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John Banville, “The Sea” (2005) and “The Infinities” (2009) Contrasting Novels

BanvilleFor some reason there seems to be a theme running through contemporary Irish Literature which involves people getting together because there has been, or there is about to be a death in the family. 

First came Colm Toibin’s masterpiece “The Black Water Lightship”, which addresses head on but in a subtle way the difficulties facing gay men in Ireland, and now we have John Banville’s “The Infinities” and Anne Enwright’s Booker winner “The Gathering”. 

Toibin continues to be the benchmark author of this century, picking up the baton from Kazuo Ishiguro due to the simplicity of the language which showcases simply magnificent story telling. 

One avenue not explored by Toibin is that of magical realism which would loosely describe Banville’s book due to the presence of Greek Gods who observe and occasionally interact with the characters, and odd snippets which inform us that Mary Queen of Scots had reigned instead of Good Queen Bess, and that power is provided by cold combustion. 

The book has an inter war feel to it due to the presence of steam trains, and there is just something about the characters that place them there even though we are told nothing about time except that the action takes place over one day. 

Big existential questions abound but there is plenty of humour and an undercurrent of slightly sordid lust abroad, especially from the Gods who observe and comment on human behaviour from the point of view of outsiders whilst having strong feelings for them. 

Old Adam is dying and as his family gather we are party to their odd ball past and present, he has a weird relationship with his much younger wife, and his daughter is a recluse who self harms. 

I’m a bit wary of blokes writing about woman’s issues (Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby both produced stinkers from this perspective) but here Banville treats the subject matter with sensitivity but at the same time shocking the reader with the thoughts and emotions present. 

It is a very strange book but I enjoyed reading it and the weirdness complements the narrative rather than driving it. 

I read these books in the “wrong” order as “The Sea” was published in 2005 and won the Booker that year. 

I have to say I didn’t like “The Sea” very much at all due to Banville’s overwhelmingly smug, clever wordy prose where I felt his urge to show off swamped the chance to unpackage some promising characters. It was a chore to read and I can’t for the life of me see how the judges rejected “Never Let Me Go”, from Kazuo Ishiguro in favour of “The Sea”. There is a clue here as Banville dismissed the Booker in 1989 as being “mildly relevant for middle brow fiction” in a fit of pique. That was the year that the masterpiece of the late 20th Century “The Remains of the Day” took the prize. 


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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