Winner of this year’s Man Booker prize, The Sea is “possibly the worst, certainly the most perverse, and perhaps the most indefensible choice in the 36-year history of the contest” (per The Independent), “a crashing disappointment” (the Times of London), “more like sitting an exam than taking in a tale” (the Telegraph). But then again, “that damn prize, which obsesses us so much on this side of the Atlantic, is no certain measure of literary worth. . . . Booker judging panels are notorious for the eccentricity of their decisions.” This last verdict came from John Banville in 1990, writing in The New York Review of Books on Ian McEwan’s unshortlisted The Innocent. (Fifteen years later in the NYRB‘s pages, Banville would eviscerate McEwan’s unshortlisted Saturday as “dismayingly bad,” shortly before taking the Booker against 7-1 odds.)
With the gong for The Sea, the judges simply refitted the Booker as a career achievement award, as when they gave it to Kingsley Amis for The Old Devils or Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman. Here Banville is repeating himself, most conspicuously by repeating himself—the Irishman’s most recent run of novels has become perplexingly reiterative. The Sea‘s narrator, Max Morden, is a familiar permutation of earlier Banville protagonists found in The Untouchable, Eclipse, and Shroud: An aged, misanthropic art historian given to grandiloquent self-examination and cosmic fatalism, Max returns to the seaside site of a childhood holiday to disinter memories of both his recently deceased wife, Anna, and the wealthy family, the Graces, who so fascinated him one pivotal summer vacation. His sexual awakening—stirred by an erotic fixation on Mrs. Grace and, later, her moody daughter, Chloe—spins a strange double helix in the older man’s mind with Anna’s death and his own ongoing trudge to the grave.
Banville’s famously torrid affair with his thesaurus has previously birthed erudite but emotionally delimited characters, whose fierce powers of observation and description are rendered poignantly meaningless by failings of moral temperament, but The Sea nudges this pathos toward parody. Where your garden variety depressive would see a rainy night playing accidental matchmaker to his mood, our Max will muse, “[I]t was as if the evening, in all the drench and drip of its fallacious pathos, had temporarily taken over from me the burden of grieving.” He can think the phrase “the ovine unsurprisedness at my perfidy.” Brandishing Roget’s apotropaic caduceus, Banville’s prose is flocculent and positively crepitant with memory’s torsions, but the strangury of obscure vocabulary tends to embalm The Sea in a hebetudinous catafalque. (Is cracaleured even a word?) But let us rationalize: Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker in ’89, Zadie Smith is only 30, and Banville’s masterpiece, The Untouchable, is available at a bookstore near you.