By John Banville
Knopf. 195 pp. $23
"Everything for me is something else," thinks Max, the narrator of John Banville's new Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea. He is remembering the details of a bath painting by Pierre Bonnard. A Bonnard expert in a dilettantish way, he is wondering if the window in that bathroom might be interpreted as actually the back of another painting on an easel. It's a wonderfully delicate symbol of Max's solipsistic striving after human connection in a world he is largely composing out of his unreliable memories and sensations.
Max's wife has just died of a stomach cancer that both he and she were remarkably late in discovering and to which they submitted in a fog of pain, denial and inattention, not even telling their grown daughter till the end was nearly upon them. Now Max has retreated to a small town on the Irish coast where as a child he spent his summers. He has taken a room at the Cedars, a decayed guest house where when he was 10 or 11 -- he can't remember exactly -- he first learned of love, sex and unexpected death. He is becalmed with Miss Vavasour, the landlady, and the retired Colonel, a figure of comic pathos, but one or two surprises await him in that guest house.
Many of Banville's first-person narrators live in a world where everything is something else. He is among the most densely metaphoric of modern prose writers, and the metaphors are very often anthropomorphic, or zoomorphic at least, attributing feelings and intentions to the inanimate: "How wildly the wind blows today, thumping its big soft ineffectual fists on the window panes." "The waves clawed at the suave sand along the waterline, scrabbling to hold their ground but steadily failing." His dying wife's hair "had begun to grow again, in a half-hearted fashion, as if it knew it would not be needed for long."
The relentless examination of the self amid ghastly or comically lively surroundings has long been a force in Banville's novels about divided, self-loathing men: Freddie Montgomery, the murderer and art faker in The Book of Evidence and its two sequels, Ghosts and Athena; the art expert and spy Victor Maskell, based on Anthony Blunt, in The Untouchable; the famed scholar who once stole another man's identity in Shroud. Max can't be classed with them. He isn't worse than most men, as Banville's men usually are; his sins are common ones, though maybe not venial. He pays close attention to everything but the most important things, and he grants himself slack that he feels is paid for by his bleak self-contempt, though of course it isn't. Without that near-psychotic division at work in Banville's other characters, the animated world in this book seems to have been built up for its own sake.
In that long-past summer on which he broods, Max and his loveless parents were ensconced in a little wooden "chalet." The neatly named Grace family had taken the Cedars: goatish and grinning Carlo, his thrilling wife, Connie, and their twin children of Max's age, Chloe and Myles. They are odd inhuman children -- Myles has never spoken, though he has no physical disability -- and they have the special psychic bond that welds twins in fiction (less often in life). Two of this family will entrance Max in turn: dark, fleshly Connie and fierce, skinny Chloe. From Chloe comes his first kiss, his first abasement. We know from the beginning that Max will be caught up in this family's catastrophe, but Max, though he's seeking to understand or relive it, doesn't describe it until the Graces' fates tumble over us like a sudden great wave near the book's end.
Instead, Max recounts with impossible exactness the passing of that summer and his own sensations of remembering. "Memory dislikes motion," Max says as he begins, with painterly care. As in other Banville books, the narrator comes close to admitting that he, or his author, is making things up -- creating, not remembering. Bonnard, Max tells us, painted dozens of studies of his wife in the bath over the years, the last one when she was near 70, yet he always pictured her as the young girl she was when they met. It seems that Max (and his maker) are engaged not in the working out of a character's actions through time -- the usual business of a novel -- but in the limning of moments of stillness, as a poem or a painting might.
It could be argued that this stillness derived from non-narrative arts represents a falling-off. It's hard to know how conscious an enterprise the refusal of novelistic urgency may be, but if deliberate, it cannot have been easy. Achievement in art is not necessarily keyed to difficulty -- it isn't in Bonnard -- but Banville's achievement seems remarkable to me. Banville appears to be fining down his writing to the central impulse of all his mature work, which he stated long ago in the extravagant Gothic tale Birchwood: "We imagine that we remember things as they were, while in fact all we carry into the future are fragments which reconstruct a wholly illusory past. The first death we witness will always be a murmur of voices down a corridor and a clock falling silent in the darkened room, the end of love is forever two cigarettes in a saucer and a white door closing."
The Sea is nothing more than that, in one sense, but the power and strangeness and piercing beauty of its fragments are all, and are a wonder. "Honestly, this world," says Max: at once a cry and a credo. *
John Crowley's most recent novel is "Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land."