The Sea

Collected Works: Literature


The Sea

by John Banville

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The Sea is awash with clichés, its premise a sandy path well-trodden. After losing his wife to a protracted illness, the ageing narrator revisits a coastal village to which he holidayed in his youth, to find solace, to remind himself of the transience of time, to escape the recent past and dive into the depths of a past more distant. The protagonist is aware that his longing – his willing preoccupation with all that he has lost – is trite, but he seems to thrive on this knowledge; the trope’s existence makes his sentiments all the more palpable. The past beats inside him ‘like a second heart’.

The novel’s title is a tributary to which all else can be sourced; each page ripples in an ‘oceanic rhythm’, to borrow Banville’s words. The meanderings of the mind, ever in motion, take the form of expansive, contemplative sentences, which roll onwards with compound clauses and thoughtful digressions; they seem almost to ebb and flow like the tide. Coupled with these constructions is the author’s extensive vocabulary, the lushness of the language serving to heighten the senses. Reading, one can smell the salt of the air, feel the sharp breeze on the nape of the neck.

For Banville, consciousness consists of the gathering of evidence, the compilation of memories into histories. Accuracy is less important than the evocation of a more textural past; the narrator invents place names and frequently fails to recall details with clarity, wavering in indecision mid-phrase. The presence of the narrator’s wife is reduced to that of a pale watercolour, while each character from his childhood is flooded with life, fully formed and rich with idiosyncrasies: the way in which their skin hangs, in which their laughter resonates, in which gazes meet and sensations throb.

The Sea’s evasion of plot may make some restless, but the sketched storyline exists primarily to hold the book’s vast, brimming reservoir of descriptions and observations in place. As familiar associations are drawn to the surface, we may find ourselves wading through experiences from our own lives, adding our own footnotes to the text. When the novel ends, we feel compelled to return to the opening words, to be once more mesmerised by Banville’s linguistic virtuosity, to thirstily plunge ourselves back into the briny deep.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

Visit John Banville's website here. Read an excerpt from The Sea here. Belinda McKeon has interviewed the author for The Paris Review, as have James Naughtie for BBC Radio 4's Bookclub, Richard Purden for The Irish Post, Emma Brockes for The Guardian, and Alexis Soloski for The Village Voice.

Question of the day

Which works of literature from 2005 would you recommend, and why? Let us know on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. Lewycka’s farcical family feud disguises its dark undercurrent of European history. (→)

– Emma McKinlay, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)

There are so many to choose from! Three that come to mind are Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Gabriel García Márquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores, and Zadie Smith's On Beauty.

– John Wadsworth, Silent Frame's Editor-in-Chief (via Facebook →)

Read more: Novels