A couple of years ago, my friend Kathy Hirsh, a Plein Aire painter of the highest caliber, a wit, and voracious reader, recommended JohnBanville’s The Sea, the 2005 Booker prize winner. No wonder. The book has been living in my Kindle for some time and I just got around to reading it. It is full of poetic and insightful writing, with fresh and unusual observations of adolescence, first loves, and lost loves. A graceful meditation on budding life and death.
The sixty something protagonist of this story, Max Borden, returns to a boarding house on the Irish seaside to “live amidst the rubble of the past.” He is a scholar of Pierre Bonnard, a matter of special interest for any plein aire painter. But Bonnard did not paint many seascapes. A founder of the Nabi movement (the Prophets) in Paris in 1888 or so, he preferred to capture images in photographs and paint them later in the studio. His pictures were predominantly of interiors, his circle of friends, his wife. The sea makes an appearance through open French windows and across rooftops in the South of France. But it’s not the subject matter of Bonnard’s work that matters here, but the muted colors, and blurred images that are evocative of memory.
The ouroboros structure of the novel begins with the sea, perhaps grandiosely, but memorably:
They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day.
… and it ends a compact 195 pages later with a young Max Borden standing in the quiet surf.
“in a sort of driving heave, the whole sea surged, it was not a wave, but a smooth rolling swell that seemed to come up from the deeps, as if something vast down there had stirred itself, and I was lifted briefly and carried a little way toward the shore and then was set down on m feet as before, as if nothing had happened. And indeed nothing had happened, a momentous nothing just another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference”
While an old Max Borden recalls this penultimate image... “A nurse came out then to fetch me, and I turned and followed her inside, and it was as if I were walking into the sea.”
In between, the novel weaves seamlessly and masterfully between young and old (Max Borden, truth be told, feels much older than my mid-sixty year old friends), and between the far past, the recent past, and the present. The drama is contained in the memory, and it is peeled back patiently and lovingly as the story unfolds without chapter breaks in one long stream of consciousness. The book is a phenomenology of memory. And it is phenomenal.