As clear as mirror glass. John Banville in interview

John Banville’s new novel, The Sea, presents us with Max Morden, recently widowed (or is that widowered? as Max mordantly wonders) and returned to the sea-side resort of his childhood. While turning over fragments from his married life with Anna, Max also recalls the strange bond he formed many years ago with the dazzling Graces, a family whose inestimably superior social status is signified for the young Max by a touring map of France casually askew under the back window of Carlo Grace’s stylish car. At first Max’s dawning awareness of the opposite sex is stirred by Carlo’s wife, Connie, but it is finally through his experiences with the children–the precocious Chloe, mute Myles and the au-pair Rose– that Max finally forfeits his innocence.

John Banville discusses with Shane Barry aspects of The Sea as well as the eternal verities for the novelist: death, comedy and book reviewing.

Barry: In The Sea, Max Morden initially seems like a prototypical ‘Banvillean’ narrator: erudite, solitary, and nursing a secret. Yet Morden, in his willingness to share the vulnerability of his childhood and the anguish over losing his wife, seems more simpatico than, say, either Freddie Montgomery or Axel Vander. Are your characters’ hearts thawing out or am I being unfair to your earlier protagonists?

Banville: Readers do seem to find Max more sympathetic, more warm, than my other narrators. I find this odd, as I would have thought Axel Vander, Victor Maskell (whose name, by the way, I could not recall, and had to look it up in The Untouchable just now–so much for one’s attachment to one’s creatures) and Freddie Montgomery were fairly heaving with emotion, in their pitiable way. It is, I suppose, my failure that the sadness and desperate self-protectiveness of these characters is not more apparent. For my, shamefaced, part, I regard my novels as overly emotional and far too hot. But who am I to pass judgment? The books are in the public domain, and I can no longer claim, nor would I wish to claim, proprietorship over them.

Barry: The Sea is a death-haunted novel. One of the things that popped into my head when reading the book (and The Sea is a book designed, I think, to prompt reverie) is that the novel itself is a genre obsessed with death. Other non-abstract forms such as painting or poetry might feature death at times but they don’t circle around it to the same extent. What is it that draws writers to the subject, or is there something about the form that almost cries out for its treatment?

Banville: This is an interesting point, and one that never struck me before. I think your insight is valid–the novel as a form is haunted by death. I wonder why this should be? If one thinks of Beckett, of course, one realises that the voice in the novel, even a third-person voice–or last-person voice, as Beckett liked to say–is engaged in a constant babble against the encroaching dark. There are great exceptions in the other arts–Mahler, for instance, or Edvard Munch, but yes, the reigning god of the novel is Thanatos.

Barry: One of the enjoyments that comes with The Sea is its dark humour, which partly stems from the narrator’s occasional weariness or impatience with his task of describing the world around him. For example, during the visit to the ominously named consultant Mr. Todd, Max looks out at world beyond the glass and sees “ oak, or perhaps it was a beech, I am never sure of those big deciduous trees, certainly not an elm since they are all dead…”

What I sense behind such digressions is that the traditional omniscient narrator, our guide to the 19th century novel, now seems absurd. All that is vaguely appropriate is the first-person voice, a voice that is forced to filter the world because there’s only so much knowledge behind it. Do you agree?

Banville: Well, what is behind such digressions is the desire to provoke a laugh, or at least a melancholy smile. Just as you contend that the novel is death-haunted, I would say that it is essentially a comic form, just as life itself seems a comical venture with occasional irruptions of the tragic. I know what you mean about the 19th-century omniscient narrator, but I feel increasingly that we are deluded in our patronising attitudes to the great Victorians. Think of Thackeray’s knowing Grand Narrator, or Tolstoy and his impatience with “mere fiction”. Postmodernists avant la lettre.

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