The Sea

by John Banville
208 pages,
ISBN: 0307263118

On Beauty

by Zadie Smith
464 pages,
ISBN: 0670045276

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Oranges and Apples
by Todd Swift

London's literary world-and so by extension Britain and Ireland's, for better or worse-is currently in the grip of a tussle over the role (or purpose) of poetry. This is not new, as each literary period offers a Dryden or Eliot to steer the course, away or towards certain styles, certain prescribed limits for figurative language. In late November this year, George Szirtes took the stage for the annual T.S. Eliot lecture, intending to defend poetry as a potentially democratic open space, relevant to all, from the likes of Don Paterson, who, so it is said, would rather poetry were kept professional (that is, expertly crafted) and reserved for the best. This might seem an odd beginning for a review of two new prestigious novels, if it weren't for the fact that the way the literary establishment, in general, views poetry and prose is very much at the heart of how these books have been received, and why they should (or should not) be read.
The Man Booker Prize is famous. Canadians, even, have won it, and, after decades of being up there with the Nobel and a handful of other international awards for writing, it has assumed an unquestionable status. So it is that novels shortlisted for the "Booker" (as it is lovingly called; "Man" should ask for their money back) always, these days, receive special notice. The Sea and On Beauty were not precisely head-to-head competitors this year, if only because it was brightly assumed that Banville's book was not in serious contention. Indeed, The Sea won by the slimmest of margins, with the head of the jury casting the deciding vote to break a tie. Immediately there was disharmony and uproar, and it was widely put about that Banville's prose was "too poetic", "complex" and "difficult"-but, unlike the other books, it had something Joycean in it that would make it "last".
I wish to stop here a moment to observe that a sad day is dawning when, having essentially moved away from any authentic engagement with poetry qua poetry in their intellectual lives, critics and pundits from that most literary of places, London, now generally recoil from having any of it (poetry that is) creep in to their fiction. This is borderline idiocy, and a sure sign of the decline of literate British society, which is a victim of an interminable media-orouboros, swallowing its own self-reflecting tail far too often.
The truth is that prose also partakes of poetic language, and that the finest prose stylists employ symbol, rhythm, simile, personification, and almost every other rhetorical device in the book. However, the truly "literary novel"-in short, the novel that knows as much about poetry's traditions as fiction's-is less welcome each month, perhaps because it eludes the marketer's canny grasp, and furrows the brows of those who prefer J.K. to T.S. Books lucidly written with "gripping stories" are still the ones that publishers and the public mainly seem to want, as prototypes for scripts Hollywood will eventually transubstantiate into that curious admixture of dross, sweat and filthy lucre that is the average screen adaptation.
Having read both The Sea and On Beauty, I am presented with what all reviewers dream of, the clear dichotomy. These books are not simply worlds apart, in terms of theme, tone, emphasis; they actually offer utterly different ways of thinking about how the world should be engaged with, morally and aesthetically, in language. This is perhaps the single most important element of writing-and precisely why polite men and women still get up on stages to argue for what the limits of poetic language should be.
Don't get me wrong. Zadie Smith is a talented, witty writer, and her book is rather amiable; indeed, it fairly glows with a sort of humane appreciation for people, places and things. Her imagination, like some latter-day Crusoe, is forever up to the task of finding just the apt phrase for describing an academic's fat wife, nimble shoulder blades, Mozart's Requiem, or a mottled green-glass window. She tosses in aphorisms with the vim of Oscar Wilde, and they often hit home. For example: "each couple is its own vaudeville act".
She is good at plot and characterization, and, as has been said elsewhere, the book's loving homage to E.M. Forster represents something of a happy milestone for the mainstream novel in Britain. But, dear me, is it dull. Not dull in the conventional sense, since the book is engaging, but in the sense, hinted at above, and to be teased out below: dull because, unlike Banville, the language does not dive into the deep end of either the human condition, or the full seriousness (however aesthetically playful) of what is at stake when writing is essayed. To make myself plainer here, On Beauty, with all its coy references to the author's husband and his (lacklustre) poetry, its cod-erudite involvement with the world of art history (she is no E.H. Gombrich, yet), and engagement with American university life, is about as genuine as a revival meeting in some prairie town circa 1932. The enthusiasm, energy and will to be wonderful are all in place, but the ultimate result is as deep as a magazine article on a war zone written by a celebrity.
Arguably, what is most grating is its time-out quality, the breezy whirlwind attempts to do a 21st century de Tocqueville in a sound-byte. Brits are famously torn in their appreciation and condemnation of the American sublime (they won't let Roth compete in the Booker because they think he'd always win). They are forever jetting to New York to find something gritty and big to write about, something with real weather and religion in it, and bingo, this is Zadie's version. You want to say, as Eliot in Waste Land, "She does the Yanks in different voices".
Smith is tremendously famous and respected for her age (she is in her early 30s), and bears some sort of resemblance to her generation in Britain, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did to his in America. The precise difference is that no one recognized it then. Not only was Fitzgerald the glitteringly brilliant chronicler of the superficial aspects of his moment, he was a stylistic genius, and, as if that wasn't enough, a tragic visionary. Smith is, no less than Banville, interested in style. She is a satirist as well-or, at the least, a hugely successful humorist, with laugh-out-loud set pieces calibrated expertly. However, she is not willing to allow either her style or her satire to bare its fangs to the degree needed to exceed the average reader's speed limit (to yoke a few images violently together). She doesn't have an expert, luscious command of language at this stage of her career, and too often her stock phrases, her constructions, verge on the sort of first-thing-to-hand flatness one sees in every novice's creative writing portfolio.
How else to explain "she stood like a zombie", or "her lips pulling away from her rosy gums to reveal her expensive American teeth"? The title of White Teeth, Smith's breakthrough debut notwithstanding (cheeky postmodernism perhaps), it is a lazy observation, and the zombie trope is sub-sub-Buffy. When Smith tries to catch the hyper-hip argot that is so-last-minute America, always just-fled, on the fly, Google-made, TV-led, water-cooler-now, she falls face forward, fighting with her countervailing Oxbridge tendency to pull back when all should be zip and flow.
Damning with faint praise though this may be, On Beauty is nevertheless that coveted thing, "a good read". It resists the thoroughly demonic possibilities of the greatest books in favour of being merely well-received, much-liked, and soon, no doubt, oft-imitated. On the other hand, The Sea is a misanthropic work of genius, and takes its place, consciously, and at times infuriatingly, in the elegant, eloquent pantheon of truly great masterworks of style of the modern period, often consciously referencing them in the process: The Great Gatsby, Black List: Section H, The Big Sleep, Lolita, Waiting For Godot, etc.
What The Sea is not-at all-is a "good read". In truth, reading groups across Ireland and the UK (and soon the world) will no doubt be slitting their wrists as they slog through it. Banville has actually constructed the work to resist easy consumption, while knowingly including key tropes of all popular literary fiction (nostalgia, a shattering and slowly revealed childhood trauma, reflections on mortality, love).
Banville has done this, I believe, primarily through deployment of annoying, offensive, and disturbing language, images, and a character (the book is narrated by its language) that embodies the 20th century's resistance to a classical past-a resistance which is nearly a full-scale rejection. In addition, there are moments of exquisite writing that would make Nabokov furious with envy (particularly the scene of a childhood first-kiss in the cinema). In short, The Sea is as ugly-lovely as history and death; it is very much a Petrarchan conceit of a book, with its terrible-beauty spots.
But in essence, its style is its essence; it is sheer words unleashed, flowing over a mythic skeleton as bare-boned as a bleached whale carcass. This is why so many readers hate the book: reading it is like having to ingest nothing but goose liver and blancmange for Lent. Indeed, Banville exhausts the possible manners and mannerisms of one kind of elegant, hyper-cultured, fussy, fastidious prose here-as if George Steiner and Stevens, the butler in Remains of the Day, cohabited one psyche; or, more accurately, as if Hannibal Lecter and Blanche DuBois had produced a love-child and set it loose to write ultra-arch things like: "canine's canines", "transparent parents", "unsuitable suitors", or "unPushkinian".
The gigantic (he is in fact a Titan) narrator, who slowly reveals himself to be a self-obsessed animal-torturer and potential child-killer (his "ironic" hero being Satanic mass paedophile Gilles de Rai), unfolds a finicky fiction, which unspools like a supreme spoof-Wallace Stevens's exotic preciousness fused with the hostility of Swift of A Modest Proposal.
As the book proceeds, Banville's revelations about the narrator force the reader to become accepting of unexpected horrors; suitably, for an Irish writer, these horrors are embedded in the past, and come wrapped in reference upon reference to poems, plays and speeches, too numerous to name. One simple example can be given here of the novel's extraordinary richness, its multilayered spectacle-the title itself.
The Sea is, in fact, a giant pun on the letter "C". Once one "sees" this, things fall into place. Consider the key words in the novel, including the major characters, that are all "c" words: cunt (one of the major ones); cancer (which the narrator's wife is dying of); Connie; Claire; Carlo; Chloe; (The) Cedars (the house where all is set); (the) classical period (which he yearns for); confessions (which he's engaging in); cock (which he admits drives him); crystallization (of love); critic (which he is) of consciousness, which is the ultimate sea. Ultimately, The Sea is about a writer wanting to become prose itself. As Banville writes:
"Yet I anticipate an apotheosis of some kind, some grand climacteric. I am not speaking here of a posthumous transfiguration. I do not entertain the possibility of an afterlife, or any deity capable of it. Given the world he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him. No, what I am looking forward to is a moment of earthly expression. That is it, that is it exactly: I shall be expressed, totally. I shall be delivered, like a noble closing speech. I shall be, in a word, said."

It is in the very last pages, when we realize that these are the memoirs of a black-humoured, drunken, many-times-bereaved madman, that the book's rich, rancid multi-voiced playfulness gives up the ghost, but releases a movingly human and singular self, like some well-rubbed trinket-thing from a long-sunken vessel, rendered unto the shore by the sea. Language has seldom been so impressively marshalled to state the case against mortality.

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