Critical Assessment

“If one can invoke the idea of fierce lyricism without it sounding either coy or oxymoronic, surely that is the term to signal the chill and beauty of the Irish writer John Banville’s novels. . . .

“‘The Sea,’ then, which last month received England’s coveted Man Booker Prize, is a piece of violent poetry – an autumnal, elegiac novel whose desolate story is carried along by the sweet and stormy tides of its exquisite, sometimes too exquisite, prose. . . .

“The bulk of ‘The Sea’ is an exploration of how a man so brilliantly cultivated and articulate lacks the core of self that provides us with a moral footing.

“This ghostly presence is a theme in all of Banville’s fiction, a sometimes diabolical search for self where the rhapsodic prose is the salvation, if not the rudder, in a world without much warmth or natural instinct for things turning out well. . . . So ‘The Sea,’ a story both camouflaged and uplifted by its beauty, is an existential thriller of sorts – its central character the missing corpse as well as liberator, a man trying to gain purchase on the rock face of life despite its bitter nonchalance.”

Gail Caldwell, “Sepulcher by the Sea: In His Booker Prize Winner, John Banville Presents a Man Entombed by Grief and Memory,” The Boston Globe, November 6, 2005.

First Excerpt

“In the flocculent hush of the Golf Hotel we seemed, my daughter and I, to be the only patrons. Claire wanted afternoon tea and when I had ordered it we were directed to a deserted cold conservatory at the rear that looked out on the strand and the receding tide. Here despite the glacial air a muted hint of past carousings lingered. There was a mingled smell of spilt beer and stale cigarette smoke, and on a dais in a corner an upright piano stood, incongruously bespeaking the Wild West, its lid lifted, showing the gapped grimace of its keys. After that encounter in the farmyard I felt quivery and vapourish, like a diva tottering offstage at the end of a disastrous night of broken high notes, missed prompts, collapsing scenery. Claire and I sat down side by side on a sofa and presently an awkward, ginger-haired boy tricked out in a waiter’s black jacket and trousers with a stripe down the sides brought a tray and set it clattering on a low table before us and fled, stumbling in his big shoes. The tea-bag is a vile invention, suggestive to my perhaps overly squeamish eye of something a careless person might leave behind unflushed in the lavatory. I poured a cup of the turf-colored tea and bolstered it with a nip from my hip-flask – never to be without a ready supply of anesthetic, that is a thing I have learned in this past year.”

UnknownSecond Excerpt

“From the outset I was very precise and definite in my expectations. I did not want to be an engine driver or a famous explorer. When I peered wishfully through the mists from the all too real then to the blissfully imagined now, this is, as I have said, exactly how I would have foreseen my future self, a man of leisurely interests and scant ambition sitting in a room just like this one, in my sea-captain’s chair, leaning at my little table, in just this season, the year declining toward its end in clement weather, the leaves scampering, the brightness imperceptibly fading from the days and the street lamps coming on only a fraction earlier each evening. Yes, this is what I thought adulthood would be, a kind of long indian summer, a state of tranquility, of calm incuriousness, with nothing left of the barely bearable raw immediacy of childhood, all the things solved that had puzzled me when I was small, all mysteries settled, all questions answered, and the moments dripping away, unnoticed almost, drip by golden drip, toward the final, almost unnoticed, quietus.”