Dipping a Toe in John Banville's The Sea

Maggie Malone

There is more than meets the eye at first glance to John Banville's atmospheric novel of first love and last rites, The Sea. An impressionable innocent, a big house, enchanting children; a haunted narrator splicing together scenes of loss, both recent and in the dim distant past; a governess figure.

The losses, two strands of Max's tale, are brought together:

The sky was hazed over and not a breeze stirred the surface of the sea, at the margin of which the small waves were breaking in a listless line, over and over, like a hem being turned endlessly by a sleepy seamstress.

Dear John Banville, yes it was well done.

It was endlessly turning the hem which threw the switch. A picture of gentility making do and nodding off by the fire whilst listening to a preternaturally pretty child playing the pianoforte came to mind. A big house, an impressionable innocent, a haunted narrator, first love and last rites, a governess figure. John Banville's turn to "tell the tale". Like a kind of brush of the sponge, The Sea washes over the earlier canvas; the short-sighted governess's "pensive embroidery" is unpicked; the strands reworked into something rich and strange.

Banville's narrator, Max Morden, is an art historian and his "bloodshot" (Polypheman?) mind's eye reflects the composition of his memories. In his memoir, he sees himself, ten or eleven, young and impressionable, voluntarily orphaning himself from his "transparent parents", taking up with the Graces. The initial tableau of Graces on the beach "lent a suggestion of the proscenium". The stage is set for the entrance of... Chloe Grace, but, in a turn not unworthy of the Master, the girl the unwary reader takes at first to be Chloe is another, an older girl, Rose. Chloe, angel-like, high on her sandy parapet, is watching Max watching Myles squint at the governess. Max misdirects the eye and Chloe makes her entrance. A leap down from the dunes, which Myles, ever the twin, seen through the filter of Max's memoir (Max who gets nearly everything wrong), mirrors in a later scene: Take Two. Whose turn is it to see, whose to be seen? Who is falling for whom?

Max sits where Connie sat. Connie opens her lap. Chloe opens hers. Max the widower watches Daphnis the innocent. Rose is looking too. What does Myles see? Watchers are watched. Myles' stick is wrested by Chloe the fixer. But is the only real "fixer" in this tale the dead photographer who has stopped time?

Children and sex, love and death. Oh Henry, what a tale! Add the Pictures and a pinch of photography, the art of the dead. The painterly "I" reflects glasses, water butts, snow, lakes, lagoons, the sea. First impressions. Double takes. Three tableaux. Mirror images. A Duccio Madonna, that sideways look ? I see Botticelli's Primavera, but Avril with a halo of dense thorns – a nature morte?. Where's the focus in this scene? Which are the forgeries? One-eyes, two-eyes or three-eyes? I spy with my monstrous eye something beginning with..."c". Take Three: the third lap, a prolapse. Gates creak quarter circles; a foot is thrown out awkwardly in a half-circle; single blades of marram grass each inscribing a neat half-circle in front of itself - nature's sketches; and a final scene taking place on the little semi-circle of sand between the dunes and the water's edge, the apron. How visual it all is. How you do verbal-eyes. I'm quite dizzy, John. Not a simple extra turn this. Twins: "Like two magnets but turned the wrong way, pulling and pushing". Holy palmers' kiss awry? Do they swing both ways? The governess pacing back and forward, forward and back, on the beach as the godlings return to their element – a Rose trapped between the two poles?

Twins: the Gods, godlings, strikingly alike, watching the narrator across the edge of the water. Gods or devils? Heavenly twins who "laugh like demons". Who is watching whom? I am seen therefore I am. Myles of the webbed toes, "the marks of a godling"; a silenced Miles; "an all too visible all too tangible poltergeist", malignant sprite that he was, brother of that "rosy sprite" Flora, or twin to the goddess of the green teeth? Oh, Castor and Bollocks! I'm all at sea, John, and you are strangely at the helm.

Twins who pass a stick from one to the other, a piece of driftwood, Flora's mast come adrift; and the narrator who, by his own admission, fixed by the wifely photographer's "disenchanted and disenchanting eye" is "an overgrown homunculus" (not fully developed, then); a narrator whose Goddess, demon temptress, Connie, turns to mortal in an instant. Graceless becomes gross, whose face in disenchantment becomes "hard". (We won't mention "grog blossoms".) And the abuser feels abused. Gods and daemons, transmutations and transubstantiations, silhouettes and shades of the dwarf; Old Brides-in-the-Bath loves the seamstress of shrouds. Anna, death's photographer, and Max of the phantom pregnancy "only violently at play like Chloe and Myles in their wrestling matches, except that what Chloe and Myles did together was not really play"; and the sin of looking – a Catholic turn? Bullseye for Father Foamfleck, or one in the eye for Holy Catholic Ireland? As the narrator says...

After all why should I be less susceptible than the next melodramatist to the tale's demand for a neat closing twist?

Who is the abuser? Abuse is in the eye of the beholder? Who is training the hotly vigilant eye? Or is it only children's games?

RV LOVES CG; Rose loves Carlo,


or Chloe?

Carlo the hirsute, goat father. Carlo of the blanks. Old Father Time with a tic douloureux. Pan and the three Graces. Bacchus in his director's chair, watching the two maenads running across the beach. A swell, Poseidon? "CARLO?", Connie whoops incredulously at the idea. The indecent exposure is there up front with the Doctor. Very 21st century.

Children, sex, and death. RV loves CG. Connie? Mother Ewe. That's Connie of the quarter-turns? Mrs Gross takes Flora away. The children are separated. Does Chloe escape with Myles, leaving Rose trapped forever in the big house? Fixed forever. Rose comes with the house. Was it the Governess and Mrs Gross all along do you think, John?

Children, sex, and death. RV loves CG. Chloe? Chloe loses her power over Rose when Myles' scrawl is discovered. The female nude. Does Chloe of the pigeon-toed stride love her governess, Rose of the splay-toed feet? Or is it the other, the fatal attraction, when the earth moves and the ceremony of innocence is drowned? Magnetic turns. And does love turn to hate? Last words. "I have stopped time", Anna the "medium" of his transmutation, Anna whose big baby De'Ath had burgeoned inside her. Now, the typewriter has no "I", the phantom pregnancy come to fruition, is Max the ghost of a ghost, on Shade street without a stitch? Exposed by the printer with a limp? Chloe: "and if she was real, so suddenly was I". Has time stopped once or twice for what's his name, the overgrown homunculus with the foot of clay? Is it the seventh circle? Both Anna and Chloe see through him. Tock. Tick. And was it Chloe or Myles who stopped time on the beach that brimful day? Death, the dirty, nasty secret, the foul knowledge that comes between them. Speak Myles and tell all.

Or, was it love?

"I turned and followed her inside and it was if I were walking into the sea." Pan's pipes, the reeds played by Chloe and Myles, syrinx to the syringe lift which plunges Max and Anna to limbo. Death-in-love. An auspicious and a dropping eye. Love-in-death, the swell which refloats the deathship, the old hulk. Oh Max, always waiting for gods. I can't figure it.

"Was't well done?"

'Twere well done, aye 'twere, John Banville. Though not, I suspect, done quickly. But Ariel, shipwrecks, fish eyes, monstrous births. I can't fathom it. Ariadne with knitting needles? A Rose by any other name. Va va soeur. Now I've really lost the thread. Turn again, Reader. Sycorax of the Kodaks, you'll be drowning books next! I'm not going in that deep. I'm over my depth already.

And yet,

... stepp'd in so far... I'll wade on. All those quarter circles and semi-circles. Even the colonel's finger is crooked. Those left turns! Now Max is "doing the right thing", sailing away on the Swan(n)'s back. The only way is up. Time to go. Tick. Tock. To look once more upon the stars. Three "c"s. Chloe won't play on the beach that day. That three-legged race which falls flat on its back. Tic-tac-toes together. The starfish breaks up. Contrary motion. What's that tune Rose is playing? Kindertotenlieder or Red Sails in the Sunset? Tick, tock. A metro-gnome? Tick. That final trump d'oeil: tocca a te, Myles? Myles straight as blind Cupid's arrow turning cartwheels and Rose pacing up and down. I may be off on a tangent but I think ... .I, C.

Or not.

Thanks, John Banville.

Yours sincerely,

Maggie Malone (reader-in-progress)


I like to think that Myles not Miles was suggested by another preternaturally beautiful brother and sister, in a tale of long ago, told to a boy haunted by a family secret, twins in name if not in actuality, Francis and Frances, orphans of the big house with their own special song too; traces of whom might be glimpsed in the green of the marsh gas, and the dashboard of the car, the green of Chloe's teeth (a Chloral/Floral tribute?). A boy who orphans himself from his haunted parents, a field of the dead, ghosts on the stairs, another Irish tale. But then I may only be reading in the dark. MM