But one memory novel alone will not do, it seems. Fresh off „The sense of an ending“ and thirsting for some more juicy Brit–Lingo, I decided to at long last delve into Banville. Also, I felt and still feel it’s a bit of an embarrassing shortcoming that as someone so interested in contemporary English literature [what the bollocks does that mean? Contemp English lit? too much of course, like eating with one’s eyes], I still hadn’t read anything by the man from the Green Isle. Not to mention how „late in the game“ I found out about Ban the Man to begin with. Though that is a whole other kettle of fish: how very, very many fab writers have scribbled blue lightning and how very few of them we will get a shot at reading in our lifetime. Is this why life is so brief? So that we may choose wisely from the cornucopia of good literature? I should suppose not.
Banville then, he who wants to make his writing to stand as a work of art, for his novels to come across as a long form of poetry. This latter ambition had me somewhat on tenterhooks because, as philistine as this will sound, I have a hard time remembering when was the last time I read a poem from which I was able to derive any modicum of pleasure/insight/appreciation. Not that I haven’t tried: on and off I’ve been reading aloud to myself supposedly immortal line from that huge transgenerational tome whose very title I forget . I think it’s called something-something, something-something but I could be mistaken. [later: The Giant Book of Poetry – W. Roetzheim]. For the most part, I can’t see in poems anything else than a cop out from the long form, the frightful prospect of crafting a decent narrative, of conjuring captivating characters. Of course you can write something decent for a page or two, but can you do so for a couple of hundreds mate? A different cut of beef, yet again.
What got me going on „The Sea“ in earnest was that the copy I saw at The English Bookstore in Zurich, a grey, fuzzy tide washing up on some sort of defunct concrete jetty, strongly put me in mind of a book by Nicholas Mosley „The Hesperides Tree“. Memory’s mayhem way of connecting stuff never gets old, it is the one true master of the collage. My memory informed me that somewhere in that book there too is a small, drab beach town in Ireland. And a protagonist scrabbling about it helplessly. I didn’t even finish „The Hesperides Tree“ as it is such a shambolic rehash of the [insert favorite hyperbole here] „Hopeful Monsters“. The ellipsis. The questions. The insistent, melodic repetitions that grow on and then infiltrate your existential core of…doubt. This novel too is a memory, of the century gone by as well as loosely of Mosley’s past.
The narrator remembers young days of guarded, possibly anxious watchfulness, the prospective gaze so fundamentally different from the retrospective one: „So much of life was stillness then, when we were young, or so it seems now; a biding stillness; a vigilance. We were waiting in our as yet unfashioned world, scanning the future as the boy and I had scanned each other, like soldiers in the field, watching for what was to come“ [p.12]. The young are anxious about the future, the things to come but there is little to do other than to prepare and to keep an eye out for whatever might or might not creep over the horizon of the present tense – there is a myopia, a type of blindness in regards to the future, unknown as it is, that can never be fully overcome. And thus the posture becomes a combative one, that of a solider, ready for anything.
For the remainder of the novel there remains nothing much of this imagery, rather martial I think, except for the general stand-off-ishness, a distance between the protagonists, a remoteness between the narrator’s now and the remembered days gone by he spent with the Grace family [the gods], light years, water years, those large, heart-trampling distances that can only be suggested by the very presence of the sea.
Much like Barnes, Banville, or rather Max Morden, conceives of his parents as tricky temporal signposts that tend towards being an irritation or a nuisance by both foreshadowing the future and wanting to have undue influence on it: „I did not hate them. I loved them, probably. Only they were in my way, obscuring my view of the future. In time I would be able to see right through them, my transparent parents“ [p.35].
[On a quick tangent. If there is bliss in memory, it is in this man’s prose as well: „The autumn sun fell slantwise into the yard, making the cobbles bluely shine, and in the porch a pot of geraniums flourished aloft their last burning blossoms of the season. Honestly, this world“ [p.58].]
And to continue in search of the parallels with Barnes, ahum, Tony Webster, and Morden, they both have a „will to mediocrity“, their ambition ultimately amounts to a search for comfort, convenience, a trifle of love and a bit of belonging. But, as far as I can tell, not necessarily just because they lack higher ambitions [quite contrary to the perennially doomed Maqroll the Gaviero] but because life in the long duree is such an inclement environment to be out in[with its piles of the deceased, floods of memories and unrelenting rain of seconds, weeks, years]. Ample exposure allows one to acknowledge this: „Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see that the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit, it, for cosiness. This is a surprising, not to say a shocking, realization. Before, I saw myself as something of a buccaneer, facing all-comers with a cutlass in my teeth, but now I am compelled to acknowledge that this was a delusion. To be concealed, protected, guarded, that is all I have ever truly wanted, to burrow down into a place of womby warmth and cover there, hidden from the sky’s indifferent gaze and the harsh air’s damagings“[p.60]. This might be the harsh, particulate air of “reality” and “realism”.