scientists and scientific ideas. The second novel in the series was about the sixteenth-century German astronomer Kepler and won the Guardian Fiction Prize. The Newton Letter: An Interlude , is the story of an academic writing a book about the mathematician Sir Isaac Newton. It was adapted as a film by Channel 4 television. Mefisto, explores the world of numbers in a reworking of Dr Faustus.

The Book of Evidence, which won the Guinness Peat Aviation Book Award, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. The Sea won the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

John Banville lives in Dublin. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014