Countdown to Ireland

In just a little over a week I will depart for Ireland. This is my second year as faculty sponsor for the Maryville University Study Abroad program in Limerick. We partner with the University of Limerick’s International Education Division and spend three weeks exploring Ireland’s treasures. Last summer, I taught a psychology course and focused my preparations on questions of Irish Identity as they are expressed by Irish youth. I spent as much time learning about Irish history as I did researching identity formation. This year, with an interdisciplinary course to teach, I’ve chosen to focus on contemporary Irish writers.
One of the novels I chose was John Banville’s The Sea, published in 2005. The Sea was that year’s winning novel for the Man Booker Prize which rewards the best novel written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. The Man Booker prize is meant to encourage readership in addition to rewarding the winning author with a substantial cash prize. The Sea is a masterful telling of the story of a man who is himself a writer and who describes himself as having “leisurely interests and scant ambition.” But Banville’s narrator, Max Morden, is much more complicated that he would initially lead the reader to believe.
This novel of fewer than 200 pages is a meditation on aging, loss and grief. We learn that Max is a recent widower who decides to abandon the home he shared with his late wife and return to a moldering seaside resort where he experienced some 50 years earlier a tragedy he has yet to resolve. Banville tells both stories, of Max’s childhood trauma and his recent loss, through a parallel sequence of events. He imbues the past and the present with a kind of heft that belies some of the most ordinary of circumstances.
My favorite passage felt uniquely Irish – timeless and yet not contemporary. Max is remembering a scene from his childhood in Ballyless, as he went to buy milk from the dairyman, Duignan, recalling the yard where Duignan’s wife sold the milk. “There was always a dog lying tethered under a leaning cart that would eye me measuringly as I went past, teetering on tiptoe so as to keep my heels out of the chicken-merd, and a grimy white cart-horse that would come and put its head over the half-door of the barn and regard me sidelong with an amused and skeptical eye from under a forelock that was exactly the same smoky shade of creamy-white as honeysuckle blossoms. I did not like to knock at the farmhouse door, fearing Duignan’s mother, a low-sized squarish old party who seemed fitted with a stumpy leg at each corner and who gasped when she breathed and lolled the pale wet polyp of her tongue on her lower lip, and instead I would hang back in the violet shadow of the barn to wait for Duignan or his missus to appear and save me from an encounter with the crone.”
Banville is a masterful writer and The Sea, while not a particularly easy read, proves itself as an impeccably written, elegiac novel.


One comment on “Countdown to Ireland

  1. Karen Walsh says:

    Banville cleaves the novel into two sylistic halves, with a nod to languorous English novels in the early scenes and then switches to a more authentic, complex narrative. I admit I liked the first half.

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