Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Sea by John Banville



John Banville lives two lives as an author. One author is the Man Booker award-winning author of The Sea and other works. The "other" John Banville writes crime and detection fiction under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. I’ve read The Sea, and now I want to read his incarnation as Benjamin Black, including his recent re-creation of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe in Black-Eye Blond. For alas, The Sea left me cold. 

The Sea is a first-person narrative of a man ruminating about the present, the recent past, and events in his childhood. The narrator moves between these three time perspectives with the fluency that we all experience. This trait, and the stream of consciousness-like perspective that it mimics, is a hallmark of modern (modernist) literature. We lose narrative arc and the Freytag triangle to a seemingly unremarkable flow of events. This marks “literature” today as opposed popular fiction. Indeed, Banville distinguishes between his work as an “artist” in writing a book like The Sea and his work as a “craftsman” writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. I wonder if the “art” expressed in his prose isn’t really more suited to poetry, with its ethereal handling of time, perspective, and consciousness. In The Sea, toward the end, a couple of plot revelations occur that tantalize the reader but that don’t disclose much in relation to the rest of the book. Perhaps if I re-read the book knowing these plot revelations I would gain more, but I’m not sure that the reward would justify the effort. Banville’s prose is well wrought, and I did enjoy it for its intrinsic aesthetic, but I want it to point to some insight beyond itself, more the beauty of mere description. For me, this didn’t happen, although the beauty of the prose and elusiveness of the work did keep me reading to the end. I can’t say that I really enjoyed the book, only that it works if you have the patience and inclination to explore a work in this genre. 

For me, the demands of much of modernist literature are too great for the rewards in comparison to more popular literature. Sometime I’ll give modernist “literature” another try, But now I'm eager to read Banville’s work as Benjamin Black, either the new Marlowe or one of his Quirke novels, to compare the "artist" with the "craftsman".

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