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March 01, 2006

Novels and Anti-Novels: When is a novel not a novel? The Sea - John Banville

Posted by David Womersley

The Sea
by John Banville
Pp. 264. London: Picador, 2005
Hardback, 16.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews John Banville's Man Booker Prize winning novel The Sea, and asks, when is a novel not a novel?

The novel is an unusual literary genre, in that (unlike, say, epic) its origins are still disputed and unclear. Ian Watt, Michael McKeon and Margaret Doody have all advanced large theses about where the novel comes from and why it burgeons when it does. The problem is, in part, that there is so much scope for rational disagreement about the set of writings which have to be explained, particularly at the beginning. Fielding, Richardson, Sterne, Goldsmith, Smollett, and then on into the nineteenth century: yes, of course. But Defoe raises some interesting problems of definition. And what about the long fictional prose narratives of the Elizabethan and Stuart periods, not to mention the fictional prose narratives of antiquity?

Perhaps the phenomenon of the novel will be easier to explain once its star has set further. For it seems that, despite the massive volume of novels published today, the imaginative hegemony which the novel enjoyed in the nineteenth century, as the preferred medium for the capture and exploration of the most important human experience, is passing. The novel as a form is now increasingly balkanised into various sub-genres, and film has usurped the novel's pre-eminent relationship to narrative. The stories which matter today are increasingly those stories which are told visually, and nothing underlines this shift more decisively than the phenomenon of film adaptations of novels. It is almost as if, today, a novel has not really attained its full plenitude of existence until it has received the fulfilment of a cinematic adaptation.

However, not all novels are equally receptive to visual translation. In particular, novels of which the verbal life is particularly rich transfer to film only as pallid ghosts. One thinks here perhaps of the recent films of Martin Amis's early novels, which manage to convey nothing about why, for a certain generation, reading The Rachel Papers and Dead Babies was so important and memorable an experience. By contrast, novels in which the verbal element is at least balanced by a more primal quality of narrative (as, for instance, with Dickens), or even in which the verbal organisation is embarrassingly inept (as, for instance, with Tolkien) move easily into the cinema. But it is hard to conceive of a film version of, say, Ulysses, as anything other than a massive missing of the point.

It would be easy to say that this simply reflects the degrading quality of film as an art form, but it is possible to view it more interestingly as saying something about the obscure nature of the novel as a genre. We could put this aphoristically by saying that the novels which resist translation into film are only weakly novelistic.

Once, with the first publication in book form of Ulysses in 1922, the attempt had been made to make the novel an appropriate receptacle for a high Modernist impulse, an alternative tradition was founded within the genre of the novel which not only stretched it, but in some ways turned it rebours against the grain. Partial antecedents for this might be found, as I have just implied, in the decadent novels of the late nineteenth century, such as for instance those written by J. K. Huysmans (though probably La-Bas rather than Rebours).

But it really begins properly only with Joyce. And it is these novels (which are also anti-novels) which most effectively resist translation into film. Why is the Modernist novel in some way self-thwarting? It is because there is a demotic, miscellaneous and heteroglossic implication in the form of the novel which is inherently hostile to the hieratic exquisiteness of Modernism. The signature of that re-ordering of priorities is the heightened attention given to verbal surface in the Modernist novel, at the expense typically of plot and character. These are novels written as if they were poems.

John Banville's The Sea is an example of such a novel. Through dovetailing narratives of retrospection and observation, we learn that the novel's protagonist, Max Morden, an art historian working on the minor French impressionist, Bonnard, has recently been widowed, and has an unsatisfactory relationship with his only child, a daughter. He returns to live as a lodger in the desolate, depressed seaside village where he had spent holidays as a child, and where, on one particular holiday, a terrible catastrophe had occurred.

During that holiday, he had befriended the stylish and cosmopolitan Grace family, and had played with their children Myles and Chloe. On the cusp of adolescence, he had also formed and nourished a puerile, unconfessed, passion for Mrs Grace. But (to speak generally, and without giving away the novel's final revelation) his involvement with the Graces is marked by disaster, and after decaying into alcoholism in his boarding house, he learns that the whole of his life has been predicated on an error of interpretation.

Retold like that, it seems as if The Sea has a substantial element of plot. But the brilliance of Banville's prose seasons the pleasure of reading with the nagging thought that The Sea has no necessary relation with the form of the novel. The core of Banville's interest appears to lie in the depiction of tormented psychological states, and there is no reason to believe that that is an interest best pursued by means of the novel. The prose of The Sea makes that of most novels seem clumsy or shrill, and for those who like their novels like that (as I often do), it provides deep satisfaction. Yet the nagging thought remains that the relationship between Banville's insights and the form of The Sea is not one of necessity.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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Heteroglossic? Did you make that word up?

Firbank got to the anti-novel before that charlatttan Joyce. The interesting thing is that Firbank was the first "cinematic" writer in that his dialogue of social gatherings resembles a montage in a film.

Posted by: Peter L at March 2, 2006 04:54 AM
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