Boy to man, and back again

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Jack Miles is senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

IN Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” the narrator, a governess secretly drawn to her employer, is tormented by Flora and Miles, a pair of precocious but evil children entrusted to her care. Their uncanny corruption, she realizes with mounting horror, is due to their possession by the ghosts of two disgraced servants from the household’s recent past. After a terrifying confrontation, Miles is found dead, as if from fright, while Flora is carried off to safety by a kindly but deeply shaken friend.

What has happened? Edmund Wilson -- unable to believe that the great James would stoop to write a mere ghost story -- proposed that the governess has been driven mad by sexual frustration: The ghosts and the horrid weirdness of the children are figments of her progressive derangement. Other critics have defended the literal existence of the ghosts. All recognize, however, that James was obsessed by the problem of evil and much given to scenes in which a revelation of malevolence conclusively shatters a benevolent facade. Whatever else may be said of it, “The Turn of the Screw” is a long, brilliantly sustained crescendo to precisely such a scene.

John Banville’s “The Sea” -- winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize -- delivers James’ crescendo times two. There is a governess in love with her employer and tormented by two children, the aloof Chloe Grace and her mute imp of a brother, Myles. There is a moment of climactic horror as well. But Banville’s narrator is not the governess. Instead, he is Max Morden, a sophisticated art historian looking back, from the perspective of adulthood, on events of his youth. As a boy, Max played with the vacationing Grace children and fell in love with Chloe during the weeks before “the day of the strange tide,” when her brother and she abruptly swam toward the horizon, never to be seen again. Now, Max returns to the Cedars, the manse that, so many years earlier, was the Grace family’s rented summerhouse. The novel begins with a boy who “would not swim, no, not ever again” and climaxes with the adult, now a broken widower, lying drunk and unconscious on that same beach. It takes the two stories, intertwined, to bring him full circle.


As Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” was to Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” so, roughly, is “The Sea” to “The Turn of the Screw.” It is deconstruction and homage at once, an utterly contemporary novel that nonetheless could only have come from a mind steeped in the history of the novel and deeply reflective about what makes fiction still worthwhile. And what is that? What do we hope for when we work our way through a novel instead of coasting through yet another movie?

Max entertains a ridiculously extravagant hope:

“I have ever had the conviction, resistant to all rational considerations, that at some unspecified future moment the continuous rehearsal which is my life, with its so many misreadings, its slips and fluffs, will be done with and that the real drama for which I have ever and with such earnestness been preparing will at last begin.... Given the world that 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.”

Banville is a critic of studied sobriety as well as exceptional intellectual reach. This is Max’s voice, not his. And yet these words startle, coming as they do midway through a novel whose recurrent triumph is to have found words for experiences that, however commonplace, one would have thought beyond the reach of language. Here is Max again, this time in the kitchen with his ailing wife, Anna, the two of them having just learned that her illness is incurable:

“Bright light of midday streamed in at the kitchen window and everything had a glassy, hard-edged radiance as if I were scanning the room through a camera lens. There was an impression of general, tight-lipped awkwardness of all these homely things -- jars on the shelves, saucepans on the stove, that breadboard with its jagged knife -- averting their gaze from our all at once unfamiliar, afflicted presence in their midst.”

A filmmaker could shoot such a scene in the classic manner of cinema verite, the camera lingering over the saucepan and the breadboard with the jagged knife. Lighting could suggest alienation. Yet “averting their gaze”? Some effects can only be achieved in language. Seen, it turns out, is not said. Said is different.

“If you happen to write well, you are accused of lacking ideas,” Flaubert once complained. Banville, former literary editor of the Irish Times, is a master of so many of the novelist’s discrete skills that he lives in acute peril of that accusation. His use of dialogue, for example, which is sparing compared with his lavish use of interior monologue, is dead-on when it occurs:


“Anna came back with the scone. Ma looked at it scornfully.

“ ‘I don’t want that,’ she said. ‘I didn’t ask for that.’

“ ‘Ma,’ I said.

“ ‘Don’t Ma me.’ ”

Such strengths are not enlisted to re-create a lost past -- though Max’s self-interrogation often has a sumptuous, Proustian quality -- but to represent how, within the confines of a single mind, trauma past impinges on trauma present. This is a commonplace experience. Suffer a slight, and you remember every slight you ever suffered. “Don’t go there,” a friend counsels, but you can’t stop yourself: You go there anyway.

“The Sea” is such an involuntary going enacted at book length. Traumatized by his wife’s death, Max returns to the place where he first encountered death. He can scarcely say why. He can’t stop himself, even though being there makes everything worse. The longer he stays, the more the look of the old house, the slope of the strand, the cry of the rooks steepen his descent toward the unforgotten devastation of his boyhood. But at the bottom of that abyss, he meets himself in his adult rage at his wife’s sudden death: “ ... how could you go and leave me like this, floundering in my own foulness, with no one to save me from myself. How could you.” Lacking any words adequate to express his loss, he begins to understand why he has returned to the scene of an earlier sorrow: Anna now, Chloe then. Thereafter, in gradually more frequent ironic asides (“After all, why should I be less susceptible than the next melodramatist to the tale’s demand for a neat closing twist?”), Max becomes a character in a story of his own making. No longer merely a narrator, he becomes a true author. He resumes control. He gets what he came for. The unsayable is said at last.

In real life, the psychological trajectory of “The Sea” might be entirely interior and a matter of moments rather than months. But the externalization that Banville accomplishes is only part of the novel’s pleasure, for it is anything but a case history. Max Morden has a maximally mordant sense of humor. Like Joyce, he puns (and quotes) across linguistic borders -- the Irishman as consummate European. Like Waugh, he has a wicked eye for the provincial grotesque. Finally, like the owner of a vast gallery, he hangs his world as a curator hangs an exhibition, juxtaposing to provocative effect, with self-portraits his specialty. When his once estranged daughter comes to collect him after his final, cathartic binge, he allows himself to look ahead and, with a sigh, paints himself as the ascetic St. Jerome of medieval painting:

“There are other things I can do. I can go to Paris and paint. Or I might retire into a monastery, pass my days in quiet contemplation of the infinite, or write a great treatise there, a vulgate of the dead. I can see myself in my cell, long-bearded, with quill-pen and hat and docile lion, through a window beside minuscule peasants in the distance making hay, and hovering above my brow the dove refulgent. Oh, yes, life is pregnant with possibilities.”

They say no critic can write great fiction, and certainly great critics have produced some conspicuously failed novels. But a great novelist can turn even a critic -- nay, even an art historian -- into a compelling protagonist. Not the least proof that John Banville deserves his Booker Prize may be that he has produced, against all odds, an art critic with the bruised heart of a boy. *


From The Sea

DOWN here, by the sea, there is a special quality to the silence at night. I do not know if this is my doing, I mean if this quality is something I bring to the silence of my room, and even of the whole house, or if it is a local effect, due to the salt in the air, perhaps, or the seaside climate in general. I do not recall noticing it when I was young and staying in the Field. It is dense and at the same time hollow. It took me a long while, nights and nights, to identify what it reminds me of. It is like the silence that I knew in the sickrooms of my childhood, when I would lie in a fever, cocooned under a hot, moist mound of blankets, with the emptiness squeezing in on my eardrums like the air in a bathysphere.