Thursday, December 29, 2005

Banville's Sea of Words

John Banville, The Sea (Knopf, 2005).

After the stark, minimalist fictions I’ve been reading of late, Banville was a shock to my system. To begin with, the lushness and density of the language was overwhelming. But then I gave myself up to it. I stopped trying to note down particularly beautiful sentences and arresting images -- there were too many -- and just luxuriated in the sea of words.

I recall that in the post-Booker backlash more than one critic poked fun at Banville for his “love affair with the thesaurus.” Certainly I came across quite a few words that I didn’t know before. To which I say: so what? I’m quite happy to have my vocabulary expanded through reading a novel. Is the language pretentious? Sometimes, but so sometimes is the narrator. That’s part of the point. The voice -- both the attention to detail and the choice of words -- is exactly right for this narrator, an aging art historian who has spent much of his life trying to transcend his class origins.

In the first half of the novel it seemed as if detail was accumulating almost haphazardly. I was swept along by the words, enjoying the ride, but with no sense of where it was leading. In the second half, a complex structure began to reveal itself. The narrative steadily layered and looped back on itself. There were shifts in the narrator’s tone marking the progression of his grief and an increase in his drinking. His eye for detail began to seem more fallible and the bit of suspense emanating from the story beneath the story was heightened thereby propelling the novel to its conclusion.

By the end I was in awe of Banville’s capacity to exert such complete yet subtle control over this riot of words. I borrowed this novel from the library but I feel that I must go out and buy a copy for myself immediately. It's a book that demands re-reading.

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