the sea

I think that I read the Booker prize winning novel by John Banville the following year (2006). So much has happened since then that I couldn’t remember the details (although curiously I could picture the paperback cover quite clearly), but I did remember that I’d enjoyed the poetic qualities of the book. Last night we went to see the film (screenplay also by Banville).

I purposely didn’t flick through the book before going, nor did I read any reviews. I’m glad that I didn’t as the reviews have been quite mixed. I don’t intend to write any sort of film review but instead to consider the different issues that came across to me.

The structure of the story is deceptively simple: the narrator Max is writing autobiographically following the death of his wife. The novel is set in Ireland, and Max has returned to a guest house by the sea – a house that had been rented by a wealthy family at (I guess) the beginning of the seventies when Max was a child. The novel weaves images of Max in the present day with Max and his dying wife, and these in turn are interwoven with episodes relating Max’s relationships with the parents and twin children of the wealthy family, and with their au pair.

Watching the film reminded me of how poetic the book is; the layers of the story merge together in a way that I can almost see as a visual image, and I think that it is the sort of story from which one can derive multiple meanings. In that sense it is definitely Barthesian – I would argue that Banville has handed considerable authorship to the reader. Big issues are alluded to – in addition to loss and isolation, there is pubertal sexuality, infidelity, the class divide, autism, and alcoholism. Just as in real life I think that it would be easy to be blind to much of this either consciously or unconsciously. As with most books and films, there are layers of meaning, and in this case layers of time distorting the prism through which one reads or watches.

For me, this was very much a reflection on loss, on ageing, and on isolation. As such it was ultimately quite bleak. No matter how close our relationships we remain unknowable, often even to ourselves. The loss of a partner leaves us bereft not only because of loss of familiarity, rhythm and pattern in our lives, but also perhaps because it denies us the hope that someone else can really understand us, and we them. It confirms that in the end we are indeed alone, and die alone. In The Sea Max is depicted as an outsider from the beginning. He is the working class child who can never understand or fit in with the upper middle class family. It seems to me that this is every bit as true in 2014 as it was in 1970; in fact in may be worse, as I think that in addition to the class divide we also have the financial divide. Often the two go hand in hand, but not always, and the wealth gap has risen steadily since 1980, as shown in this graph from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation:

joseph rowntree foundation

Those born into poverty in the UK are still condemned to a shorter life, poorer health, and reduced job opportunities, no matter how bright they may be. Their educational attainments are statistically lower because of fragmented schooling and lack of parental resources, as well as poor nutrition. They are very unlikely to break into the circles of opportunity to which the upper middle classes belong. Much material for another day.

I found Max’s alcoholism very poignant – a metaphor for every type of addiction that can be used to escape from reality, to self-soothe, to create a better world. Alcohol is the drug of choice for many, others turn to drugs, both prescription and otherwise, others to food (or lack of), to smoking, to gambling, to sex, to exercise, to self-harm. Increasingly people use the internet as a means of escaping reality – particularly seductive as reality and non-reality merge imperceptibly in the virtual world. Addiction is a fascinating topic, not least because it brings up the question of medicalisation of people. Of course the debate about medicalisation of mental health has raged for decades, and this is also something to write about later.

Addictions, and perhaps alcohol in particular, may offer temporary respite but at the same time can increase isolation. Max finds himself spurned by his wife, trying to get into a fight, chucked out of a bar, berated by his fellow guest, all because of alcohol – all of which serve to leave him more alone. In the end his drinking nearly kills him, and although he thanks the man who found him unconscious, I was left wondering whether he perhaps would have been content to be left to die.

Ageing often goes hand in hand with loss. Max’s story gives no account of his early relationship with his daughter. Instead he refers to her as ‘my parole officer’ – softened with a smile, but nevertheless I am left with a definite impression that their relationship has reversed, and that she now feels responsible for him (even though he doesn’t appear to be that old). The shift in parental relationships as one’s children become adults with independent lives can be difficult, but the feeling of accountability for one’s actions to one’s adult child is a different issue. It is tantalisingly alluded to in the film without ever being developed.

Finally I suppose that the sea hooked me in to the book, and the coastal images of the film would have had the same effect had I seen them in a trailer. Much of my childhood was spent on the east coast, and I have nostalgic memories of summers in the sand dunes that seemed to go on forever (both the dunes and the summers!) The sun was always shining and it never rained. The sea has figured in many parts of my life since then, and the pull of the sea is something very primitive.

So all in all an interesting film, that brought the book back to me and made me want to re-read the other John Banville novels that I have.

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