Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

"The Old Illusion of Belonging": Distinctive Style, Bad Faith and John Banville's the Sea

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

"The Old Illusion of Belonging": Distinctive Style, Bad Faith and John Banville's the Sea

Article excerpt

John Banville's novels have been repeatedly hailed as the works of a master of language and a literary stylist and his thirteenth novel The Sea (2005) is no exception. One need only look to reviewers' emphasis on the quality of the novel's prose and its effects on the reader, in either praise or criticism, to see just how prominently style features in the text. In The Times Literary Supplement, Robert Macfarlane lamented that "[t]he languorous ambience of [the narrator's] prose, indeed the entire structure of the novel, seems to exist only to permit Banville his exquisite scrimshaws of style" (Macfarlane 2005). In her review in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called Banville "a highly cerebral author who emphasizes style over story, linguistic pyrotechnics over felt emotion". She defined The Sea as a "pompously written book" and disapproved of its narrator's "grandiose language"--the protagonist, she wrote, "talks like someone with a Thesaurus constantly implanted in his head" (Katutani 2005). (1) Others welcomed the book as a display of "the classical correctness of [Banville's] style" (Kenny 2005) and crowned the Irish novelist as "one of the finest prose stylists working in English today" (Tague 2005). "The book's strength lies in its language", we read in The Economist, "Banville's style affords the reader a voluptuous, unfashionable pleasure that grows with every re-reading of the book" (2005). Albeit different in their judgements, these commentators equally refer to style exclusively as a manner of writing, or, as the OED has it, "those features of literary composition which belong to form and expression rather than to the substance of the thought or matter expressed".

But style is not solely a manner of writing in The Sea. To the reader of Banville's earlier work, the writing of the novel's narrator Max Morden will not only appear exceptionally elaborate but also sound uncannily familiar. The text presents a fugue of familiar narrative peculiarities in Banville's oeuvre (the narrator's emphasis on the strange equivocations of language, for instance); it bristles with idiosyncratic expressions ("classless class", "strangury", "wind-worried day", to name just a few examples) and recurrent motives (the art historian, the homecoming journey, the obsession with the past, among others). Like Banville's previous texts, The Sea is saturated with references to the works of other writers as well as the novelist's own previous books. In The Sea, Banville explores and invests in style not only as a "manner of writing", but also as a "manner of expression characteristic of a particular writer" and a "method or custom of performing actions [...], sanctioned by usage", as we read in two other definitions of style in the OED. By simultaneously exploring style as manner of writing and manner of expression distinctive of its writer, in The Sea Banville complicates the notion of style while setting out on a new exploratory journey into the slippery realms of identity, authenticity, home and belonging.

Since the anonymous historian of The Newton Letter (1982), all Banville's protagonists are men who have fabricated a new identity for themselves replacing the one bequeathed to them at birth. This operation leaves them effectively homeless. When the catastrophe, always impending, finally occurs and they are, in various ways, unmasked, they enter a moment of crisis. When men are in crisis, Banville explained in an interview, "they begin to search for solid ground to stand on, some place where they themselves, or some versions of themselves, will [...] be real" (2006). In previous novels, Banville has taken his protagonists to explore the birthplace (The Newton Letter, The Untouchable (1997), Eclipse), confessional narrative (The Book of Evidence (1989), The Untouchable), but also states of self-estrangement (Shroud (2002), Eclipse) and the Freudian uncanny (Ghosts (1993), Eclipse). In The Sea, in which, as Adam Phillips rightly states in his review of the novel, style is the "way the writer qualifies himself, or whatever he feels is in need of qualification" (2005), Banville sets out on a similar quest in relation to style as writing as well as writing as style. …

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