Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Out again

Reading group come round again and in all that while there has been nothing writerly to blog about. After the Christmas distractions I have been just getting down to the actual writing (and involved in one or two negotiations which may or may not come to anything). The only things that have been happening have been happening inside my head, and in a very strange way, for me: I'm writing a play, and usually I write plays very quickly, in a rush of excited inspiration, but this play is coming slowly, revealing itself in slow accretions as I sit at my desk each day in an odd waiting mode. For the first time ever for me writing is a question of patience rather than simply of enormous energy. As a result, the play feels less like something pulled from my brain or psyche, and, as I say, more like something already out there being revealed to me in stages.

Reading group last night was a welcome foray back into the outside world. Several members couldn't make it, so it was a small group which gathered at Jenny's to discuss John Banville's Booker-winning novel The Sea. This takes the form of a diary-cum-memoir written by an art historian who has retired, after the death of his wife, to the seaside town where he once holidayed as a child, one year becoming fascinated and entangled with another holidaying family: Connie and Carlo Grace and their twins Chloe and mute Myles, and an older girl Rose. It is in the house once occupied by the Graces, now a boarding house, that he has decided to settle.

Doug had chosen the book because, he said, he thought it might provoke some interesting controversy. For his own part, he had mixed feelings about the book. There was much he admired about it, in particular the prose with its poetic flow and vivid descriptions, although he felt there were moments when the prose went over the top and wasn't so good after all, and the book was in fact flawed.

Jenny then said with great contempt that she thought it a 'typical Booker type novel'. What did she mean by that? Well, she said she had found the prose really pretentious and there were at least fifteen words she had never come across before in her life, the meaning of which she couldn't tell from the context. I said yes, I had had to look in the dictionary several times, often to discover that the unfamilar words referred to obscure trades or professions, eg 'deckle' (papermaking) and 'anabasis' (military). Usually these words were being used metaphorically to describe something else. I said, to strong agreement from John, that the point of a metaphor is to make things more vivid, but on these occasions the opposite effect was created. Not only that, there were several occasions when I came across words I thought I had known the meaning of, only to be thrown into doubt by the context, then to discover in the dictionary that they had been used in the book in an archaic sense. More generally we found the language over-formal or inflated (eg fingernails described as 'sanguineous red' rather than 'blood-red', 'refection' for 'meal', and the somewhat laughable 'At times the image of her would spring up in me unbidden, an interior succubus, and a surge of yearning would engorge the very root of my being'). While we accepted in theory that these linguistic characteristics are those of a narrator who has consciously and defensively created for himself a formal persona, we nevertheless found them alienating, and some people said that as a result they found it very difficult to care about the characters. Ann, who had been nodding away but had been quiet up till now, said that she had given up on the book without finishing it.

Doug now grinned and said he knew that I in particular would have this reaction to the language, and this was why he'd chosen the book. As he'd said, he agreed, but there were also wonderfully vivid passages, and the book was brilliantly crafted and the story was stunning.

The rest of us agreed that the observations were often vivid and acute - Clare had been pulled up in amazement by the accuracy of a description of 'the way women used to smoke', and I by one of a woman leaning on a till, among others. Jenny said that the portrayal of the narrator's childhood yearning to better himself (and be like the Graces) reminded her of her own similar childhood feelings. We all thought the memories of the illness and death of the narrator's wife moving and the aspect of the book which rang most true. However, there was disagreement with Doug about the way the book was shaped.

Ann said that she found really irritating and confusing, and lacking in true connections, the shifts between the various time levels. There were situations and characters - the narrator's relationship with his daughter, a visit with her to a local farm, the shocking hospital photos taken by the dying wife - which were made to seem significant, but their precise nature or significance either never became clear to us or indeed fizzled away. As for the story, John said, there is none for most of the book, but then the story is packed in towards the end in a way which he found contrived. Most of us were dissatisfied by the revelation of the identity of the narrator's present-day landlady. Looking back through this at the earlier representation of their relationship, we found that earlier representation both tricksy and psychologically unconvincing. None of us (apart from Doug) was convinced, in the final analysis, by the denouement, the tragedy at the novel's heart, although it is most emotively described, and, as Jenny and Ann said, although we were clearly meant to accept that this was the narrator's formative experience, there was no real sense of how it had made him what he was or informed his other relationships.

And Jenny said that she found the narrator's sexual attraction as a boy to the mother of the Grace family 'disgusting', which made us all hoot with laughter.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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