Roth’s Everyman vs Banville’s The Sea (9/2006)

The Sea John Banville, 264 pp Picador

Everyman Philip Roth, 182 pp Jonathan Cape

Philip Roth’s Everyman and John Banville’s The Sea are both essentially death-preoccupied works which manage to tread the same narrow territory via paths that never touch. They reach conclusions that, while clearly foregone and ending in the obvious place (the end of life), seem worlds apart. Still, they are strangely twinned works the connection between which wouldn’t have been apparent, ironically, if not for Banville’s harsh review of Everyman from April of this year. It was in October of the previous year, of course, that Banville won the Booker for The Sea.

Banville’s assault on Roth begins in a register not difficult to interpret as outrage: “It takes a Philip Roth to have the nerve to give the resonant title Everyman to a small novel about a retired advertising executive turned amateur artist who dies prematurely while undergoing a heart operation. Of course, the book is about more than that – though not much more – and, of course, anything from Roth in this late stage of his writing life deserves and, indeed, compels our attention.” Later in the review, attacking Roth’s choice of a pared-back language for Everyman, Banville pleads, “…nobody, surely, could write this flatly and not think to compensate us with a few fireworks?”

Everyman begins with the following line, in a monastic version of Roth’s identifiable rhythm and melody, commencing at once with the patient accretion of quotidian detail that will work the magic of persuading the reader not only to believe but to empathize:

“Around The Grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertizing colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.”

The Sea, with terse distance, opens with: “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”

The opening paragraph of The Sea goes on to describe in painterly (or filmic) detail a bay and its rising waters, as it was fifty years earlier, from the perspective of a first person narrator, Max Morden (with death itself hidden in his name), who some reviewers have referred to as a kind of everyman. If Banville indeed conceived of his Morden as an everyman recollecting two tragedies and musing on Death and the particularities of Life’s trivial miracles, one could see how Roth coming along with a book on the same general theme, with parallel motifs, titled Everyman (branding his work as the definitive product), would put Banville in a tetchy state.

The Sea has been so lauded that Banville has a kind of mandate to chastise writers who do not write as he writes. His critical dismissal of Everyman is a case in point, in that the gist of Banville’s complaint against this book is that Banville himself didn’t write it; that Everyman isn’t, essentially, The Sea. But is The Sea as good as Banville believes and its praise suggests?

“When art historian Max Morden returns to the seaside village where he once spent a childhood holiday, he is both escaping from a recent loss and confronting a distant trauma.” That’s part of the teaser appearing on the back cover of the paperback edition of the book. The “recent loss” that Morden is escaping is his wife’s cancer death, and the “distant trauma” he’s confronting is centered on an upper-class family his semi-unrequited crush connected him to for the tragic pubescent summer the book recalls. The greater part of the book is a fiendishly passive construction: the narrator’s discurssive reflections on fading memories of minute boyhood observations… as if, from the outset, Banville had dared himself to sap us of the will to read.

From the aspect of literary mechanics, Banville’s use of a first person narration is a questionable choice in a book that spans, along with Everyman, most of a man’s generally uneventful life from the end point of the beginning of his seventh decade. As we rely on the protagonist’s thoughts for our information, we are trapped behind his eyes and stuck with his judgements: Max Morden’s sour view of existence is all we have to go on. Even worse, there is key information withheld during the course of The Sea which Morden can only be witholding from himself as he muses along, an awkward device indeed. Roth’s choice of a broader angle from which to narrate bespeaks his greater technical competence as a novelist.

Whereas Roth’s third person omniscient allows him to speak with the plain confidence of God about precisely what happened and when, fifty years prior or yesterday, Banville blurs the picture and stresses credulity with minute descriptions of setting and action from the well of his narrator’s memory. A good part of The Sea, in fact, deals with events that are fifty years gone. Banville’s memory savant, unlike plausibly endowed humans, recalls not just jumbled, blurred and iffy snatches of all but the most momentous occasions, but replays hours-long scenes remarkable both in detail and banality.

The difference in P.O.V. underscores the difference in character between the two protagonists: Banville’s Morden (an art historian/critic) is as self-obsessed and hypochondriacal as a first person narrator with obsessive-compulsive endowments of recall can be, whereas Roth’s everyman (a retired ad man who takes up the brush), as we track him through the eyes of his god, suffers his many dates with the surgeon, and the setbacks (often self-inflicted) in his personal life with a stoical terror that earns our empathy and moves us in a way that Morden’s fussy scold fails to. The stylistic genetics of each book is its respective Fate, and one can’t help feeling that Banville couldn’t possibly have meant to fall so short in moving us, and the very ‘plain’ style, lacking ‘fireworks,’ that Banville chides Roth over, is the crafty choice that ensures that Roth’s Everyman works in many regards in which The Sea fails.

On a superficial level, Everyman is one man’s medical history (‘The Life and Death of a Male Body’ as the protagonist muses, mordantly, he’d name his autobiography), but a closer reading reveals that Everyman is full of acts and words of kindness, good manners, old world civility and grace. One reading of Roth’s novel is that it celebrates all that we humans ever had in a cold, vast universe of incomprehensible physical processes indifferent to our fate: each other. The book is full of people with words of praise for each other; comfort and reassurances given; love registered and deaths very deeply mourned. Everyman is warm with decency and the plain style is a clear lens through which the warmth is magnified. Another reading is that Everyman is an elegy to the courtliness and decency, and primacy of the family unit, of another era, fading into the lost paradise of Everyman’s idyllic seaside boyhood.

The boyhood which The Sea revisits is interior and isolated and finds its brief, fraught pleasures in puberty’s animal drama. It is ironic that Roth is considered the pornographer of the two writers but that Banville’s The Sea is the more selfishly sexual of the two books. The denseness of the style and enamelled quality of its metaphors don’t disguise the low level at which its passions lie: a pubertal boy conceives a lust for first a mother and then the mother’s daughter. The boy then ages into the narrator who ends up regretting his own daughter’s homeliness: “What age is she now, twenty-something, I am not sure. She is very bright…[but] Not beautiful, however, I admitted that to myself long ago. I cannot pretend this is not a disappointment…”

Contrast that with Roth’s Everyman’s feelings towards his own daughter Nancy: “Sometimes it seemed that everything was a mistake except Nancy. So he worried about her, and he still never passed a women’s clothing shop without thinking of her and going in to find something she’d like, and he thought, I’m very lucky, and he thought, Some good has to come out somewhere, and it has in her.”

It’s difficult to like a character who judges his daughter’s lack of beauty harshly, and likewise difficult not to be charmed by one grateful for his grown daughter’s existence; it may well be Banville’s intention to make Morden unsympathetic to the reader, but if so it’s a peculiar tactic, locking us in the mind of his character with so little by way of charm or creature comfort in that particularly Spartan room.

The Sea is a tough slog for such a slim vol. To invert the hack reviewer’s catch phrase: ‘I couldn’t pick it up’. Upon finishing it this reader was astonished to realize that he had spent two off-and-on weeks reading a Douglas Sirk film. A Douglas Sirk film gussied up with a dozen ten-dollar words of which ‘convolvulus’ (in place of ‘morning glory’) and ‘velutinous’ (instead of ‘velvety’) were the standard-bearers and ‘twelvemonth’ (rather than ‘year’) brought up the rear on its clowny tricycle. Not to mention ‘strangury’ and ‘flocculent’ (which you are free to look up for yourself).

Banville’s is a book that hopes to redeem in its finer details the sins of its fundamental construction, like rococo mirrors on the walls of a pebble-dashed semi-detached. In his review of Everyman, of a scene in which Roth has an estranged son eulogizing his waked father in a strange tone, Banville quotes and then lambasts this sentence: ” ‘…any note of tenderness, grief, love, or loss was terrifyingly absent from his voice’. That overblown and redundant ‘terrifyingly’ -who is it that is terrified? – is an early example of a recurring slackness in the writing,” he writes, as though he himself weren’t responsible for the following overblown sentences:

“….are there coincidences in Pluto’s realm, amidst the trackless wastes of which I wander lost, a lyreless Orpheus?” (pg. 24*)

“I must have seemed like a moth throbbing before a candle-flame, or like the flame itself, shivering in its own consuming heat.” (pg. 86)

“After the funeral, when people came back in the house… that was awful, almost unbearable… I gripped a wine glass so hard it shattered in my fist.” (pg. 125)

“The little waves before me at the water’s edge speak with an animate voice, whispering eagerly of some ancient catastrophe, the sack of Troy, perhaps, or the sinking of Atlantis.’ (pg. 132)

“You cunt, you fucking cunt, how could you go and leave me like this, floundering in my own foulness, with no one to save me from myself.” (pg. 196, with apologies to Brando and/or Bertolucci, perhaps?)

“She was the Sphinx and we her seated priests.’ (pg. 237)

Boil these sentences down to poetic essentials… Orpheus; moths and their candle-flames; Troy, Atlantis, a Sphinx and… (Xanadu! Why no Xanadu?)…and you’ve got the basis for a pretty good sophomore sonnet. Couldn’t really use ‘cunt’ though… but rest assured that when Banville writes ‘cunt’ he means ‘exudative, turgor-thickened rose.’

The Sea’s big treat is meant to be the revelation, a few pages shy of the ‘fini,’ that a main character in the narrator’s present was a key figure of the tragic boyhood romance he spends the book recalling. This twist is kept from us for as long as it is through the simple yet unbelievable convenience of the narrator not once thinking this key character’s first name during the two hundred fifty-plus pages he thinks the book for us… until making us ‘gasp’ not only by finally thinking it, but in the thinking of it loosening up all kinds of clogged exposition, igniting the damp firecracker of a second ‘twist.’ Just as Banville’s narrator keeps the first ‘secret’ from us with a shoddy gimmick of omission, Banville keeps the second ‘secret’ from his narrator with an even shoddier trick, or B-movie edit: a puff of smoke from a locomotive, thank you very much, obscures a specific kind of illicit kiss and thereby ensures that the tragedy proceed apace.

To the implausibility of the narrator’s pointillist recall of events fifty years gone, add Banville’s implausibly plausibles from the cast… the kimono-wearing spinster landlady; the harumphing, feebly macho old boarder called, of course, ‘The Colonel’; the sinister, blonde, upper-class twins…Banville doesn’t miss a trick. There’s even a gorilla-armed ‘Pecker Devereux,’ who ‘used to be a deep-sea sailor’ and is ‘said to have killed a man.’ What we’re getting here are bits and pieces of Banville’s adolescence…Thesaurus-masked appropriations from formative cinema-going experiences. I wasn’t so much seeing word-pictures at Banville’s behest as revisiting stock imagery despite his best efforts. Deeper meditations on grief, death, memory and the essential unknowability of other lives were conceived and lost before they could survive the copy-of-a-copy imprecision of their constituent cliches.

To paraphrase a torpedo from Banville’s denunciation of Roth’s ‘Everyman’: all of The Sea could be contained within a few pages of late Roth.

*page numbers refer to the paperback edition