Fiction - On the shore

The Sea

John Banville <em>Picador, 264pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0330483285

One of John Banville's skills as a stylist is to discern the alien at work in the human. "One's eyes," he writes, "are always those of someone else, the mad and desperate dwarf crouched within." Max Morden, the narrator of this novel, is himself a sort of monster: one of those cultivated, Nabokovian horrors in which Banville specialises. His surname is just a letter or two away from something biting, corrosive or musically trilling - etymologies that Max, with uncharacteristic modesty, leaves unexcavated.

Max, an ageing art historian, returns to an Irish coastal resort - scene of a family holiday in his youth - in the wake of his wife's death. A persistent purveyor of fastidious aesthetic judgements, he prissily notes the "demure little moue" of Miss Vavasour, landlady of the house where he stays; the ears of Colonel Blunden, the tenant across the hall, "which look as if they had been dried and smoked"; his own eyes in a mirror, "cracaleured over with those tiny bright-red veins". His cruel vigilance extends to a memory of the consultant's office where his wife, Anna, was told that she was dying of cancer. Who else, he wonders, would have noticed the receptionist's "blonde blur"?

He admits his lack of real talent: precisely the source of his eagerness to impress by the acuity of his visual impressions. For this "middling man", everything exists to end in one of the static tableaux of which his reminiscences are made. The scenography he is trying to reproduce is that of a summer, long ago, when a family of "gods", the Graces, des-cended into his lower-middle-class life.

He falls in love first with the mother - in his mind she is a cubist amalgam of fragments: a half-glimpsed breast, a bare thigh - and then with her daughter Chloe. Finally, in the prelude to an enigmatic tragedy, Max is frozen in an erotic tableau with Chloe and her mute twin, Myles.

The mystery of that scene, and its aftermath on "the day of the strange tide", is both inevitable, plot-wise, and oddly beside the point in a novel where the real drama is in the perplex of botched approaches to the past. Max is by turns an impressively precise narrator and a vague, addled fantasist. He is as likely to let the details slide into absurdity (the village, he says, is called Ballyless, its neighbour Ballymore) as he is to pin them with an entomologist's accuracy. He recalls coming home with his newly doomed wife and saying, as they stood disconsolately in the kitchen: "Take off your coat, at least"; noting the incongruity of the last phrase, he despairs of "the human discourse". Yet his own language sketches a mawkish, laboured approximation of the aesthete he would like to be: "I have always suffered from what I think must be an overly acute awareness of the mingled aromas that emanate from the human concourse."

Banville himself, slyly, cannot resist the tendency towards lyric or sarcastic erudition that he shows to be an inadequate consolation for his central character. There are echoes here of Beckett - Max's dream of advancing, lame, along a road by flinging his leg in a clumsy arc is a hobbled citation of Beckett's Watt - and of W G Sebald: Max quotes Sir Thomas Browne and imagines himself in a hospital room high above a city, thus imitating the narrator of The Rings of Saturn. Such moments of knowingness are part of the deal with Banville: they draw you into the medium of his own refined memory and leave you, like Max, stranded on the shore, trying to put the picture together again.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Latin America rises up